Not since Matthew Brady’s work documenting the Civil War has the tintype photographic process been used on the battlefield. Staff sergeant Ed Drew, an aerial gunner in the California Air National Guard, brought tintype back to the theater of war to photograph his fellow soldiers during his deployment from April to June in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
“I wanted to do a process that was historical, but also made me take my time and work slowly to focus on my subject,” said Drew. “I had gotten frustrated years ago with the ease of digital and turned away from photography altogether. I had heard about wet plate photography, which initially made me interested in tintypes, but it was almost 10 years later before I actually made the commitment. I thought it'd be great to do them in Afghanistan because I hadn't heard anyone doing that, so I took a chance. I was in the perfect position to have the time to do them while still being a combat flyer.”
Tintype is a slow, laborious wet plate process that is difficult to master and work with in warm temperatures. A collodion mixture is hand-poured onto a metal plate, which is then made light sensitive in a darkroom via a silver nitrate solution. The plate, now encased in a light-tight film holder, is exposed to light in camera and then must be processed within ten minutes of exposure. The plate is developed in the darkroom in iron sulfate and then fixed with a hypo solution or potassium cyanide. Due to the dependency on a portable darkroom, the process can be especially challenging when performed on location.
“Collodion did not respond well to that (Afghanistan) environment,” said Drew, who used a Pelican case, dark case and loft space for a makeshift darkroom. “I only brought the essential chemicals so I couldn't adjust anything. My developer oxidized super fast as well so I made do as best I could.”
One of the biggest challenges of trying to work with collodion and create portraits that often take more than an hour per plate was the time commitment. On call at a moment’s notice sometimes for impromptu missions, he had to scrub his set up mid-stream on more than one occasion.
“When we got called for a mission, we dropped everything and were in the air in less than 10 minutes,” said Drew. “Remember I wasn't there to take photos so on more than one occasion, I had to stop and full sprint to the helicopter for a rescue sortie. To switch thought process, from creative to tactical, was interesting. As a helicopter aerial gunner, it's more than just shooting things. I'm an aircrew member so I have a lot to consider and keep what we call situational awareness. From thinking about portraits to considering enemy activity in our lz, you have to be on your toes.”
Convincing his peers to sit for a formal portrait was challenging and when the chemistry provided unpredictable results, many grew frustrated with the photographer. Eventually, when he started to find success, they began booking portrait appointments and seeking him out.
“Initially, I really had to convince them to do it,” said Drew of his fellow airmen. “I work with these guys, but they know me as a gunner. After they started seeing how amazing the plates looked, they began booking appointments. One of the guys I flew with is the great great grandson of Buffalo Bill so he asked for a photo just like his grandfather. It was one of my best plates.”
He gave each participant a high resolution scan and a print as compensation for their willingness to sit for a portrait. The resulting body of portrait work that Drew completed caught the eye of the New Yorker magazine, which published them online. The portraits are stark and minimal but hold a visceral power.
“I'm documenting my life in the aftermath of my deployment,” said Drew of his current photographic project. “I wanted to see how it affected my outlook on life and the relationship with my family and friends. I'm also planning for another military project, also deeply personal.”
To see more of the outstanding work of Staff Sergeant Ed Drew, visit his portfolio. He is currently studying to complete a BFA in sculpture with a minor in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute.
All images are published here with the permission of Staff Sergeant Ed Drew.