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Pioneer Square studio takes photos the old-fashioned way

They use Pre-Civil War technology to create timeless portraits

SEATTLE — They are moments and faces captured in time.

Photographers Stephen Robinson and Libby Bulloff bring unflinching authenticity to every image they create by looking to the past.

"This was sort of popular about the time that Abraham Lincoln was president," says Bulloff.

Their Pioneer Square studio, Henrietta's Eye, uses tintype photography methods unchanged since before the Civil War.

"It's really easy to get an image," Bulloff explains. "It's really difficult to get a good one."

First, a sheet of metal is coated with light-sensitive chemicals.

"Then that goes in the back of the camera and is exposed to light," Robinson says.

The vintage equipment requires Robinson and Bulloff to light and compose their shot while viewing an upside-down image at the back of the camera.

Bulloff says, "It definitely requires you to slow down and take a breath before you think about framing your shot. With digital photography, you could just pop off 100 shots in the time that it takes us to focus for one tintype. So it's a little bit more of a meditative process in that regard."

A single, reverse image on the metal plate is the only copy that will ever exist of each photo.

"You're going to see yourself as you would see yourself in a mirror," Robinson says.

The temperamental chemicals react to light in surprising ways. Red turns into black. Blues tend to appear as white or grey. Yellow can show up light or dark, depending on the lighting and the whim of the chemicals.

"This is not a what-you-see-is-what-you-get process," Robinson says.

Capturing the perfect picture is all about chemistry, in more ways than one.

"Lots of really fantastic, fun people come in here from all over the world," Bulloff says. "We try to get to know our clients a little bit before we take that first shot. We shot a couple's engagement photo, and they came in and they just sort of sat down and had a moment. And it was unpredictable, and it was very different than anything else we'd ever shot before. But they were so comfortable with each other."

The couple ended up in an unguarded embrace.

"It wasn't the photo that they'd planned to take," Robinson adds. "It was the photo that happened in the moment."

Now, that moment is captured on the surface of a metal tintype in an image that could last for centuries.

Robinson says, "Something tangible, an heirloom, something of a lasting quality."

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