Tintype Studio Pilgrimage

Henry Ford collected all kinds of morbidly nostalgic objects like the chair Abe Lincoln was assassinated in, a Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion House, an Oscar Mayer Weinermobile and much more for his sprawling museum in suburban Detroit. He collected other buildings too like the Robert Frost house, inventor Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park (NJ) laboratory, brick slave quarters, wood farm buildings and dozens of other iconic American structures to make up his Greenfield Village. Like most roadside tourist destinations, there is an air of the carnivalesque with an earnest attempt to educate while venerating American ingenuity. Stripped from their original contexts and set along neatly paved pathways on tidy mowed lawns, many of the displaced edifices lack the resonance of place. Still, we wanted see the circa-1870 Tintype Studio replica we’d heard was there. Scholars now site the tintype portrait as an example of American Dream brand capitalism in exhibitions such as America and the Tintype so it is easy to understand why a tintype studio fit into Ford’s schema. The tiny gray painted wood building constructed in one day in 1929, features a colorful hand-painted backdrop lit with skylight moderated by a muslin scrim. It made a nice digital snapshot op for tourists like us. The darkroom and dressing room were closed--perhaps opened only for special events featuring Civil War Reenactors or wet-plate collodion revivalists. Ford more or less collected people too. Didactic signage states that when Ford heard his employee Charles Tremear was the “last wandering tintypist in America” he promptly transferred him to Greenfield Village to run his new Tintype Studio. By the time Tremear died in 1943, he is said to have made 40,000 tintypes in the studio including portraits of Lillian Gish and Walt Disney. Despite Tremear’s long tenure and impressive productivity, the complexity of place that resonates at H. H. Bennett Studio which is preserved in its original location on the main drag in Wisconsin Dells, has evaporated with the ether. In contrast, the Bennett family operated the studio in the same building from 1875 til turning it over to the Wisconsin Historical Society in the late 1990s. The surrounding built environment of Wisconsin Dells changed wildly--fueled by Bennett’s own stunning landscapes to make way for water parks and motels in less than 100 years. Bennett Studio stands as an unintentional cautionary tale of the power of photography over place just as Ford’s tasteful Museum underscores a mania for collecting as the power of information to respin history.