The Pfister Hotel Press Coverage

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Features The Pfister’s Artist-in-Residence

Pfister artist Margaret Muza processes love of history through tintype photographs

Taylor Davis, a valet and bellman at the Pfister Hotel, sits down in front of the camera, and Margaret Muza goes to work.

Wearing goggles, gloves and a mask, Muza mixes a liquid film called collodion in a nearby walk-in closet that she’s converted to a darkroom. She carefully pours just enough collodion to coat a metal plate — aluminum with a black coating. She drips off the excess and then puts the plate into a bath of silver nitrate. When her sand timer runs out, Muza loads the plate to transport it from her darkroom to the camera. She lines up the shot and clicks the shutter.

Muza must develop the photograph in the next 15 minutes before the chemicals on the metal plate dry.
The process is a step back in time. Her photos don’t upload to the cloud. There’s no digital screen. She doesn’t use film.

Muza, the artist in residence at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel, practices a style of photography popular during the American Civil War, capturing images onto sheets of metal.

It’s called tintype photography, characterized by its use of metal to create a direct positive. The style — also known as melainotype or ferrotype — became popular in the mid-1850s. It was more durable and cheaper than daguerreotypes or ambrotype photographs at the time. The tintype method went out of common use at the beginning of the 20th century.

Back in her darkroom under safe red lights, Muza pours developer onto the metal. Slowly, a negative of the image appears. Once she sees what she’s looking for, she pours on water to stop the development and rinses the chemicals off. Then she pours fixer onto the plate to turn the negative image into a positive one.

Tintypes can last for more than 100 years if they’re preserved. To protect her photographs, Muza pours a varnish made from alcohol, lavender oil and tree sap onto the plate. The tintype is complete.

The portrait of Davis in his uniform could have been displayed on opening day at the Pfister in 1893 — and it would have looked charmingly old then.

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