Nova Scotia·Video

Photographer revisits the 1970s and 1860s in one day at Sherbrooke Village

Shin Sugino travelled back in time last month to revisit his first encounter with an antiquated photography process he's come to love.

Shin Sugino travelled to Nova Scotia to recreate a tintype portrait taken 45 years earlier

This photographer returns to Nova Scotia after 45 years for a special reunion to recreate a tintype portrait

19 days ago
3:59
Shin Sugino travelled back in time last month to revisit his first encounter with an antiquated photography process he's come to love. 3:59

A well-known Japanese-Canadian photographer travelled back in time last month to revisit his first encounter with an antiquated photography process he's come to love.

Shin Sugino immigrated to Canada at 19 and earned a degree in photography from Ryerson University.

A few years after graduating, the National Film Board of Canada sent him out on assignment.

"It was a very loose assignment," Sugino said. "Just go across the country and take the photographs of the impressions of this country."

That was the summer of 1976, and during his rambles, he stumbled across an old-fashioned tintype parlour at Sherbrooke Village in Nova Scotia and had his photo taken. Sugino held on to the portrait, captured on a thin sheet of metal, but over the years, he forgot where it was taken.

Sugino rediscovered this tintype portrait of himself in a shoebox 15 years ago and was inspired to learn the process himself. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

Rediscovering the image in a shoebox almost 30 years later, Sugino was inspired to teach himself how to make his own tintype images. He posted the portrait on the bio section of his website, noting it had been taken by an "unknown photographer."

By chance, his Halifax-based photo chemical supplier, Dale Wilson, recognized the backdrop.

"Dale told me, 'No, I know this guy who took this picture. I know the studio, I know the background,'" said Sugino. "I was amazed."

The photo studio at Sherbrooke Village is above the Cumminger Brothers general store, the same place J.J. Kingwell had his tintype and ambrotype photo studio in the 1890s. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

With the mystery of the portrait's origins solved, Sugino wasted no time. 

He booked a flight to Halifax from Toronto within the week and drove up the Eastern Shore back to Sherbrooke Village, a living museum with 25 heritage buildings and costumed interpreters that depict life in the 1800s.

Wilson brought the museum on board and coaxed the original photographer and chemist out of retirement to recreate the 1976 portrait, 1867-style.

"How often can you have that kind of opportunity?" said Sugino. "Forty-five years apart, and you take the photograph in the exact same situation, exact same technique, same background?

"I had to do it."

Back row, from left to right: Archie MacLellan, Dale Wilson and Peter Murphy pose with Sugino, seated, at Sherbrooke Village. Wilson helped Sugino bring MacLellan and Murphy out of retirement to recreate the portrait they made of Sugino in 1976. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

Peter Murphy — the father of the CBC reporter who wrote this story — and his friend Archie MacLellan had just started the tintype parlour in the summer of 1976. The studio above the general store in Sherbrooke Village is itself a recreation of the original tintype parlour it housed in 1867. 

The studio uses the same antique processes and the same chemicals to take old-style photographs of visitors in period costumes.

Relatively cheap and quick to produce, tintypes and their sister process, ambrotypes, were the Polaroids of the 1860s. Within minutes, a photographer can create a single finished image either on metal (tintype) or glass (ambrotype) — collectively known as wet-plate collodion photography.

MacLellan, far left, and Murphy, far right, at work in the tintype studio in Sherbrooke Village photographing a visiting family in 1976. (Malak Karsh)

"I think we spent the first summer just working on the chemistry," said MacLellan. "The chemistry is fairly complicated." 

In the last decade or so, there's been a bit of a tintype revival happening across North America. In the 70s, however, the process was not very well known.

"We were the only ones in Canada doing the actual process," said Murphy.

Wilson became fascinated by tintypes and ambrotypes and their history about eight years ago. He said the studio at Sherbrooke Village is an outlier; he has yet to find a longer running, continuously operating, commercial wet-plate collodion photography studio in Canada.

"I don't think they have any idea what they started here and what it's evolved to and the longevity of it and the importance of it within the bigger picture of the revival of collodion work in Canada," Wilson said.

The final tintype portrait of Sugino taken in August 2021. (Peter Murphy)

Tintype photography is a particularly sensitive and mutable art form. The photographer has to develop a feel for the conditions, such as light and humidity, as well as the way the silver nitrate and collodion will react, and adjust the process accordingly. 

"It does have a special feel different to all other forms of photography," Murphy said. 

The resulting images tend to have a recognizable look — shallow depth, blackened, uneven edges and patchy exposure. 

For many photographers involved in the revival, including Sugino, it's exactly the tangible, temperamental nature of tintype photos and the contrast with the digital realm that they love. 

"It kind of puts me back to where I started my photography," Sugino said. "That first time in the darkroom, you know, your image comes up in the tray. And then it's a magic."

Sugino plans to display the two Sherbrooke Village portraits side by side in his upcoming international photography exhibition opening in March in Tokyo.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rose Murphy is a reporter for CBC Nova Scotia. You can contact her at rose.murphy@cbc.ca.

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