Remember the old-timey photo booth at the amusement park when you were a kid? Mom and Dad would pass the kids onto someone else; the boys would strap on a fake pistol, (probably) lice-ridden cowboy hat, moth-destroyed waistcoat, and fake mustache to cosplay a murdering vagrant; and the girls would lace themselves into an inhumane corset with a hoopskirt pretending to be an underage sex worker. Why live in the era of typhus, yellow fever, and Native American genocide when you could just fake it for a $50 sepia-toned Polaroid? Those tourist-trap photos were based on an actual style of photography from the 1800s, one that utilized a chemical process on a piece of tin that produced an image called a tintype. Instantly recognizable and copied incessantly, tintypes are a lost art to all except the rare bird with the patience (and the working technology) to pull it off. Like esteemed photographer—and owner of Tintype NYC—Justin Borucki.
Borucki was a photo editor with freelance credits in all the right places when, in 2005, a guy in a pirate costume upended his world. “He was just taking tintype photos at the Renaissance Faire. It really piqued my interest, so I went home and did some research around it,” recalls Borucki. “It came at a time when I was looking for something new. I was freelancing heavily, but I felt the need to be creative again and use my hands. Tintype made a lot of sense because everything is from scratch, done by hand, and customizable—from the chemicals you use, to the medium, on down to the actual camera.”
Deciding to merge his love of portraiture with the very spontaneous medium of street photography and the very exact science required from tintype, Borucki created mobile rigs to cart around all the gear tintype photography requires. He had found his niche, yet shooting on tin proved to be more of a challenge than he anticipated. “When you’re dealing with shooting a known subject, you’re usually only allotted a certain amount of time, but to make matters more complicated, the time it takes to take a tintype photo is a lot longer,” explains Borucki. “Tintype is a slow process, so it yields only a few photos versus another photo shoot where you are looking at hundreds of pictures.”
Despite the considerable time and effort that go into dealing with this primitive technology, Borucki has managed to shoot a number of luminaries in music, film, and beyond with unparalleled results. The reason is obvious: A quality tintype photo is simply one of a kind—something that can’t be reproduced with an Instagram filter or at that kiosk run by the pimply-faced kid at the mall.