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Book Review 271: Working Stiffs

March 11, 2013 - Harry Eagar
WORKING STIFFS: Occupational Portraits in the Age of Tintypes, by Michael L. Carlebach. 130 pages, illustrated. Smithsonian, $25.95

According to photography historian Michael Carlebach, tintypes (used from 1856 to around 1900) were despised by arty, expensive photographers of the time and still by critics of the present.

While understandable for the Victorian photographers, who were being undersold, the attitude in the late 20th century seems precious, if not childish.

Anyhow, because tintypes were cheap, working people, who could not ever afford daguerreotypes or ambrotypes, bought them. And because they are durable, we have them.

No information about the hundred or so portraits is available, so Carlebach consulted Smithsonian Institution curators to identify the occupations of some of the workers. Most surprising is an epicene youth in tights and satin drawers who is thought to be a professional roller skater.

The significance that Carlebach sees behind this assemblage is that workers thought of their work as respectable and were proud to be seamstresses, harnessmakers, housepainters and so on. The high class photographers were also prideful of their skill and status, but not the kind of people to accord the same respect to working stiffs.

Their complaints, which Carlebach quotes liberally, are venomous.

Topday, he notes, few people have portraits made of themselves with the tools of their work. Rather, they are shot with their toys – their cars, or in Hawaii, surfboards.

The tintype era was a period of transition (exhaustively investigated by Sean Wilentz in “Chants Democratic,” although Wilentz ends his study just before the tintype arrived) in American work, from artisans, often self-employed, to less skilled operators and hired hands.

The pride they took in their skill led them to lug their hammers, cans of paint, spindles etc. down to the photographer's studio or traveling wagon – tintypes required exposures up to 30 seconds so were not suitable for location shots.

Otherwise, the photographs are not very remarkable. Unlike with cabinet photographs, the purchasers were not trying to make a statement, just to show how they looked.


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