Q&A with Adrian Whipp of Lumiere: Tintype Photography & Entrepreneurship

I know you are from England. What brought you to the states and why Austin?

I was originally traveling to Austin to ride BMX 10 years ago now. I met my wife on the first trip, so she was the reason I kept coming back. It’s a strange place for an Englishman to end up, but Austin is definitely home these days.

When did your love for photography begin?

Probably in my first darkroom class. Being under red lights, headphones on, the smell of the chemistry–it’s intoxicating. After that, just realizing that I could document things that were important to me with a camera, and make art out of otherwise ordinary situations.

Why tintype? I know it’s fairly expensive to run and operate.

Yeah. That’s why they are so few of us operating professionally making tintypes. It’s a huge money pit to begin with, with very little reward. I must have made hundreds of bad tintypes before I began to be happy with the results. The chemistry can also be very temperamental, and difficult to work with. That said, it’s really unlike any other photographic medium. It has a depth and clarity that is unrivaled, yet also has a gritty and distressed look that tells you about how it was made – by hand, with passion.

Could you give the readership a quick run down of tintype?

Essentially, a metal or glass plate is coated with a substance called collodion. This collodion forms a ‘skin’ over the plate, which is then soaked in silver nitrate. After it has soaked for a few minutes the plate is light sensitive and can be loaded into the camera. After exposure, it is developed and fixed like a regular film negative. Once it has been washed and dried, it is varnished. Shellac or Sandarac varnish is most common and should keep the tintype looking great for hundreds of years!

Do you love the process or the end result?

Both for me. I love to problem solve and to build things. Tintype gives me the opportunity to do both. All equipment must be built or mixed from scratch, and there a hundred things to go wrong at every turn. I probably spend more time fixing cameras, mixing chemistry or working on the mobile studio than I do shooting, but it’s all worth it just to make one image that stops you in your tracks.

What’s your favorite photo? It could be one you have shot, or someone you aspire too, and why?

Of my own, probably a portrait of my friend Alex. It was a pretty spontaneous shoot, one shot I believe, but I got goosebumps watching it come out in the tray.

A favorite photo to draw inspiration from would have to be Dan Winter’s portrait of Helen Mirren. It looks deceptively simple and elegant, but the work that went into its construction boggles the mind. It also required an insane amount of strobe light. As a tintype photographer that’s something I fully understand. Dan seems to do most of his work on the front end – hitting the shutter is almost an afterthought. That’s something I aspire to.

Best advice you have been given?

Hard to say. “No dig, no ride.” comes to mind. That’s a phrase from growing up building BMX trails in the woods. You don’t get the payoff until you’ve put in a lot of hard work.

You are currently traveling the Northwest with Lumiere. How do you unwind or spend any free time?

I built a small camper for this trip out of a little cargo trailer and I have been spending a lot of time in national forests along the way. Relaxation does not come easy for me – I have to always be doing something. As such, I intentionally built down time into this trip. Five or six days in between each shoot with nothing but my BMX, some tools and some cameras. My dog is riding along too, for company. It’s been nice.

Any advice you would like to pay forward for photographers or even someone interested in starting a small business?  I always hear young entrepreneurs concerned about the risks or the the lack of funds.

Find your niche and run with it. Be prepared to get your hands dirty, learn to build things, and don’t be afraid to spend money if the business needs something. I took a huge gamble on Lumiere and plowed a scary amount of my own money into it. It can be lonely and frightening at times, but so can working for something you don’t believe in and watching the years fly by. Specific advice for photographers and other creatives: Don’t work for free unless you really believe in something. If you’re good enough, your work has value!