A look around Jen Jansen’s studio gives the impression that she’s a magician, not a craft photographer. How did she do that? is the first thing that comes to mind when flipping through her album of old portraits alongside their restorations—the oldest of which is from 1855. Through the science of photography, and creativity like highlighting some images with oil paints, Jansen reinvigorates photos that have been distorted by time. It’s the most rewarding part of her job, she says, despite each one taking roughly 20 hours to finish.
Besides resurrecting old photos using methods that date back to the 1890s, Jansen shoots new portraits with a 1915 Century studio camera equipped with film that she makes to fit the antique. After shooting, Jansen develops the images in her darkroom using a process exclusive to tintype photographs; the result is a photo on a metal plate that, she says, “reveals a person’s true nature through the collodion process, which highlights freckles, pigments in the skin, scars and eye color.”
This archaic shooting and developing process might befuddle digital-age photographers and their subjects, but it preserves the integrity of a photograph, both in form and function. Because the tedium of darkroom processing is becoming more and more obsolete, photographs have shifted from their 19th-century origins to being stripped of flaws with the click of a button.
“I think [digital photography] should be named something else,” Jansen says, “but digital photographs have their place. They’re great for communicating, and a way to see each other right away.”
This isn’t a Luddite hipster talking. Jansen’s work is about capturing honest images of people’s faces, she says, by presenting them in a form that transcends technology. She’s a preservationist who believes in photography’s roots, from the Greek words photós, meaning “light,” and gráphein, meaning “to write.”
“What I love about my tintype photography is that in a hundred years, people will still be able to see it,” she says. “Can you take a floppy disk and put it anywhere now? It’s a lost medium.”
But Jansen isn’t shunning modern photography altogether; she’s bridging the gap of time by taking digital photos—even those shot on an iPhone—and recreating them as long-lasting tiptypes.
Her latest show, Proof of Life, is on view at jdc Fine Art through Oct. 3. There’ll be an artist’s reception at 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25.