Leah Sobsey and Tim Telkamp on Creating Tintype Community Portraits

All images by Leah Sobsey and Tim Telkamp. Used with permission.

While it’s common for photographers to undertake photography projects documenting their communities, only a handful of them get the community itself involved. So when we came across the tintype project of Leah Sobsey and Tim Telkamp, we just had to put the spotlight on it. The aim of Tintypes: A Community Portrait was to engage with the community by bringing people together through the wet plate collodion process. But that’s not the only interesting detail about the project. Sobsey and Telkamp were inspired by the idea to get people to come out of their houses to check out and participate in their project — much like how everyone would head out at the call of the ice cream truck. And that’s exactly how things went down.

They integrated a mobile tintype unit into the community, which roused overwhelming support and produced over 80 tintype portraits. In each of the portraits, the sitters decided on their poses, effectively collaborating with Sobsey and Telkamp to create their very own unique portraits.

We got in touch with Sobsey to tell us more about their tintype project, and it was great that she was also able to get Telkamp to chime in on some details.

Phoblographer: Hello Leah! Can you tell us something about yourself and what you do?

Leah Sobsey: I am an artist and professor of photography at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and the mother to five-year-old twin boys.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography? How did you discover the kind of photography and imagery you make now?

Sobsey: I fell in love with photography during my junior year of college. I learned in the darkroom, so my heart is still with the process, the tactile and the slowness of making photographs. This is why historical processes and wet plate makes so much sense to me. I’ve also worked collaboratively for many years and enjoy the process of working with other artists and working with community members.

Phoblographer: We’d like to know more about your “Tintypes: A Community Portrait” series. How did the idea come to you, especially the part about using the wet collodion process? What served as your inspiration for this project?

Sobsey: Tim and I had worked together on a series of wet plate portraits for the Bull City Summer project, a touring exhibition, and a book published in 2013. We made a series of tintypes that included players, managers, grounds crew, and the mascot Wool E Bull.

When we saw the opportunity to do a large-scale project through Click! Photography Festival, we jumped at the opportunity. We were lucky enough to win the grant and see the project through.

Phoblographer: While conceptualizing and brainstorming with your collaborator Tim Telkamp, what did you think was/were the most important aspect/s of this project?

Sobsey: Our project was selected as the PIC grant winner as part of Click! Photography Festival. It started as an idea similar a bookmobile or ice cream truck, something where people would come out of their houses and on to the street to engage with us and each other. It’s a very slow process relative to the point, click, and post-online era in which we live. We also wanted to do something that brought the portrait back to life as an object instead of something stored in phones and digital files.

Phoblographer: It’s interesting that you used a mobile tintype unit for this project. Was it built especially for this project?

Tim Telkamp: The mobile tintype unit is our term for the portable darkroom, water, tables, and all the equipment packed up and ready to go where the pictures are. The ability to produce tintypes anywhere has been a part of our process in other collaborations as well, for part of the Bull City Summer project we took mobile tintyping into the Durham Bulls ballpark.

Phoblographer: How did you explain the project to the community you photographed? What was the typical reaction to the whole process, especially from the younger members of the community?

Telkamp:  We addressed it as both a historical process and one that brings people back to a time when having your portrait made was more than using your cell phone to point-click-upload a picture. Most of the plate making is done in the dark, but the last step involves putting the plate into the fixer bath which is done outside where everyone can see. The plate goes in as a ghostly image and in just a few seconds reverses into the clear final picture. This is an “ohhhh ahhhh” moment that the kids of all ages called magic.

Phoblographer: Given the overwhelming interest from the community, did the project change the way you look at portraiture and creating a picture of communities?

Sobsey: I’ve always been interested in collaboration both in terms of working with other artists and also in terms of working within the community. Growing up going to Quaker Schools, from kindergarten through college, one of the big lessons they drove home was the paradox of seeing each of us as unique individuals while being part of a whole community. That image of one within many stuck with me and guided me while working with the community and portraiture.

Phoblographer: Which part of this project did you find most challenging? How did you work around it?

Telkamp: As you said before, the overwhelming interest went far beyond what we expected.  We hoped to get a few people at each of our stops to sit for a portrait but instead, we had lines of people. After the first session, we started sign-up sheets that were filled by noon for the whole day, and we still had people who decided to wait in line just for the hope of getting a tintype made.

Phoblographer: If you could do another portrait photography project using tintypes, what kind/s of projects or topics would you work with and why?

Sobsey: We would love to continue working with tintypes and portraiture as a way to bring people together. We are hoping to take our model on the road.

Phoblographer: Lastly, what would you advise those who want to develop their own unconventional approach to portrait photography?

Sobsey: For me, it’s pretty simple — you have to follow what you love, be true to who you are, and trust your gut.

Visit Leah Sobsey’s website to see more of Tintypes: A Community Portrait and her other projects.


Leah Sobsey is an artist and Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Sobsey works in 19th-century photographic processes combined with digital technology. She exhibits nationally in galleries, public spaces, and museums; her most recent installations were exhibited at The Nasher Museum of Art, The Moss Center at Virginia Tech, The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado, The Fence Durham, the world’s largest photography public art exhibition in world, and Rayko Photo Gallery in San Francisco, California, which also featured her first monograph, Collections, released in July 2016 by Daylight Books. Her work is held in private and public collections across the country.  Her images have appeared in New Yorker.com, the Paris Review Daily, Slate.com, Hyperallergic.com, The Telegraph and many more. Sobsey is the co-founder of the Visual History Collaborative and part of the documentary team that produced the best-selling Daylight Book, Bull City Summer published in 2013.

Tim Telkamp is a photographer, craftsman, technologist, and mentor currently living in Central Florida. Wherever life has taken him, from crossing the Arctic Circle to South America and Europe he has gone with camera in hand.  His photographs have been published in books, newspapers, and magazines, and he wrote and illustrated “The Place That’s Always with You,” a children’s story set in Central North Carolina that celebrates home and history. In contrast to his historical craftsmanship, he has also been involved in many high-tech designs and engineering projects.