Tintype Photography Reveals Skateboard Style and Culture

Tintype photography portrait of unnamed male African American skateboarder with a beard and dreadlocks by artist Melissa Cacciola.

Spirit of the Skaters, Melissa Cacciola | Courtesy Steven Casher Gallery.

When we think of tintype photography, we think of the edge-fading photographs of Abraham Lincoln or the silvery luminous images of Civil War soldiers. It’s a relic of the 19th century. Tintype photography is an early photographic process where the image is formed onto metal plates treated with silver nitrate, ether, cyanide, and other chemicals that conjure a whiff of cyber-punk laboratories.

Melissa Cacciola learned about tintyping as an art conservator in the mid-2000s. Since then, she’s been using the forgotten process to make portraits. In the past few years, her subjects have included soldiers, steelworkers, and brass-band musicians; in other words, the modern equivalents of the subjects of 19th century tintypes. But her latest series takes a huge leap forward in time.

Titled “Flip It and Reverse It,” her new series features 32 New York City skateboarders, all men. “I liked the idea that skateboarding, which evolved from surfing, has influenced so many areas of American culture—clothing and music and photography,” she said. Cacciola knows something about each of her subjects, their styles and influences, how they move outside the stillness of her photographs. One she describes as a yogi, another as a surfer. She knows about their jobs and passions, and talks enthusiastically about the rhythms of their speech.

Cacciola initially had trouble recruiting subjects, but found her way in via a friend. Through him, she recruited her nearly three-dozen skaters, inviting each to her Brooklyn studio. Each subject had to sit motionless for about ten seconds, resting his head against a discreet brace, just the way a subject would have sat for a portrait a 150 years ago. The resulting stillness imposes a particular sort of dignity.

“You make us look more important than we really are,” said one subject to her, but Cacciola disagrees. She calls tintyping an equalizer. “It takes out what’s distracting,” she says.

Skateboards on Tintype” will be displayed at Three Squares Studio, in Chelsea, through September 5th 2015.

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