Syd Padgett is working on an upcoming exhibition in Atlanta using tintype images. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News
Syd Padgett is working on an upcoming exhibition in Atlanta using tintype images. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

ArtScape: Historic photography and contemporary lyrics inspire local artist

(Editor’s note: Columns sometimes contain opinion.)

Long before digital and film photography, there were more complex ways to get images such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes.

Local artist Syd Padgett is using the 19th century tintype process for an upcoming Atlanta art exhibition called “Ten Word Tragedies” and asked me to be one of his subjects for it.       

Syd Padgett prepares the tin. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good Newss

“I picked you because you’re a writer, and I thought you could write something interesting for the 10 words,” he told me Friday, May 17, the day we took pictures in his studio space behind the old Academy of Richmond County building.

Inspired by musician Frank Turner, who wrote about postcards at a New York thrift store and the 10,000 ten-word tragedies written on them, Syd has asked his subjects to write their own 10 to go along with their portraits.

I’ll get back to what I wrote because that wasn’t the most interesting part of the afternoon. Watching Syd throughout as he explained the process was.

First, he prepared the piece of aluminum to make it ready to host an image. He called the metal “trophy aluminum” because they engrave plates for trophies on it. He took a collodion containing grain alcohol and ether among other liquids to coat the tin. It’s treated with silver nitrate to make it light sensitive.

He put that tin inside the camera. After several seconds of me being still, there was a giant burst of light from a 1,400 watt bulb, and it was time for the plate to go back into the darkroom for more chemicals.

At first, you have a negative image on the plate, but the chemicals cause it to turn into a positive image. And that’s a cool process – seeing an image arise from the blank tin.

The piece sits in a liquid bath for several minutes, and he later seals it with museum wax.

These are not the crisp, digital images you will get on your iPhone 15. They are untouched, unfiltered black and white pictures.

Charmain Brackett’s tintype image. Photo by Syd Padgett

But back to my words.

I’m not a poet, and I don’t read a lot of poetry. Although I majored in English and loved reading, my teachers were brutal when it came to poetry – too much over-analysis.

The idea of having to come up with ten words that evoked emotion – at least in me — was daunting for about five minutes. When I sat down on the black stool waiting for Syd to take my picture, though, the words flashed over me much like that 1,400-watt bulb that sat inches from my face. They seemed to come from nowhere.

“Everyone is writing 10 words,” he had explained. “I’ve gotten funny ones, a lot of poetry-type stuff, some were like ‘Oh my God;’ some were therapeutic.”

 And some were indeed tragic.

Where my words bubbled from in that moment, I think I know. Something that is so sad to me is seeing people who allow their fears to stop them from following their dreams or desires.

My paternal grandmother always wanted to be a writer. She even took journalism correspondence courses in the 1960s – something I never knew about until she’d been dead for a long time.

But she never pursued it. Maybe she passed that dream along to me. Anyway, my words were five, two-word sets.

“Songs, unsung; words unspoken; poetry unwritten; love unexpressed; life unlived” was my 10-word tragedy.

Syd’s exhibition opens at the Bellows Film Lab gallery in Little Five Points in Atlanta the weekend of July 12.

Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News and Inspiring: Women of Augusta, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at Sign up for the newsletter here.

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