Austin's tintype revival: How one local photographer is making heirloom-quality portraits in the digital age
In the backyard of Justine's Brasserie, a "super-sexy," late-night French bistro at the east end of Fifth Street, behind the new pandemic-friendly dining cabanas and just next to a lit-up pagoda, is a small trailer.
Inside is a kind of old-fashioned photo booth. Wood-lined and hung with haunting tintype portraits—printed on glass plates, similar in style to a daguerreotype—the studio is modeled on traveling wagons from the Civil War era.
British fine art photographer Adrian Whipp first learned about the tintype process while in school for visual communication. But he didn't think of it as a modern process until he discovered the work of John Coffer, an American tintype photographer who traveled across the country with a horse-and-wagon in the late 1970s and early '80s, taking portraits of Civil War reenactors. "It was just such an interesting story that it stuck in the mind," he said.
Adrian Whipp is the photographer behind Lumiere Tintype. (Jonathan Canlas)
Using Coffer's photography manual, Whipp taught himself the recipe and process, which he described as chemically similar to black-and-white film photography. In 2013, after a few years of trial and error, he opened Lumiere in Austin. The timing was inauspicious; many local portrait studios were closing due to the growth of digital photography. But the business has been busy from day one. "That need, I think, that people have for a portrait that lasts, I don't think it went anywhere," he said. "People still want an heirloom, something that they can put on a wall and hand down to their kids."
In the pre-pandemic period, Lumiere was based at Justine's most of the year, except for a summer traveling season. Over the course of a typical evening, Whipp would develop 30 to 35 tintype photographs, starting with families and babies in the early evening before ending with tipsy adults sometime around 2 a.m. "I'm pretty good at wrangling drunk people these days," he told Austonia. "People do cut loose a little bit in the evening."
Last March, however, Justine's closed for three months due to COVID-19. As soon as it reopened, Lumiere resumed business, with a few modifications. Now customers schedule an appointment in advance online; there are around 20 slots per evening. This process is a little bit more orderly than the old walk-in system, Whipp said, but there are still elements of spontaneity.
Tintype photography is finicky. Temperature changes, humidity levels and contamination can all interfere with the final photograph. "Pretty much every night something goes wrong," Whipp said. Sometimes it adds to the photograph, but other times it compromises the quality.
Some of Whipp's subjects can also prove challenging. He loves shooting kids, especially those whose families have returned to his studio year after year, and pets, but the intense flash required to produce a clear photograph can be startling. "It's pretty high stakes," he said.
Once Whipp takes the photograph, he begins developing the plate, submerging it in a tray of solution. "That's kind of what people pay for," he said. "That experience of watching the film develop. It's almost as magical as the film itself."
Whipp mostly runs Lumiere on his own, although he receives a lot of support from his wife, Lauren. A couple of assistants also help him on commercial and editorial shoots, which he does four or five times a year for well vetted clients, such as fellow Austin businesses Helm Boots and Revival Cycles. Where a photographer using a digital camera might deliver 15,000 photos, edited and photoshopped, at the end of a multi-day shoot, he might have 40 tintypes. The upside, however, is "a campaign that looks like really nothing else on the market," he said.
Digital photography is even more dominant than it was when Lumiere opened nearly a decade ago. More than three in four Americans own a smartphone, which likely has a camera roll with thousands of personal photographs. A formal, one-shot portrait may seem outmoded, but Whipp's schedule remains booked thanks to word-of-mouth referrals and walk-ins. "It's funny to see people kind of put their phones down and stare into the fixer tray," Whipp said of his nightly routine. "Not many things can do that."
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.