The First Tintypes Made in a Combat Zone Since the Civil War

Tintypes, a form of photography introduced in the mid-nineteenth century (and actually taken on thin sheets of iron, not tin), were briefly ubiquitous. Cheaper than daguerrotypes, the prints could be produced quickly, on the street or in studios where the results were often more antic and everyday than a modern viewer might expect. They became especially popular in the years surrounding the Civil War and served as an important form of documentation for the war itself — but in the decades following, the tintype was reduced to a fairground novelty, and has since nearly disappeared.

But this year, Brooklyn artist Ed Drew was deployed to Afghanistan as an aerial gunner with a US Air Force Combat Rescue Unit and produced a series of arresting tintypes of his fellow airmen. The tintypes are up at the New Yorker and also on Drew’s website, where he has a few more photo sets from Afghanistan as well. About the process, he tells the New Yorker:

“To do this process in a war, let alone a foreign war, is historically significant,” said Drew. “The process of wet-plate tintypes is challenging enough with perfect conditions and the availability of chemicals. In a foreign war, with the stresses of combat, lack of basic materials, drying desert air, and the wind and dust of Afghanistan, it was quite a challenge.”

Drew’s second son was born in January. “I wanted him to know his father in the event that I was killed in action,” Drew told me, “and it became less important that my work was done in tintype than that I could show the humanity of war in the eyes of airmen I fly combat missions with.”

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