Ambrotype Portraits at Studio Fotin
Article by Sharon Salt.
If Instagram is the McDonald’s of photography — lightning fast, superficially good, and accessible to the masses — Studio Fotin is at the helm of the slow food movement.
Started just over a year ago by Meghan Stone and Juan Pablo Barrientos, Studio Fotin specializes in ambrotypes, a photography process from the 1850s that predates film.
Meghan is from the States and Juan is from Argentina, and they met in the San Telmo street fair when she passed his stall. Amid all the other street fair close-ups of soda bottles and tango dancers, Juan’s photographs stood out: they were of the chaos that ensued in the crisis of 2001. Meghan, a photography buff herself, was particularly taken with his images. “We started to talk about his work and I decided to buy one,” she says, “We arranged to meet the following week, but ended up chatting and emailing the whole week before. By the time we met up to exchange the photo, we just decided to grab a drink as well!”
Now, some years later, Meghan works for Foto Ruta, a photography-based tour here in Buenos Aires, and Juan continues to work as a photojournalist. Though they were satisfied professionally as individuals, they had been searching for a project to do together for some time when Meghan’s brother sent them a photograph.
It was a portrait of her brother and her father, taken in a now defunct tintype studio in San Francisco. Meghan and Juan were intrigued. They, too, wanted a way to take these stark, otherworldly portraits of people with ghost eyes and glowing skin. They were so intrigued, in fact, that they began researching the process almost immediately, discovering what kind of chemicals they would need and how much it would cost to buy a camera and the lights.
“The process doesn’t use any modern photography chemicals, so we have to purchase and mix all the chemicals ourselves. Finding the chemicals that we needed was the first challenge,” Meghan explains. Unfortunately, many of the the chemicals are unavailable or prohibited for sale for various reasons, so Meghan and Juan had to make up an alternate recipe with numerous substitutions.
It involved a lot of trial and error — and they mean a lot. “The chemicals can change from day to day and are very sensitive to weather conditions,” she says, and because they were working with a new recipe, they had to figure out everything themselves. “It was discouraging in the beginning. But in the end it made it much more rewarding.”
In the end, they decided to make ambrotypes, which is the same photographic process as the tintype, except the negative is placed a piece of glass as opposed to aluminum. The most satisfying aspect, perhaps, is that Meghan and Juan are involved in every step of the process: they cut the glass, pour the emulsion, make the light-sensitive film coating, take the picture, develop and fix the negative, and get prints made. It’s not just the portraits that are art, but the preparation itself is a kind of art, as well.
“There are a lot of things to consider,” Meghan says, “You need a lot of light. Daylight is best, but you can also use powerful studio lighting. [And] because the process is barely light sensitive compared with film, we need between 4 to 6 seconds exposure time. That means a client needs to be perfectly still.”
But in a world of fast, precise, tiny cameras, the ambrotype is a welcome change. Through Studio Fotin, Meghan and Juan are reconnecting with the roots of photography, taking a few steps backward as they work with a process that moves in the opposite direction.
For a portrait of your own, contact Studio Fotin to set up an appointment.