by Mallory Moad
Sometimes it feels as though we have overdosed on digital imagery. Good or bad, it’s everywhere. Animated billboards. Movies. Selfies. TV commercials. Magazines. It’s fast, easy, and fairly inexpensive.
And in too many cases, the end result has no soul.
The good news is, there are artists, particularly photographers, who are actively seeking out vintage analog techniques. They are challenging their creativity and giving their work freshness and originality by taking something old and making it new again.Local artist/educator, Marco Tovar has been a practicing photographer for 20 years, but has been working almost exclusively with analog and process- type photography for the past eight. It wasn’t disdain for the digital world that led him down this road back in time, but an encounter with another photographer. “Around 2012 I hosted a French film maker and photographer for a few days,” Marco says. “He brought with him a bag of cameras, all Polaroids, that ranged in age.” They spent a day in Sequoia National Park photographing the General Sherman tree. When they got home and peeled open the photos, revealing the images inside, Marco was hooked. “I began experimenting with different Polaroids and shooting 35mm film again. I realized the process is what I had really been missing for quite a while.” He had found re-discovered that absent spirit.
Eventually, Marco’s curiosity led him to the technique he has been exploring for the past two years: tintypes. “I started to research the process after reading about a traveling tintype artist, and reading a story about a contemporary photographer, Ian Ruhter.” Marco took a workshop in the Bay Area in 2018, where he learned some of the basic techniques he’s been practicing ever since.
Tintypes have been around since the mid-1800s. Perhaps you have seen reproductions of these dark, sepia-toned images, usually of people in uncomfortable- looking clothes or military uniforms, looking stiff and grim. Because the image goes directly from camera to finished product (there is no printing involved) tintypes are often referred to as the first incarnation of instant photography. Since the need for equipment is minimal, 19th century photographers often made a living traveling the country, taking portraits.
Marco has brought the tintype to 21st century Fresno by combining tradition with a contemporary trend. In November, 2019 he conducted his first pop-up portrait studio at the Fresno Flea. It’s a modern twist on the traveling photographer. In place of a horse and wagon, he has a truck; instead of tight collars, the subjects wear jeans and hoodies. “The pop- ups are something I wanted to do since I started learning the craft,” he explains. “It’s an art process I want people to be able to see. I often have difficulty explaining what it is.” Actually observing how everything works as part of the experience of a Marco Tovar portrait sitting.
I was fortunate to be able to participate in one of Marco’s pop-ups. Unlike other conventional photo shoots I’ve been involved in, it was part science, part magic, and a whole lot of fun. In his leather-trimmed canvas shop apron and respirator mask (some of the chemicals involved are toxic at close range), he looked the part of a mad steampunk scientist. As I watched him in action, it was obvious he really loves doing this. Energetic, gregarious and just plain likable, his personality is a natural part of his method. “I try to space out the sessions so I don’t feel rushed. It takes 15 to– 20 minutes to make a single portrait so I like to have some time to talk and hang with the person.” He enjoys it when the subjects of his work become actively involved beyond sitting for the camera. “I personally love when the person I’m shooting has ideas and input. It becomes a collaboration.”
Others who have had sittings with Marco also appreciate his open approach. Photographer, Jen Franklin sat for Marco at a pop at the pop-up in December, 2019 along with her Dad, Jim Franklin. “It was fun, relaxed, no pressure,” she says. “It was fascinating to watch the process and see work being done in a very different way from what we are used to today. And Marco is a nice, friendly, good guy.” Local artist/poet, Tony Persons appeared in one of Marco’s very first tintype portraits. The personal, behind-the-scenes look at what he describes as “an old school process” was part of what made the day special. “He moved levers and twisted cranks while hidden under a thick drape. It was like stepping back in time. And the photos turned out amazing!”
Shortly after Marco’s fourth pop-up, COVID-19 reared its ugly head. With shelter-in-place guidelines temporarily putting further public photo shoots on hiatus, he is dealing creatively with the disruption of his schedule (Marco is on the teaching staff at Fresno High School) by exploring another new/old genre: cyanotypes. It’s an old fashioned photographic technique with results that are elegant. “It’s definitely one of my quarantine projects. With all this time I have more opportunities to experiment with ideas…it has been nice.”
Tintypes have a unique look. While stunning, they can often be flawed; it’s the nature of the multi-step technique. They’re exquisite, but glamorous? Not so much. Someone who is used to a steady diet of the sterile, polished perfection of digital portraiture might find this confusing. “There are so many variables,” Marco explains. “Weather, UV light, temperature, chemicals,” and fidgety subject matter all affect the end product. But it’s this unpredictability that gives the images their beauty and authenticity. And it’s Marco Tovar’s skill, creative eye, and magnetism that gives them soul.
You can see Marco’s work and learn more about tintypes at www.tovarphotography.com.
My name is Mallory Moad and I believe in the power of imperfection.
Check out this recent article to see what some other local artists are doing during this difficult time.