Arts Poway Resident Takes Old-Time Photos—the Old-Time Way Dave Smith brought his tintype techniques to TwainFest in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.Print&nbps;0 Comments Tweet EmailView full size
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Some people have a strong sense of history. Not to mention science and curiosity. Dave Smith is one of those people, and it’s led him in some pretty interesting directions.
The longtime Poway resident grew up in El Monte, near LA, where his family had lived since early in the 20th century. His mother was Richard Nixon’s neighbor; in fact, her birthplace had to be torn down to make room for the Nixon Library. (Her family wasn’t pleased.)
After graduating high school, Smith earned an engineering degree at the Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island. Subsequently, the ships he worked on made “a couple of trips to Vietnam.”
After years at sea, Smith decided he wanted to become a dentist. His engineering degree wouldn’t facilitate his admission, so he went back to school for another degree, in chemistry. After graduating from the USC dental school, he moved to Poway and bought a dental practice in La Mesa—from a man who’d been there since World War II. He practiced for 25 years before retiring five years ago.
And then, he got into photography—in a very historical way.
“I’m one of those applied artist types,” the 64-year-old Smith admits. “Not a fine artist. I enjoy woodworking.”
That’s a typical understatement. Smith designed and hand-built his Poway, Craftsman-style house.
“I started 25 years ago,” he affably asserts. “My wife will tell you it’s still not finished! Though it’s very livable, there are still a few rough edges. I tend to not do anything the easy way.”
Another understatement. His most recent pursuit, undertaken with Nick Nidek, his friend of 50 years (“we met in eighth grade”) is tintype photography.
“This process was almost lost,” Smith explains. “It was invented in 1850 and was used extensively until 1880. Then new processes came along,” specifically, the daguerreotype.
The process Smith has been studying and perfecting is “Wet Plate Collodion” which, when executed on metal, is called tintype or ferrotype. It’s a complex procedure that requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about 15 minutes, which necessitates a portable darkroom for use in the field.
“It was an American phenomenon,” says Smith. “Not used much elsewhere. Midwestern farmers lined up for them.
“About 20 years ago, a handful of guys resurrected the process. I like the seat-of-the-pants, handmade element of it,” says Smith. “We mix our own chemicals; I built all our equipment, bought and renovated old cameras. It’s like cooking from scratch. And it really makes use of my chemistry and engineering degrees.”
The photographic result gives a different look from the digital photos we’ve become accustomed to.
“This type of photograph can’t be replicated digitally—unless it’s printed on silver, which will only give some of the effects,” says Smith. “There’s a very different look to the real thing, because of the very short, shallow depth of field, and the fact that the camera just picks up the ultra-violet reflection of what you’re photographing. Plus, the process is so slow, if the subject moves even a little bit, you get different effects. Modern photography is so perfect, you just can’t get the same effects.”
So, after dipping their toes into public waters with the Poway Midland Railroad in Old Poway Park, Nick and Dave decided to take their “act” on the road—to the second annual TwainFest in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park this past weekend, an event produced by Write Out Loud (an organization that reads literature aloud to rapt, mostly adult audiences year-round).
TwainFest is a festive, expansive celebration of Mark Twain and other 19th century writers (Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Allan Poe), with family and community events for young and old: from a Spelling Bee to a Never-Ending Story that anyone can add to, from a literary séance to a Calaveras County Frog Jump (of the beanbag variety), to performances both musical and dramatic. This year, the free event attracted about 3300 people, who were treated to 17 programs, 18 games and 67 performances on eight stages.
“It was the first time we ever did something like this,” Smith says of bringing the process and equipment with them, and having people waiting in line for their unique services. “It was a challenge, but we learned a lot, and we’re ready to do it again next year.”
The results (see photos) speak for themselves, and the participants were thrilled with the outcome (their finished product, a varnished metal plate, will be ready in a few days). Many people attended the event in period dress, so Nick and Dave had plenty of subjects, and they completed about 20 photos during the course of the day.
Now, they’re planning to establish a presence at the Poway Midland Railroad’s Rendezvous in Poway (Sept. 16-18), and they’re in the process of setting up a home-based studio (“in the second garage I’ve turned into a man-cave for Nick and me,” Smith says). Eventually, they’ll add period clothing and a dressing room for those who don’t have their own getups.
Up till now, they haven’t charged for their rigorous services.
“When a hobby becomes a business,” Smith says, “it becomes something else. Maybe if I feel like I’ve mastered it …” he trails off. “I hope I can live long enough to master it.”
Ever the understater.Mark Twain, Poway Midland Railroad, Rendezvous in Poway, TwainFest, andcollodion