Great Sand Dunes Centennial Tintype Weekend

As I wrote about earlier, the National Park Service asked me to be part of their Centennial Celebrations by spending two days at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve giving demonstrations on making tintypes one day, and teaching a short workshop on the subject the next. This all stemmed from a trip I made there nearly a year ago, and after 11 months of planning (and a lot of other crazy unrelated events) the weekend finally happened, and it was fantastic.

October 15th: Tintype Demonstration Day

Today was one of those nearly-perfect wonderful days when I remember “yeah, this is why I decided to be a photographer”. It wasn’t even necessarily because of the photography, either, as it turns out. I was set up in a place – and at a time of day – that was geared more towards being convenient for park visitors to watch and interact with me, which was the point of the day, rather than for amazing landscapes.

My portable darkroom – the red pop-up ice-fishing tent at right – is set up right on the rear porch of the park’s Visitor’s Center.

I arrived at the park a little before opening time and started setting up my darkroom on the porch of the Visitor’s Center. I hadn’t made any tintypes since before the 1000-mile and very bumpy drive up, so I was a little nervous about the state of the silver nitrate and collodion, not to mention the cooler temperatures at the high-elevation park in October. The washboard “road” up to the Zapata Falls campground and a leaky silver tank already caused one headache…

I had to spend an hour or so last night in my hotel cleaning 60 pieces of aluminum that had been soaked in silver nitrate that leaked from my tank.  :-\

My first plate of the day came out well within the range of acceptable images, though, and I was ready for the day!

First tin of the day!

I got set up by around 9am and didn’t stop making tins and talking to people until 3pm, when I finally took a break to eat something. Went back to making photos until things got dark around 6pm. I met dozens of people and had really great conversations about photography, art, the National Parks, chemistry, history, all sorts of things.

I was so busy making tintypes and explaining what I was doing to 150-200 people that I didn’t get any photos myself of myself, so all of the behind-the-scenes pictures with me in them are courtesy of Patrick Myers, the park staff member that brought me in for this weekend.

©2016 Patrick Myers, Great Sand Dunes National Park
©2016 Patrick Myers, Great Sand Dunes National Park
©2016 Patrick Myers, Great Sand Dunes National Park
©2016 Patrick Myers, Great Sand Dunes National Park

I shared tintype photography with everyone from little kids (5-ish?) up to a retired couple that were so giddy and enthusiastic watching me work that I ended up making a portrait of them. One of the mothers said her son “likes chemistry”, so I told him “well, ya gotta come check out my setup then!” As I was showing him the various components of making a tintype he blurted out “I have test tubes!” and I said “me too! aren’t they cool?!” and we had a nerd bonding moment.

©2016 Patrick Myers – Patrick got a photo of me making Brian and Charlotte’s portrait. If you’re paying attention you’ll notice…
…their positions are reversed in the tin, as usual.

I always try to make the most of whatever photograph I’m working on, so even though the location wasn’t ideal I was still trying to make interesting images. I jumped at the chance to make a portrait, too, which is always fun.

Then as the sun lowered later in the day there were interesting shadows on the dunes, and I kept working until dark. I thought I’d try something I had seen but not done myself yet – a tintype panorama.


At first I just swiveled the camera from where I had been shooting all day and made a two-piece panoramic set. Then I thought I’d get fancy and make a three-piece pano, but in the chaos of the day I did not plan ahead enough, and if I would have really avoided too much overlap the final right-hand image would have included the corner of a building and part of a parking lot, which isn’t what I had in mind. Compose twice, shoot once.

I couldn't resist making a portrait of Brian, one of my workshop students.

October 16th: Tintype Workshop Day

I had been worried that trying to shepherd five students through the process of making tintypes in one day, on location, might have been a bit ambitious, and that despite it being a free workshop, the students would feel cheated if it didn’t work out. Well, the students were awesome and the day went like clockwork and we had a blast. Everyone went home with at least once good, solid tintype photograph.

Mandy watches one of her tintypes clear in the fixer as fellow classmates (left to right) Bob, Mandy’s husband Brian, Tina, and Kelsey look on.

We started the day in the staff conference room at the Visitor’s Center. I showed some examples of tintypes, talked a little about the history of the medium, and gave a quick introduction to using the view camera. Then we headed down to a spot I’d picked out in the picnic area near the dunes for the actual tintype making.

Kelsey double checks that the shutter is closed and cocked. Note my fancy “sandbag” to help steady the camera in the wind.

The day really was nearly perfect. The only complaint was that it was a tad windy, but I knew it would be and had picked a spot for the tent that was both out of the wind and where I could lash it securely on three sides. Bob, a local, had an SUV with an empty trunk, and he generously offered to let us put the rinse trays and drying racks in there out of the wind. As a result we had no problems with the stiff breeze and had a wonderful day with six people in a beautiful location making photographs by hand.

Brian composes the shot for what will be a photograph of him and his wife Mandy, with me at the shutter.

For various reasons I had been excited and anxious about this weekend for months, so I was relieved that it went so amazingly well. I celebrated with some fancy ice cream. (Yes, that is a tiny three-spoonful cup. I’m traveling, so I can’t store leftovers.)(The guy in front of me in line – with the healthy orange and granola bars – looked at me sideways and said “boy, you really must be craving ice cream!”)


Update: Patrick, my contact at the park, just posted this on the park’s Facebook page:

The recent historic Tintype Photography Demonstrations and Workshop were fantastic! In our series of Centennial artist workshops, we wanted to look not only forward to cutting-edge art, but also back to historic photographic techniques in use as the first national parks were being established. Tintype photography is a 19th century photographic method that has been rekindled by professional photographer and teacher Mark Dawson.

We didn’t know if this would connect with the smartphone generation or not, but all ages were very drawn in and amazed as images slowly developed in front of their eyes, and a unique historical connection was made in hearts and minds.

With a little bit of luck and a whole lot of work I hope to be able to do this type of thing in more of the National Parks and Monuments!

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Patrick Myers

    You did a great job, Mark! Will post this on the National Park Service Employees facebook page to let them know of this opportunity.
    – Patrick Myers, Park Ranger, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

  2. Charlotte and Brian

    Thank you so very much for a really fun, educational, and inspiring visit with you at the Great Sand Dunes Centennial Tintype Weedend, Mike.

    I’ve looked at your website and love your images. You are an artist.

    We’re ordering!

    We appreciate so very much your work.

Comments are closed.