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The Comedy of Errors

Art Works: Barney Melton

29 October 14

We're talked through the art of a one-of-a-kind portrait that puts the selfie fad to shame

My dad was a commercial photographer and I was always at his studio in Battersea, so naturally I got into the photography game. I work full-time as a fashion and product photographer and when my dad got a couple of tintypes off eBay for a few quid, I wanted to have a go. We’re a portrait company, but not the usual digital outfit you’re familiar with. We use an analogue, large format, 5x4 technical camera once used by the RAF in the sixties.

With decent cameras in most pockets, everyone is a “photographer” now, but these images rarely leave the digital world. I wanted to do these portraits so people could see, smell and hold a one-of-a-kind photograph of themselves. I also love using large format cameras; there is no digital screen, it’s not guess work, it’s all planned. The skill lies in mastering the chemistry, lighting and timing to create the pictures; they must be exposed and developed within a few minutes or they are ruined. There isn’t the chance to knock a few out and pick the best. What you see is what you get.

We shoot two types of portraits, the first is a ‘paper positive’ which uses a special photographic paper yielding a direct positive image in rich tones of black and white, combining traditional darkroom practice with modern materials. The second is the ‘tintype’ which the Englishman Frederick Scott Archer first invented the precursor to with his Wet Plate Collodion process in 1851. The tintype is a variation of his original process; rather than a glass plate, a sheet of metal coated with black paint is placed inside the camera. This process revolutionised photographic portraiture as it made it affordable to most people, releasing photography from a formal studio setting onto fairgrounds, beaches and street corners.

The entire process takes about fifteen minutes and is done on location with a portable darkroom. The tonal variations in the finished images reflect their handcrafted character. The photographs are a unique blending of subject matter and photographic technique. Part craft and part theatre.

After launching the portraits in May at the Malt Cross Gallery, I have photographed around 300 people so far. 295 of them thought they were amazing while the other five hated it, but it’s their face they don’t like rather than the photography! Between the day job and sleeping, I don't have a lot of time but I’d love to shoot these portraits on a huge scale - there’s a bloke in the states who converted a van into a camera.

Melton Original Portraits will be taking portraits at the Malt Cross on Saturday 1 - Sunday 2 November, and Saturday 13 - Sunday 14 December.

Melton Original Portraits website

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