When the Past Meets the Present

John Coffer explains a point to Julia Nelson of Philadelphia. Julia's interest in photography and the unique tintype process drew her to the workshop.

Early in 2014, Manhattan’s Gerald Peters Gallery showcased the striking photographs of John Coffer. It was not the first time the gallery on East 78th, between Madison Avenue and Central Park, had exhibited John’s images. Press releases trumpeted Coffer as a “master” and “the foremost practitioner of tintype photography.” In 2006, he was the subject of a New York Times profile. A sketch of his life appeared on the NBC News feature “American Story.”

The acclamation is justified. Students travel to John’s workshops from across the country and around the globe to learn the archaic methods of 19th-century tintype photography, the production of photographs directly on iron plates. Prevalent during the American Civil War, the medium had all but faded until John became involved.

Along with glass ambrotypes and glass negatives, the once popular tintype method allowed quality images to be made quickly on location and at a modest price. Each method relies on the wet-plate collodion process and each is taught at John’s workshops.

The instruction isn’t carried out in a stereotypical New York studio, like an artsy upstairs loft with funky furniture and artificial lighting. It takes place at “Camp Tintype,” John’s rustic farm on a Yates County ridge top, a few miles from the village of Dundee, which is almost within sight of Seneca Lake.

Workshop attendees seem to agree that “when you get serious about the art of tintype, finding John is a must, no matter how remote the location.” In these rural surroundings he strives to keep everything authentic. For example, the albumen needed for prints made from glass negatives is collected from the eggs of John’s own wandering chickens.

Just how rustic is John’s farm? The living space is a small, one-room log cabin with a loft for sleeping. He felled pine trees from his 50-acre spread to construct the cabin, along with several outbuildings and split-rail corrals for his horses and cattle. He has no electricity, no plumbing and draws hand-pumped water from a well. Heat comes from a wood-burning cast iron stove, and batteries charged by solar panels are used to help light the cabin. With no driver’s license (by choice) he travels about by horse and buggy or bicycle, but still tinkers with his two collectible Fords, a 1923 Touring Car and a 1927 Model TT truck. All in all, John’s world is far, far away from the Gerald Peters Gallery on Manhattan’s smart Upper East Side, and that’s fine with him.

John readily admits his life resembles a 19th- and early 20th-century existence. “I guess I was never quite comfortable in modern times; things moved a little too fast. It’s a matter of independence. I have to live life on my own terms and not follow the crowd.” John is a very handy guy and over the years has fashioned a rhythmic way to deal with his needs. He routinely does what has to be done, from heating water for his outdoor bath tub to shoeing a horse or milking a cow.

John is not completely and instinctively opposed to every technological advance. He just ignores developments he doesn’t need and picks and chooses those that suit him, acknowledging “the old and timeless can be blended with the current.” He uses a laptop computer powered from his solar panels, or stops by the public library in Dundee to use its computer facilities. A fine website, run by a friend in Florida, shows off his work and tells his story. It advertises workshops, books and other materials. After all, even a person with a pioneer spirit must make a living, and the sale of photographs and workshop revenue provide John with sufficient income to pay taxes and sustain his small herd of cattle and horses.

The history of a tintype photographer

It was a wet, raw day in April when I first visited John at his place. I missed it the first time and almost passed by again before catching sight of a faded wooden “Camp Tintype” sign. Walking up a winding path, I could see chimney smoke curling above a cabin nestled against tall pines. An aroma of burning wood filled the cabin when John met me at the door. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, denim jacket, flannel shirt, boots and bib overalls. At over six feet tall, even with a graying beard and spectacles, John belied his 60-plus years.

As rain rattled on the roof, we spent the next three-and-a-half hours sitting on rustic furniture in front of the iron stove, talking about John’s background and how he ended up in Finger Lakes country. He has a quiet demeanor, soft spoken and thoughtful. He shows a keen sense of humor on certain subjects, but can be very serious on others, a little edgy on some.

When conversation turns to the art of tintype, his enthusiasm rises. “A tintype print is a valued object, not just an image. Each one is absolutely unique, like a painting.” My brain, so geared to a digital camera, became quickly muddled by details of the wet-plate collodion process: exposure times, silver nitrate bath solution, ferrous sulfate developer, potassium cyanide fixer, black japanned thin iron plates, gum sandarac varnish, positives/negatives, rinsing, drying racks. As John’s hands circled with process descriptions, my confusion grew. How could one grasp it all? It would take extensive reading and study, then a “hands-on” workshop at Camp Tintype.

Born in West Virginia, John grew up in Las Vegas, but has never shed his “country genes.” In college, he studied oceanographic technology, became interested in underwater photography, and for a time was involved in a commercial scuba diving operation. It was all part of what John calls his “Jacques Cousteau years.” He did a short stint as a monorail driver at Disney World – but quickly became bored. A local Orlando business advertised for a studio photographer. He took the job hauling cameras and lights across Florida, doing student portraits and photographing band and chorus groups. Bored again. John needed to find a niche, a job to provide finances and tweak his interests at the same time.

An answer came in 1976, the Bicentennial year. Many of the year’s events highlighted old crafts and John began to photograph Civil War re-enactors and others in period dress with an antique 8 by 10 studio view camera he had spotted for $50 in a shop window. “I wasn’t content to simply add sepia tone to Polaroid photographs. I wanted authenticity, to duplicate the early processes exactly as they had been done in that day.”

At first, he worked with a dry plate method using glass plates and paper available at the time from Kodak, but couldn’t shake a fascination with the earlier, more complex wet-plate collodion process. There was much more to learn. He searched and searched, but even the head of photographic history at the Smithsonian couldn’t explain the methodology, or direct him to anyone doing the process. “Wow, I knew at that point I had stumbled on something,” John told me. “This was a lost art.”

To master the procedure he waded through texts from the mid-1800s, deciphering and studying their convoluted passages. “Sometimes the chemical names were antiquated. It was difficult to determine the actual substances being used.” Reading about itinerant photographers of the day, he became intrigued with their ability to move from town to town offering this artwork on sheets of blackened tin. From the back of a wagon they provided average folks with quality renderings of their loved ones, swiftly and affordably priced.

A wagon, a horse and a camera

John made a decision. “I realized I could be that photographer today driving down country roads with a horse and wagon, plying my trade with no grand plan and no timetable.” He sold his car and condo, gathered his equipment, and went to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to purchase a spring wagon and a horse named Brownie. For many years, John and that “big-footed, plain-as-they-come, 8-year-old bay plow horse” would be loyal partners.

In 1978, at age 26, John set out with Brownie to experience the country from atop his well-packed covered wagon, confident he was doing the right thing. It wasn’t going to be just a trip; for the next seven years it would be their existence. The wagon would be John’s home and darkroom. They meandered the continent, coast-to-coast and back again, eventually touching 36 states and traveling at a 2-1/2 mile per hour clip-clop over 11,000 miles. “My intention was never to wander for so long or to go that far,” he says. “Things just worked out that way.”

John made his living creating photographs for customers all along the winding route, often accepting offers to camp for a night or two on a local farm. Not only were people fascinated by his 19th-century tintype methods, but they were eager to hear the personal story of this “temporary resident” who had suddenly appeared in their midst.

The trek was not without difficulties – weather, repairs, supplies, busy highways – but there were no bills, no phone calls and none of the nibbling nits of modern society that John wished to resist. “The travel was infectious, a time to slow down and absorb every sight, smell and sound.” He took moments to savor everything from spectacular snowcapped mountains to simple wildflowers to the flutter of birds taking flight. “I would crest each hill, and the next, and the next, never knowing what might be on the other side.”

The journey was largely unplanned, although John tended to stay on the back roads working his way north in the spring and summer, and taking southerly routes during the colder months. Traveling on the West Coast he met Susan; she shared his interests and they married. As their trek continued, several opportunities arose for off-season caretaker work at living history centers (the Hale Farm and Village in Ohio, for example). The museums provided peaceful, period surroundings. There was extended time to tinker with his cameras, repair the wagon in their workshops and read. There were barn facilities to care for the animals – their traveling entourage had grown to include a second wagon, another horse (Cricket), a Springer spaniel (Level), a cow (Daisy), a chicken (Yellow Hen) and two oxen (Bodie and Dillard).

By 1985, Susan convinced John to cease the nomadic life; the time had come to settle down. After some searching they came upon Dundee. The Finger Lakes countryside was beautiful, the small village offered basic needs (grocery, bank, etc.), and the “horse and buggy” style of the local Amish and Mennonites seemed like a good fit. John purchased his 50 acres and their subsistence farm came to fruition in the Yates County hills. As time passed, Susan pushed for certain additions – a car, plumbing, electricity, a telephone. John, having been upfront about how he wanted to live from their first meeting, resisted, and they ultimately parted ways.

The go-to guy

More than two decades have slipped by since then. Old friend Brownie passed away in 2005 and is buried in his own special plot on the farm. John has long since settled into his role as the “go-to” guy when it comes to instruction in the wet-plate collodion process. Students find their way to the remote Camp Tintype from near and far to attend his half-dozen or so yearly workshops, or to schedule private tutoring. Enrollment fills quickly, almost as fast as each workshop schedule is posted. While some arrange lodging in the area, others take part in a total “in the field” experience – tenting, cooking on campfires, hauling water, and dodging John’s darting chickens.

Students run the gamut from graphic designers to Civil War buffs to hobbyists to professors to photographers of every stripe. “The rooster starts sounding off at about 5:30 a.m., but class doesn’t start till about 9 a.m.,” says John. “The daily routine is pretty laid back, and around the campfire we often talk wet-plate on into the night.”

The first day of a typical workshop is reserved for introducing antique cameras, the chemistry involved and shooting the first tintypes. Days two and three are set aside for shooting more plates and printmaking. John encourages students to stick around at no charge for a fourth day of shooting tintypes just for fun, an opportunity for those “chomping at the bit” to practice their newfound skills. His annual Jamboree in August is a high energy gathering of former students and all wet-plate collodion photographers for camping, music, food and, of course, photography.

Tantalized by tintypes or not, a visit to John’s unusual website (johncoffer.com) is well worthwhile. You’ll find a gallery of his work, information on his workshops, and an opportunity to purchase his extensive manual and instructional DVD set on the topic. There are also a few surprises. One is an e-book with a chapter-by-chapter description of his remarkable cross-country journey from 1978 to 1985. Its intriguing title: Horse Hairs in My Soup.

Is it possible to e-mail John through his website? Sure, but have patience. The best way to reach him (and by far the quickest) is an old-fashioned handwritten letter. He answers promptly.

As modern society swirls about, John remains perfectly content living as he does and doing what he loves to do. The websites of any number of fine art photographers across the country tout his reputation with phrases like “trained by the legendary John Coffer” and “Coffer is widely credited with reviving this labor intensive and beautiful process.”

It is high praise indeed for someone who inspired no such notoriety on that day in 1978 when John pulled on his boots, hitched up Brownie, and took his first tenuous steps down that long, long country road that eventually led to life in the Finger Lakes.


by James P. Hughes