Camp Tintype

Early photography enthusiasts flock to an upstate New York farm to learn the art of the old-fashioned snapshot
Jody Dole

Sam Dole attended Camp Tintype with his father and now teaches nineteenth-century photo processes at the Penumbra Foundation in New York City.

An epistolary interview with John Coffer, one of the world’s foremost wet-plate photographers, suddenly comes to a close with: “Well, gotta’ go move some cattle.” The interview is being conducted by handwritten letters because Coffer is off the grid. He’s got no Internet on his fifty-acre homestead a few miles outside Dundee, New York, and he doesn’t offer up his phone number to anyone, including journalists.

“I’m not some sort of died-in-the-wool Luddite stuck in 1863,” he writes in pencil on paper that smells like wood smoke. “Believe it, there are more than just a few very accomplished artists who choose this.”

For more than twenty years, both amateurs and professionals have flocked to Coffer’s farm, where he puts on Camp Tintype, the longest running learning center for wet-plate collodion photography in the world. Coffer also offers courses in ambrotypes, ferrotypes, and albumen prints.

Jody Dole

Brandon Dole also attended John Coffer’s Camp Tintype with his father, professional commercial photographer Jody Dole, who said, “John Coffer is a legend in our house.”

“John is one of my favorite persons on the planet,” said commercial photographer Jody Dole, who attended Camp Tintype some years back with his kids. “Brandon at age twelve was the youngest kid to ever attend and has gone on to do a lot of fun stuff with the processes learned from John. His older brother Sam is an avid wet-plate photographer and teaches workshops at a foundation in New York City.”

Joni Sternbach, who specializes in landscape and portrait photography, said, “Learning wet-plate from John is a trip back in time and a very fitting way to learn the process.”

Coffer was born in West Virginia, raised in Las Vegas, and lived for a while in Florida as a portrait photographer, before he had thoughts to drop it all and start a new life. He moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, got himself a horse and wagon, and became America’s last itinerant tintype portrait photographer. He did that for seven years, putting 11,000 miles under foot and hoof.

He bought the farm in New York and in 1996 Camp Tintype started in earnest with Coffer offering classes, workshops, and multi-day camps for anyone who wanted to learn early photographic techniques. A day at Coffer’s summer camp might begin at 5:30 a.m. with Rebel the rooster providing the wake-up call and end with cattle wrangling in the evening. In between those times, Coffer shares his rarified knowledge with a small group of dedicated students. “His farm is a photographer’s delight,” said Sternbach, a native New Yorker. There are beautiful haystacks, old cabins, campfires. Campers get to shoot it all.

The wet-plate collodion process was first introduced in 1851 by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer. It’s called ‘wet-plate’ because the plate cannot be allowed to dry during the entire procedure. Once the plate is coated with the collodion solution, it must be immediately sensitized, exposed in the camera, developed, fixed, and rinsed before the plate dries. By 1860 it was the method employed by most photographers the world over and remained the standard for two decades. The famous photographers of 1863—the year in which Coffer insists he doesn’t live—include Carleton Watkins, who took some of the first photographs of Yosemite; Alexander Gardner, who took photos of the execution of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination conspirators; and Mathew Brady, arguably the Civil War’s most famous photographer.

Jesse Matta

Sam, Jody, and Brandon Dole at Camp Tintype.

“I laugh out loud,” Coffer writes, “when I read show reviews about this or that person’s contemporary wet-plate work being just like Carleton Watkins did. BULLSHIT!”

Coffer respects his elders, all the while teaching for the future. There is a demand for his expertise, even in this digital world—his classes are often sold out months in advance, and Instagram is loaded with images made by wet-plate photographers, some taught by Coffer himself.

“We sat outside on his porch,” Sternbach said, “where he brought out a few old books on the process and began to speak to us in a very slow and careful way. That immediately slowed us down, urging our city energy out.” The city energy has long since left Coffer, who finds inspiration in the work of environmental activist and poet Wendell Berry. “The piece about resting in the grace of the world and being free is my life,” Coffer writes, referring to Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things.” That life is one in which he teaches what he’s passionate about, takes photos, and writes letters in pencil: “I dance to tunes of my own making.”