Victoria Will: Master Of Timeless Tintype

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.”

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