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  • Writer's pictureOld Surf Dad

Leo Carrillo and the surfing Tintype

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Leo Carrillo as it may have looked in the 1850's.

I was standing in the sand sweating inside of a ice fishing tent at Leo Carrillo State Beach processing a Tintype. It was 90F - one of those fall days with Santa Ana winds and a beautiful California combo swell. Inside the tent was pitch black and scorching hot. Beads of sweat poured off me as I took the large metal plate and carefully poured developer on it before it went dry.

My photo safe headlamp beamed red light allowing me to see the image appear as a negative. It had artifacts for sure; developer pour marks, places where the collodion had started to dry in the heat and, of course, droplets of sweat. It was imperfectly perfect, beautiful. In about five hours I managed to make 10 plates and surf 3 waves- a most productive day. Each plate was hand poured in the dark tent and then dunked into a silver bath (Fun Fact: silver nitrate is dangerous and can blind you if you get it in your eyes). Nearly all the plates were either overexposed or dried up before I could develop them.

The plate needed three minutes in the silver bath and I waited outside the tent looking for a set on the horizon. I needed luck on my side to give the plate the alloted time while considering how long it would take me to pull the plate out of the bath, and put it in a janky homemade plate holder (it's not like you order photographic equipment from the Civil war era on Amazon). Once the plate was sealed from the light I would fly out of the tent and load the camera with the still toxic silver nitrate dripping out of the plate holder and onto my precious wooden camera.

They call the process wet plate photography because the chemistry on the plate needs to be wet to hold the image. I had two minutes or the plate would dry up and be ruined. I was up against Santa Ana conditions, but on this occassion, a three wave set came right on schedule.

The first one was a scout and pulled those unfamiliar with the wave inside for the next two on the head. The second was good, breaking just outside the rock, and peeled down the point. The third one was cleaner and a stylish longboarder dropped in, trimmed right into the pocket and then just stood on the nose motionless like he somehow knew a sweaty guy with an antique wet plate camera was trying to make an impossible image of surfing.

At that exact moment I pulled the lens cap off letting light into the camera and then less than a second later put the lens cap back on. I was the human shutter trying to guess the exposure based on brightness of the sun and the age of my homemade liquid collodion 'film' (It needs more light as it ages, but gets better with time like fine wine, until it dies completely). Unfortuntely I overexposed the previous image, and the one before that.

This image's exposure was spot on showing detail in the white water and light on the rocks. Because the surfer stayed still at that moment, he is frozen in time while the delay of the shutter and the speed blur gives him movement as his spray trails across the glassy wave.

The image above is a scan of the actual 10" x 12" plate. It's hard to describe the intense detail of a tintype, but it may help to know that while digital cameras use pixels as thier building blocks, wet plate collodion photography's chemical reaction to light is using silver ATOMS to create the image!

You may have noticed Leo Carillo's right point is photographed as a left and that's because the tintype process creates a reverse positive.

Sure, you could say it looks like a shitty black and white photo I pulled out of the trash bin, but I feel some sense of accomplishment with this picture. Instead of shooting it on my iPhone and using an app filter, I hand made an action photo using a 150 year old process that was primarily made for still portraits. There was no electricty involved, no digital of any kind. Rad.

That surely deserves a paddle out and a few set waves. But first I gotta put this friggin Ice Fishing tent studio in my SUV.


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Apr 23

In the early '70s I would drive up the coast after school with friends and occasionally score Secos. It wasn't an easy to get to, or popular spot so weekdays were usually empty. This brought back good memories.

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