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At the MFA, a democratic medium for a democratic society

‘Painted Tintypes: Photography for the People’ looks at some unexpectedly colorful 19th-century pictures.

Unknown, "American Homestead," 1870s.Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Invented in Europe, in 1839, photography was quickly embraced in the United States. This should come as no surprise. Photography was a democratic medium for a democratic society: accessible, unpretentious, utilitarian, inexpensive. “The smallest town now has its Daguerrian gallery,” Frederick Douglass declared in an 1861 lecture. “The farmer boy gets an iron shoe for his horse. And a metallic picture for himself at the same time. And at the same price.”

“Daguerrian” refers to daguerreotypes, one of the two originating formats for photography. Paper prints was the other. Daguerreotypes were more popular in America. Like them, tintypes were printed on metal (iron, actually, not tin). The process was patented in 1856. Less expensive than daguerreotypes, tintypes soon surpassed them in popularity. They were at their most popular in the 1860s and ‘70s, though “Painted Tintypes: Photography for the People” includes examples from the late 19th century and into the early 20th, as well as one from 2007.


There are 50 tintypes in the show, which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through Oct. 15. The MFA’s Anne Havinga and Michael J. Bramwell curated. In a winning touch, the show also features a tintype ticket. It entitles the bearer to 10 tintypes for $2.50. No date is given, but let’s assume it’s from 1865. In that case, the ticket would cost $46 today. Less than $5 per image? That’s a bargain.

As its title indicates, a particular version of tintype is the show’s focus: ones that had been tinted by hand. Tintypes were black and white. Coloring was a way to make them look more natural. Coloring also allowed whoever did the tinting a degree of creativity in the process that the camera’s objectivity did not allow for.

Unknown, "African American Woman," 1860–1879.Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts

Most of the tintypes are portraits, whether of individuals, families, or some other grouping. A few of the images stand out because of their atypical subjects: a baseball player, firemen, a Dalmatian, a pair of boxers, a group of soldiers from a Union regiment. The Civil War gave an enormous boost to the popularity of the tintype. It was an inexpensive and readily available way to record a loved one heading into harm’s way — or, conversely, for soldiers, a keepsake of home.


To give a sense of how much tintypes cut across society, there are many images of women and people of color. That emphasis on the social aspect of the images makes sense, though the wall text does tend to belabor this, keyed more to uplift than specific insight.

One example: “As an invaluable collective force, women from all walks of society raised whole generations, fought for political and racial equality, made major scientific breakthroughs, and nourished and kept families together.”

It’s hard to imagine now, but color in photography didn’t become respectable in “serious” photography until the 1970s. One of the chief agents of that change was the photographer Joel Meyerowitz. “It describes more things,” Meyerowitz said of why he switched from black and white to color.

Paradoxically, with painted tintypes this greater descriptiveness, instead of making the images appear more lifelike, has a distancing effect. They seem slightly unreal. That is, any photograph is unreal. It’s two dimensions doing the work of three (four, if you include time). But here that unreality gets exaggerated. The addition of color doesn’t so much heighten reality as deflect it. The miracle of photography is how it arrests time. These painted tintypes seem to be outside of time. They summon up neither the sitter’s then nor the viewer’s now.


You can almost feel the painted surface come between you and the subject. Applying color counters the lustrousness, precision, and sense of immediacy that are among the tintype’s chief characteristics. The color is like candy-coating. Many of the tintypes look like pastels or lithographs. Weirdly, there’s a stylistic resemblance in several to the tintypes to the painting of Douanier Rousseau. This is rather beguiling. It’s even more disorienting.

The few tintypes in the show that haven’t been tinted have far more force — they look more “real, or far less “unreal” — than the tinted ones. They’re so much more direct and affecting. It’s especially true of the late David Prifti’s “Shawna.” That’s the tintype from 2007. The image could hardly be simpler in appearance. A young Black woman with a marvelous sweep of hair behind her is seen in profile in front of a grayish corrugated wall. That’s it. Yet the tintype has a vividness and emotional heft unlike anything else in the show.

In part, that’s a tribute to Prifti. In part, it’s a reminder of the aptness of a remark the great French film critic André Bazin once made: “photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time.” Here the embalmer’s skills, rouged cheeks and all, come to the fore.


PAINTED TINTYPES: Photography for the People

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Oct. 15. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.