July 31—BLANDBURG, Pennsylvania — Stepping into Joseph W. Brown’s pop-up photo booth is like stepping back in time.
Guests are greeted by a man wearing a vintage apron and hat who is wrapped in a blanket large enough to keep light away from the sensitive plates of his huge bellows camera which is pointed at them.
In a few moments of complete stillness, an image is permanently captured on a piece of metal and preserved by Brown, who goes professionally by the name of Joseph Wyman, with a coat of varnish. The same process was used almost 200 years ago.
“It’s okay to say, ‘I’m living the dream,'” he said.
Brown is from Blandburg, Cambria County and graduated in 2006 from Glendale High School.
After graduating from high school, he joined the Army National Guard, where he toured Iraq and was honorably discharged as a sergeant.
Abroad, his interest in photography was nurtured by the armed forces and he took pictures of locals, markets and landscapes.
Not knowing what to do after leaving the military, Brown enrolled at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2010 to study photography.
“I never knew what I wanted to be when I was a kid, but as a photographer I can be anything,” he said.
While still in school working for Pittsburgh-based TEQ magazine, Brown was introduced to Jason Snyder, who had a tintype studio in the city, and he fell in love with the art. .
“Once I saw the process, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Brown said.
It was the slow, deliberate process that appealed to him.
The local man still remembers his first attempt at this style of photography all these years later.
On June 29, 2013, Brown took a photo of his friend Beth using the old technique, and while he enjoyed taking the photo, he didn’t stick to it.
Almost six years will pass before he returns to this medium when he obtains his own studio in Pittsburgh.
“That’s where I wanted to worry about it,” Brown said.
He delved into the history of the tintype art form and how it quickly gained popularity among low-income residents of the country during the Civil War era.
Brown said “tintype” is a misnomer because the photos were never taken on this type of metal, but the phrase was used by sellers to convey how cheap the image was.
At the time, other photographers would have taken pictures on glass — a much more expensive format.
Tintype photographs are created by pouring the chemical collodion onto a thin piece of metal, then immersing it in silver nitrate for three minutes.
Brown said this makes the surface sensitive to UV light and is done in a darkroom.
This metal is placed in a plate holder and moved towards the camera. The Blandburg native uses a large format Cambo camera and Bausch and Lomb lens from the 1880s.
Brown throws a big cover over his head and lines up the shot.
After a certain exposure time, which depends on lighting conditions and other variables, the plate should be developed.
This is done by pouring on it a copper sulphate diluted in water.
Once the shadow of the image begins to develop, the metal is washed with water before a chemical fixative is poured over it.
This is when the blue image will slowly turn black and white.
After air drying, Brown coats the plate with a varnish to preserve the memory of the details.
With his company, the photographer offers 4×5, 5×7, 6.5 by 8.5 and 8×10 inch photos.
However, Brown said he dreams of shooting on 11×14 plates in the future.
After honing his craft and not finding affordable housing in Pittsburgh, Brown began traveling around the country in a van, taking tintype photos at various events.
His first adventure was in Cleveland, Ohio a few years ago, where he settled into a oddity store for an extravagant corporate birthday.
A few gigs later in the same condition, and he pretty much hung up.
Brown was working on an event in Canton, Ohio, where a bad day was getting worse and worse because the chemistry wasn’t working and repeated photos were making him fall further and further behind.
But he got over it and continued to practice his profession.
That is, until his original van broke down in Nashville, Tennessee, and he was stuck there for a few weeks until he could fix it.
It was there that he met Zach Willdee, a singer-songwriter from Massachusetts living and working in the city.
The two have become good friends.
Willdee has spent a lot of time helping Brown with tintype shoots when he’s in town.
“He’s probably one of the best photographers I’ve ever met,” said the songwriter.
Prior to meeting Brown, the only experience Willdee had with tintype photos was historical mentions.
However, he became fascinated with the process and the photographer’s dedication to it.
“It takes you to another era,” Willdee said.
With his van fixed for the time being, Brown drove home, but had to start looking for a new vehicle to convert into a mini-apartment on wheels.
In 2021, he found his current home — a 2011 Ford E-350 Shuttle — complete with a stove, sink, queen bed and cabin.
There’s a lot of freedom that comes with life in a van, and part of that is the ability to pick up and go whenever the mood strikes.
The only “taxing” aspect is finding a place to park at night.
Brown said he had plenty of safety features built into the vehicle, but he always had to be smart about where he set up camp, whether it was in a parking lot, by a lake or in a friend’s driveway.
Since then, he’s been on quite a bit of cross-state travel — he’ll be in Boise, Idaho, in September and Wyoming in October — making several stops in Nashville, where he’s staying with Willdee.
“As an artist, I appreciate what he does,” Willdee said.
“It’s been great watching him grow.”
The singer-songwriter described Brown as a thoughtful and incredibly kind person.
He added that he had spent a lot of time with various artists and that in his opinion, Brown was the best of them all.
To learn more about Brown’s art and journey or to contact him, visit his Instagram account @josephwymanphoto or his website, josephwymanphoto.com.
He can also be reached at [email protected]