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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (FOX 56) – When you step into River City Tintype in Louisville, you step back in time.

Owner Rudy Salgado makes portraits the way photographers did in the 1850s, using equipment gathered from antique shops all around the country. His favorite lens was made in 1856.

Tintype photography was popular for about 30 years during the Civil War era. The images that are produced can be haunting, mesmerizing, and serious.

“Basically, it’s a handmade photograph that’s put on a piece of metal or glass,” Salgado said.

They’re the kind of photos in which the subjects seldom smiled, because of the long exposure time and the norms of the day,

“If you smiled pre-1903, it was kind of a sign of lunacy… you were considered kind of crazy,” Salgado said. “In 1903, Kodak introduced the Brownie camera which brought a campaign to smile.”

Tintype photographers often used neck braces to keep their subjects from moving.

“It’s easier to have a normal stern face than it is to smile for up to 20 seconds for an exposure,” Salgado said.

He uses a bright strobe light for his indoor photo shoots, so it’s not necessary for subjects to stand still for too long. But outdoor exposures, where sunlight is the source, can take a while.

The whole process involves volatile chemicals and a strong smell of ether.

“I always tell people if the fumes start to bother them, they can leave,” Salgado said.

His mixture forms a skin-like coating on an aluminum plate, which goes into the camera.
After the picture is taken, it’s back to the darkroom, where subjects can watch the whole process as the plate is submerged in a fixer and the image appears.


“That’s part of the fun of it,” said Victoria Rodriquez, a recent subject. “And he’s really good at explaining things. He’s passionate about it and interested in it and it just comes across in this work.”

Salgado says he’s not surprised people want these olden portraits. He’s taken more than 1,200 of them over the past three years.

“The main thing that drives it, I believe, is social media and people want these images of themselves. Also, people have a ton of appreciation and respect for handmade things. “

Salgado often takes his camera on the road, setting up a mobile darkroom at festivals and other events. The price of a single portrait ranges from $75 to about $140, depending on the size. They’re certainly one-of-a-kind because there are no negatives.

He loves that he’s creating heirlooms. These portraits should last a couple of centuries, and that’s enough to make him smile, even if his subjects can’t.