© Tif Hunter
A couple of years ago I wrote an article for The Foodie Bugle magazine titled 'On Maltby Street' celebrating the work of photographer Tif Hunter. It was a piece where my triumvirate of passions - food, photography and art - came together in one ideal package. The recent release of the Toast menswear Lookbook Spring/Summer 2015, shot by Tif using the Tintype process, prompted me to review and update my earlier article and reproduce it here. I hope you like it and that it stirs an interest in the medium for you too.
All images are the copyright of Tif Hunter.
My first sighting of Tif Hunter, the photographer, was in a dank alley alongside Victorian railway arches in South London. Hunched over a wooden box set on a tripod, his concentration was total. Clearly this was a camera but one belonging to another era. He drew curious glances from a few early morning shoppers. Over the following weeks I registered the man’s quiet presence as I worked my way around my regular Saturday morning haunts. Intrigued but mindful of disturbing his concentration, I walked on by. Then he was gone and I’d missed my chance to discover just what he was up to.
Several months later a blog post from my favourite local social historian popped up on my computer screen. ‘The Gentle Author’ blogs each and every day about life, past and present, in and around his beloved London borough of Spitalfields. Photography is a favourite means of expression for him and once you discover this wonderful blog you become hooked on a daily dose of prose and, often haunting, images. This particular day brought moody, arresting portraits. Each subject held the eye with a strong, confident gaze; but were they contemporary or from a time past? It was difficult to say at first glance. Yet I recognised every single one of them, each captured in a pause in the working day. They were the food traders I buy from every Saturday.
© Tif Hunter
These photographs were the work of my mystery man, Tif Hunter. By talking to the traders I learned there were more wonderful portraits and they shyly shared some of them with me. There was a quiet pride, shared vicariously by those of us who knew the subjects. Appetite by now thoroughly stimulated, thankfully Tif Hunter opened his studio in Bermondsey to show all of the portraits. Alongside these hangings was another of his enthusiasms, ‘still-lifes’ using the Tintype process employed by early photographic pioneers. The show was called ‘On Maltby Street 2011’ and was a project documenting the Saturday morning shopping scene in this Bermondsey food haven. Nigel Slater has described Maltby Street as “A slightly secret and hidden place, where supply goes with the ebb and flow of the seasons, where there is a constantly evolving group of traders bringing things to tempt and delight”. For Tif this exactly describes the area and its inhabitants that he knows so well – his perfect High Street.
The studio sits just in the unfashionable side of Bermondsey, away from the Fashion Museum and the hip White Cube Gallery. A wonderfully understated space with grey plaster and exposed brick walls. On entering, you can’t miss, centre stage, the beautiful 10x8 specially-made wooden camera with antique brass lens. This is the camera on which the Tintypes were shot. Alongside, and sharing exactly the same overall technology, is a 5x4 Sinar precision Swiss made, large format, camera with a Schneider lens dating from the 1970s. This very different beast allowed Tif to achieve his striking portraits using scarce Polaroid Type 55 film.
The Type 55 film produces an instant positive print and a fine-grained, long tonal range, extremely high resolution negative. The negative needs to be dipped in fixer to protect it from scratching before the final prints can be made. Tif rapidly got to know, intuitively, when he had the shot he wanted. After a few attempts at carrying chemicals to do the fixing ‘in the field’, he began to dash back to his nearby studio. By peeling back the film here, he was able to minimise damage to the negative image before fixing it in a more controlled manner.
© Tif Hunter
Begun in Spring 2011, the portraits on show included butchers, bakers and, yes, even a candlestick maker (Steve Benbow, otherwise known as The London Honeyman, who sells beeswax candles as well as honey). Most subjects look intently and confidently straight into the camera, their faces full of character. No instructions were given, other than to look into the lens and keep very still when asked. Most of the faces register curiosity in what’s going on beyond that lens. All are shot in natural light and the results are unsparing in their detail. Tif talks passionately about the photograph of Emma – calm, self-contained, hair blowing in the breeze, her spotted dress echoed in the weather-pitted backdrop to the shot.
So what is it like being the subject of one of Tif’s portraits? None of the sitters could imagine what the outcome of their few moments in front of the camera was to be. There was a certain amount of reticence. Lucie just remembers being “pulled outside” without any time to think about it. Standing for a full 5 minutes gazing into the lens, Archie felt the nearness of the camera, a little too close for comfort, but was fascinated by the mystique of the old-style techniques. Harry recalls the cold and thinking he couldn’t really spare the time in his working day for this. These portraits show the affection of the photographer for his subjects and a reciprocated admiration of traditional skills.
© Tif Hunter
We move on to the Tintypes. Dating from 1856, Tintypes are a variant on the wet-plate collodion method invented by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. Although not used much in this country, tintypes were valued in the USA into the early 1900’s for their affordability and durability, and the fact you could create a unique photograph almost immediately. We’ve all seen those images of American Civil War soldiers posing proudly in their uniforms. Tintypes were the medium of choice where a blackened sheet of metal is coated with collodion, sensitised in silver nitrate, and, whilst still wet, the sheet is placed in the camera. Developing and fixing follow immediately after the picture is taken and the image is then washed, dried and varnished.
This is the process Tif used for his still-life photographs of the produce he was buying from these artisan traders. Since the Tintype is a camera-original positive, all Tintype images appear reversed (left-to-right) from reality. This is particularly evident in the writing on an oatmeal tin filled with fresh flowers, which is one of the still-life images. From the Tintypes he produced, Tif made printed enlargements of some which proved a fascinating addition to the ‘On Maltby Street’ project.
It was intriguing to find that a group of red tomatoes appear very dark with highlights provided by natural light, yet a similar group of under-ripe green tomatoes appear similarly dark. This is because the camera picks up the red pigment which is also in the unripe fruit; it’s just that the eye cannot see it as it’s at the UV end of the spectrum, not the red.
Q. You’re a professional photographer working with the latest equipment so what inspired you to go back to basics and shoot with a large format plate camera?
A. After a number of years of shooting only digitally I felt that I needed to return to the magic of the analogue and the darkroom. Embracing both the craft and the unexpected in these methods was how I had started in photography. In the Tintype medium, the alchemy and physical textural qualities of the results is that much more amazing than the black and white methods that I had already known.
Q. We’re now so used to being able to check immediately what the image we’ve taken looks like, but how much idea do you have of the result when you’ve taken the photograph?
A. Polaroid 55 Film is very scarce so you can’t afford to waste it. Consequently I limited myself to a maximum of 2 sheets per subject so I have to know by instinct when it’s right.
Q. What drew you to the subject of food traders?
A. Obviously I have a love of good food. I feel so lucky to be able to ‘shop local’ and have my own village High Street here in Bermondsey. This project is very close to my heart and it was an opportunity to celebrate the artisans and the medium.
Q. What, or who, influenced you to work with the tintype process?
A. I came across Tintypes when doing some research on the Internet. Finding John Coffer, the father of Tintypes, was the catalyst. I’m now completely addicted.
Q. I know artists are rarely completely satisfied with their work but how do you feel about this project and do you plan to continue with it?
A. You’re right, it’s hard to be completely satisfied but I’ve loved doing it. I may add a few more portraits and will definitely shoot more food related still lifes but I regard the project as complete.
Q. Do you have any other personal projects planned?
A. Yes, but they are only thoughts at the moment. I do want to continue to shoot portraits but I’m interested in Tintypes this time.
Before I leave, Tif shows me a Tintype portrait he has taken of a fellow photographer. With Tintypes the pose has to be held for longer so who better than a sympathetic fellow photographer to sit for you. The subject is framed standing to the left of centre, as if he has just entered the room, paused, and is weighing up the situation. Highly atmospheric, it’s a beautiful example of what can be achieved when you go back to basics. Tif mentions the sitter, on seeing the result, commented “you’ve brought out the Irish in me”. If these forays into Tintype portraits result in an exhibition, I for one will be first in line for a viewing.
Update on the traders ‘On Maltby Street 2011’ at April 2015:
Most of the original artisan traders ‘On Maltby Street’ have now moved 10 minutes East but can still be found occupying the Bermondsey railway arches in an area known as Spa Terminus
About Tif Hunter
Tif Hunter is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer who has exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London. His extensive body of work includes a collaboration with Stephen Bayley on “Cars – Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything”.
In October 2012 Tif Hunter’s Tintype of a Romanesco vegetable won Best in Category for Non-Commissioned Object at the AOP (The Association of Photographers) Awards. Tif Hunter was elected a member of The Art Workers’ Guild. In 2014, as part of the Negativeless exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, he exhibited an intriguing piece called Rochambeau, a combination of skilled carpentry and inspired tintype images. Among Tif Hunter’s latest work is the Toast Spring/Summer 2015 Lookbook employing the Tintype portrait methods I’ve been lucky enough to see him use at his studio.
About The Gentle Author
The Gentle Author writes a daily blog ‘Spitalfields Life’ www.spitalfieldslife.com