#HomeGrownStories – James Smith
James Smith became interested in photography after watching wedding photographers and the still-life photography of his father-in-law. Today, he works in both modern digital photography and tintype, one of the older types of photography. Through the tintype process, James works with his hands and makes one of a kind, incredibly detailed photos. Besides his commercial photography business, he also teaches photography workshops in Miami County. He and his wife Carolyn live in Troy’s historic downtown.
On his connection to Miami County:
My family lived just outside of Sidney when I was growing up. Miami County was where we went for shopping and festivals. In 2005, I started working my day job in Troy. In 2008 my wife, who was my fiancé at the time, and I bought a home in beautiful historic downtown Troy.
About his photography business, Tall James Photography:
There have been many influences that pushed me down the path of photography. One of my first exposures to photography was my father-in-law who took still life images as a hobby. I also used to DJ weddings and was a sound guy for local shows. I became more interested after seeing photographers at these events.
As I learned more about photography I was fascinated by the equipment. Everything is very technical and it gives a photographer a lot of power to be creative. Once I saw what was possible with flash photography I decided to invest in equipment. This all happened around 2009. After a few years of playing around, I filed for an LLC in 2012 and turned the hobby into a business.
About the tintype photography process:
Running a business and being a digital photographer requires a lot of time in front of a computer. I also spend a lot of time at a computer at my day job in an office. It’s easy to get burnt out staring a screen so much. I wanted something I could enjoy while working with my hands and being able to step away from the computer.
In early 2016, a friend invited me to a tintype workshop in Columbus. Getting to experience this process was wild! The process takes about 10 minutes. In that time you make a film emulsion on a metal or glass plate, take an exposure, develop and fix the image. It’s a unique image that has so much detail it’s mind-blowing. I was hooked!
After that experience, I started acquiring the materials to do this myself. The tintype process was first documented in 1851. It was the predominate photography method used during the Civil War. Most of the solutions I use now are the same recipes they used then. The equipment is also mostly vintage. The view camera used is an 8×10 Burke and James that was manufactured in Chicago sometime in the 1930s. The lens is from the 1940s.
Producing an image is very methodical and requires masterful technique. The “Wet Plate Collodion” process receives its name from the metal plate being wet with chemicals. If the plate dries out an image can’t be made. After starting a plate you have to expose it and develop in a period of 15 minutes. This means a dark room has to be within a reasonable distance to the camera. Unlike film or digital, this limits you to being able to take one image at a time.
There’s a certain “cool” factor when someone sees the vintage equipment and the process. Everyone smiles ear to ear as their image appears during development. I have special lights throughout the whole studio that let me use the entire area as a dark room. This enables people to watch the full process from start to finish. I definitely get a kick out of everyone’s reactions.
On working in Miami County as a photographer:
I’d say the bulk of my shoots are in Miami County and close surrounding areas. I do travel a lot for on-location work to Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Detroit. I love how centrally located the towns in Miami County are. This enables me to work in these other areas without too much travel.
I consider myself an environmental commercial portrait photographer. I know that’s a mouthful! I photograph people who do or make things in their creative environment. I photograph professionals and hobbyists. I appreciate people spending the time to learn a craft and I enjoy documenting it. A lot of my personal projects have been photographing bartenders at high-end bars and speakeasies.
On the community response to his art:
Studio 14 in Tipp City held an artist reception for me this year and the response was overwhelming. The show featured several tintypes and prints of my digital work on display. So many great people came out to show their support.
I’ve noticed that people also seem to enjoy my event photography that has been published. I’ve been the official photographer for the Troy Strawberry Festival since 2013. That same year I worked with Troy Main Street to document the Gentlemen of the Road concert. Those images were very well received on social media. People can look back and relive their experiences.
The community has supported and helped me get these opportunities. It’s something special and nothing short of astonishing. In the past few years, I’ve even become an instructor for photography workshops. These classes have evolved into a 6-week program and we always have great attendance.
What he loves about Miami County:
A big reason I love Miami County is the things to do here. The cities have their own personalities and don’t feel like suburbs. The downtowns are always hosting wonderful events. You can see a lot of pride in Miami County with how well the parks and bike path are maintained.
His Miami County recommendations for out-of-town visitors:
There are so many things I could recommend! These are just a few of my favorite things to do in Troy. Make sure to take advantage of one of the many outdoor activities! Take a bike ride from Troy to Tipp City on the bike path. Hike at Brukner Nature Center, or go walking at the Hobart Urban Nature Preserve. Visit the Southwest Historic District to admire the beautiful homes on Franklin Street. Have dinner at Basil’s and stop by La Piazza or The Caroline for dessert. Have a pint from the large draft beer selection at MoJo’s Bar & Grill. End your night with a glass of Wild Turkey Bourbon and a cigar on the patio at Leaf and Vine.
Follow our storyteller and interviewer, Courtney Denning, at ThisOhioLife.com.