Victoria Will: Master Of Timeless Tintype

With the world’s ceaseless appetite for all things "Hollywood," the need for publicists, newspapers, magazines and news agencies to feed the public new celebrity photographs is never-ending. But how does a photographer create a new look in a sea of sameness? Brooklyn-based Victoria Will found a way by going back in time, applying the 19th-century wet-plate collodion process to a 21st-century challenge.

DPP: What is it about using the collodion process to create tintypes that attracts you?

Victoria Will: One of the things I love about tintypes is that they’re monochromatic. I shoot so much color on the digital side of things that this process allows me to focus on the graphic nature of the photographs and the contrast between light and dark. Also, it gave me a reason to shoot with a 4×5, which I hadn’t used since my time at Princeton. But it’s like riding a bicycle; it came right back, as did all the things I love about large-format work. You have to slow down and be more deliberate and more conscious of everything. I was aware of tintypes when I was studying at Princeton, but it was when I saw Lisa Elmaleh making them at the Penumbra Foundation booth at Photoville in Brooklyn that I realized how they could be applied to what I was doing these days.

DPP: How so?

Will: I thought that if they could be done in a photo booth type of environment at Photoville it was something that I could do at the Sundance Festival. I learned the process through watching videos on YouTube. It’s the world we live in now.

DPP: How did you then apply the process at Sundance?

Will: I had a whole team supporting me—one person helping me with the digital photo shoot I was doing for The Associated Press, which brought me there in the first place, one assistant in the darkroom helping me with the wet collodion, then someone helping me at the end of the day scan and caption all the plates. I photographed 300-plus actors and directors over the course of four days. Sundance is held in Park City, a ski town in Utah. During the year, there are clothing stores, restaurants and ski stores all up and down Main Street. When Sundance comes, many of these businesses lease their space to the different organizations covering the festival. The Associated Press rented a ski shop. I’m not a staffer for The AP, I’m freelance. The actors would walk into my temporary studio. On one side was the digital lighting setup with different textured canvas backgrounds. Then in the back corner was the 4×5. It was a very intimate space, the way you might imagine the 19th-century tintype studios were.

DPP: How were you able to funnel through more than 300 portrait sessions in four days shooting two setups?

Will: The way Sundance works is that the casts of all these films start at the top of Main Street and make their way from one photo booth to the next. They’re called photo booths, but they’re actually temporary photo studios. They might go from Entertainment Weekly to the Hollywood Reporter, right on down the line. Somewhere along there is my portrait studio. It’s a little bit of an assembly line and a hard day for everybody. We’re all on a tight schedule. Everyone knows it’s not an ideal situation, but we make the most of it.

Because of the wet-collodion process, we tried not to put the plates into the silver bath until the subjects had walked into the room. The plate has to be wet, and we were in super-dry conditions in the mountains, so it was tricky.

Victoria Will recently applied the timeless aesthetic of wet-plate photography to a series of more than 300 celebrity portraits captured at the famous Sundance Film Festival. The actors and filmmakers were immediately drawn to the process, which is so unlike digital. A few of the subjects even returned later to work further with the photographer. "Sundance is a festival of artists," says Will. "I knew they would get it."

DPP: Did you use the same basic lighting setup when switching between the digital and 4×5 formats for the tintypes?

Will: Completely different because collodion, which is the emulsion on the tintype, is ISO 2. Some photographers consider it ISO 1. The point is, it’s not very sensitive. I had to use significantly more power. I used two Profoto Pro-7a battery packs at full power. The two heads with beauty dishes were significantly closer to the subject than normal. I would tell the subjects, "First, I’m going to focus, then I’m going to have you close your eyes and I’ll pop the flash so you feel how intense it is."
I wanted to prepare them. I was using an ƒ/5.6 lens wide open.

DPP: The Japanese have an expression—wabi-sabi—an appreciation for objects that show the influence of time and imperfections of a handmade process. It seems that tintypes are great for this. To borrow a term from the interior design world, they have a beautiful "distressed" look to them.

There are several disadvantages to using a chemical darkroom process like wet-plate collodion. With expensive glass plates that must be coated with the emulsion, exposed and chemically developed immediately, the process of preparing the composition and producing the plates is almost meditative, a luxury in the age of digital photography.

Will: In the tintype world, they’re called artifacts. I love those. Tintype purists consider those marks a mistake. The artifacts can happen from the way the plate was coated. It could be that you have contamination of the chemicals. It could be that the emulsion was drying. There are a lot of photographers who can make a very clean plate, but to me, the results don’t have anything separating them from a black-and-white print.

DPP: How did the actors and directors react to your tintypes?

Will: They really responded to the raw quality of the tintype; they’re so used to seeing themselves in glossy magazines. No one else on the street was doing anything like it, so it was a breath of fresh air for them. They would come in, "Oh, my gosh. What is this?" The time I had them in front of the 4×5 was very much a quiet moment. We would work together to come up with a pose or a scenario. Each plate became its own special gift.

I shot one tintype plate per person at Sundance except for the actors who came back to do a different expression or wanted someone else in their photo. Anne Hathaway came back so I could do a portrait of her with her husband. Glenn Close came back with her daughter. Elijah Wood is into the process of photography. He wanted to check out the darkroom where we put the tintype in the developer for 20 seconds, followed by the stop bath, fixer and wash. Sundance is a festival of artists. I knew they would get it.
DPP: Since you were doing the now "traditional" color digital photos for The AP, how did you get the tintype work out to the magazine world?

Will: I posted a behind-the-scenes look on Instagram on how I was doing my tintypes, and Esquire immediately got a hold of me, "We want this!"

I get asked to do tintypes quit
e a bit these days, but I’m very selective about what subject matter is appropriate. I used them to illustrate a feature for The Huffington Post on "Moral Injury" written by David Wood, who won a Pulitzer for his work on PTSD.

Rated at an ISO of 2, wet-plate collodion exposures require a huge amount of light and, thus, very slow shutter speeds. Similarly, focusing must be done prior to an exposure, as the shutter is manipulated manually through the lens on old-style, large-format cameras. The wet plates themselves are also extremely delicate and must be coated evenly and carefully to perfect the emulsion. Even when done well, characteristic light streaks and development artifacts will appear. Of course, these "mistakes" are part of the organic appeal of collodion imagery.

DPP: What is "Moral Injury"?

Will: David’s story was about a bunch of Marines who are having a hard time grappling with some of the things they did while they were at war. For example, one of them talked about how they were under fire in Afghanistan. He looked through the scope of his gun, and the person shooting at him was a child. So he had the choice. "Do I shoot?" He did and killed the kid, otherwise he or one of his fellow Marines could have been killed or wounded. Many veterans are struggling to recalibrate themselves. Tintypes seemed to help convey the raw emotion of the subjects.

DPP: How does your time at Princeton show itself in your work? Will: My major was History of Art and Visual Arts with a focus on Photography. I studied under Emmet Gowin and Andrew Moore. They were both fantastic. I was there from 1999 to 2003. When I think back to my time at Princeton, I’m most grateful for my history of photography class that was taught by Peter Bunnell, an amazing photo historian. His lectures were so insightful, both on the history of photography and how to look at a single image in a different way. Having that knowledge base is like having a Rolodex of images in your brain that you can use as inspiration.

I’ve also taken some great classes at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops taught by Joe McNally, Platon and Norman Jean Roy. They’re amazing photographers and also really good teachers. Each workshop has raised my game in the portraiture department, opening my eyes to new possibilities.

DPP: How does your time at the New York Post where you started your career play into your style and your methodology?

Vitoria Will’s Equipment
Sinar p2
Large-format 100mm ƒ/5.6 lens
Ake holder

Canon EOS-1D X
Range of lenses from a 24mm
ƒ/1.2 to a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8
Hasselblad H4D
Range of lenses, including a
50mm, 80mm and 100mm
Profoto packs and heads
Light modifiers, including beauty dishes, grids, strip lights and
Photek umbrellas

Will: Talk about an education! I started at the Post when I was 22, and I’m eternally grateful to their photo editor David Boyle. I started there directly out of school on a three-month trial/internship and left eight years later when I decided to go freelance. At the Post, I learned patience, flexibility, how to think on my feet and how to get things done in a very short period of time. I would go to a shoot and my editor would expect certain things when I returned—horizontal and vertical options, a tight headshot and a full-length. I had to learn how to tell a story and have a bit of a narrative even though they might just run one image. David’s philosophy was, "Don’t spend tons of time making the most immaculate image because when you come back I end up having only one option." Because of this training, to this day, when I walk into a room, I think, "What can I get out of this space?"

DPP: Were you focused on portraiture from the very beginning of your career?

Will: I started out at the Post as a photojournalist doing a little bit of everything. I shot a lot of still lifes, spot news and feature stories and, of course portraits, which I fell in love with. One day a week I sat on the photo desk, responsible for getting pictures and assigning some shoots. It was great to be in the editor’s shoes. I was able to see what it was like on the other end of the phone and to see what photographers were bringing back based on the creative direction I gave them. Sometimes there was a disconnect. "Was it on my end?" "Was it the photographer?" "Where was the communication gap?" We’re using words to try and communicate a visual idea. It’s a fascinating dynamic.

You can see more of Victoria Will’s tintypes, as well as her complete portfolio, at

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