Michael Chylinski Preserves the Dreamlike World of Wet Plate Photography

Posted inDesigner Interviews

The featured image above pictures Michael Chylinski in the center, photographed by Kyle McMillin.

Most of us have a camera glued to the palm of our hand nearly every second of every day. Over the past decade or so, cell phones gradually morphed into pocket-sized cameras many use to document their every waking moment. But as most people over the age of 25 know, this wasn’t always the case. 

Before our more instantaneous modern era, photography was a precious, precise, and time-consuming process. And while most of us have completely embraced more fleeting, digital photography, there’s a small, yet mighty community of artists preserving the old processes. One of these custodians is Michael Chylinski, who runs a wet plate collodion photography business out of his studio on the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles. 

Only a ridiculously interesting person would embark on such an endeavor, and Chylinski is just that. The LA native first flexed his creativity as the drummer for London-based band Drugstore, who toured with the likes of Jeff Buckley and Radiohead. He began documenting their travels with a 35mm Lomo camera, and was drawn to film’s more dreamlike, fluid version of reality. “I was enchanted by how it was able to render the world,” Chylinski writes in a recent artist statement. “At times I would shoot without looking through the viewfinder, hoping that the angle, focus, movement and all the rest would combine to produce something otherwise unobtainable. Most of the time it didn’t, but when it did, it was magical. Looking back through those, many I don’t even recall taking—probably because I didn’t, really. They were, in some sense, given to me.” 

Chylinski’s affinity for the experimental image ultimately led him to the land of wet plate tintype photography. “I found a friend of a friend to show me and introduce me to the process,” he tells me. “Then I kind of taught myself, and it just stuck with me.”

Chylinski explains how wet plate photography succeeded daguerreotypes, which became the first commercially available photographic process in 1839. Daguerreotypes are the reflective, mirror-like images you might come across in antique stores, or unearth from old family trunks. In 1851, wet plate photography emerged as a more practical process that didn’t require as long of an exposure. “That’s when photography really took off with portraiture,” Chylinski says.

“Tintypes have definitely made a comeback the last 20 years or so, particularly the last ten,” continues Chylinski. “A lot more people are doing it.” While the growing popularity of a time-consuming, analog process might come as a surprise to some, it makes sense as an antidote to our blisteringly fast-paced age. So much of modern life is intangible, but tintypes are the opposite. They are grounding, and possess both a physical and symbolic weight that the thousands of images floating around in our iClouds lack.

“We live in a world of things that are a little more ephemeral,” says Chylinski. “I get those memories on Facebook that pop up, but they just slide off your radar. You’re not going to discover them again because they’re lost in some machine. But if you’ve got a physical object, it just has a different presence. I grew up in a time when your family had a photo album with snapshots; there was something nice about that.”

But beyond the psychology behind the resurgence of tintypes, Chylinski credits the fact that, simply put, the images are beautiful. 

“There’s something to a well-exposed, well-shot tintype, if you’re looking at one in good light,” he says. “There’s a layer of the first chemical—the collodion—that the silver sits on, creating a three-dimensionality to the image. So it’s not just a physical object, but I think it’s a particularly beautiful one.”

“Also, the way that they invented the tintype process, they weren’t able to create a film emulsion that saw all of the colors that we see,” Chylinski continues. “A tintype sees a limited part of the color spectrum—mostly UV and blue light. So it’s a little more abstract than even black and white, which is already an abstraction of the world. It’s got a timeless, sometimes spooky quality.”

Chylinski and his peers are also captivated by the chemistry of the form, as it creates a liberating lack of control. “The chemicals change a little bit every day, and some days are more difficult to get an optimal image. But that’s part of the fun of it,” he says. “Every time you see an image come up in the fixer, it’s kind of like, What am I going to get this time? There could be a chemical artifact that ruins it, right across somebody’s face, or there could be one that makes it better. It’s a surprise, and usually satisfying and fun to see.”

In addition to falling in love with the tintype process, Chylinski has become enamored by portraiture itself, and the many people he’s met over the years through his practice. “It just feels like it’s more immediately meaningful,” he explains. “It’s a photo of somebody, or somebody’s pet, and you don’t have to convince anybody it means something. I just love that. People bring their pets in the last couple of weeks of their life sometimes.” 

Despite his commitment to preserving an ancient art form, Chylinski is still evolving his business with the times. For example, he’s mobilized his studio and shoots tintypes at all sorts of events in LA. He tells me that soon he’ll debut the portable dark room he’s created within a small trailer. “I’ve gotten asked to do a ton of stuff. The first one was at a tattoo shop in East Hollywood; I’ve done backyard birthday parties and, strangely enough, a memorial service,” he says. “A guy had brought in his young son and his father for a Father’s Day portrait, and then a couple of years later, his father passed away unexpectedly. They told me that he had really liked that photo, so they wanted me to come to the memorial service and shoot tintypes to honor that.”

Chylinski says he’s still surprised by the popularity of his booth at these events. “Sometimes I think, Who’s into tintypes? Who’s going to want one, or find me? But if you go to an event, the demand is insane; it doesn’t stop.” Once again, this doesn’t come as a shock to me. While any self-respecting party in 2022 has a photo booth component, typically it’s just some guy who shows up with a ring light and dollar store props. By comparison, the spectacle of a photography setup straight out of the 19th century is sure to pique the interest of partygoers. 

Chylinski has also started running wet plate photography workshops out of his studio with the help of Brian Cuyler of UV Photographics, where Chylinski buys his chemicals. “Sometimes I can’t even believe that I get to do this,” he reflects. “To do something I love—I can’t even tell you how much I love it sometimes—and then I get to meet all these universally interesting people.”