Utah Photographer Takes Portraits To The 1800s

Feb 7, 2021, 10:31 PM | Updated: Dec 23, 2022, 9:10 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — We live in a world of selfies, a quick picture that can be sent across the world.

But in Salt Lake City, one photographer is trying to get people to slow down and appreciate the process.

“It’s a different way of making images, for sure,” said Dave Hyams. “That darkroom magic, it’s difficult not to fall in love with.”

Slip through the looking glass, into a place where past and present merge. On the other side of the portal, a face stares back, upside-down through an unsettlingly large viewfinder: one moment, given form.

For Hyams, life is about making the transitory tangible.

“Just always kind of loved that intersection between art and science.”

It’s called tintype photography — preparing a piece of metal to record a photograph, which was most popular in the years following the Civil War. Hyams treats that metal with chemicals before sliding it into an enormous camera, a lengthy process that takes patience.

If this devotion to tradition seems unconventional, so is he.

“You don’t go to art school,” Hyams said with a smile. “That’s not a wise decision.”

It would have been more practical to keep studying geology, but after an experience in a photo studio, he decided to switch majors. He wouldn’t just study photography — he’d become immersed in one of its most archaic forms.

His parents weren’t pleased.

“They were a little disappointed in the beginning,” Hyams said. “It was hard for them to understand the obsession. They were just like, ‘Well, maybe you can double major, or you can minor in photography.’ After they saw some of the work that I was doing and the energy I was putting towards that, they have always supported me.”

That doesn’t mean others haven’t taken a hard look at what he does and decided it simply makes no sense in a digital world.

“I mean, a lot of people do say that’s really stupid,” Hyams said, shrugging. “That’s a perfectly legitimate opinion, and I have no problem with people having that opinion.”

But there are those who identify the appeal, those who want to hold a piece of their past in their hands.

“It’s so easy to take photos, and we’re all taking selfies all the time,” said Eve Cohen, a friend of Hyams’ who stopped by for a portrait. “You can pick the best ones, you can edit them, you can photoshop them, but this is really capturing this moment in time, of this like really physical experience. You know, it feels like an heirloom when you get the photo.”

Dave Hyams applies tape to the back of his camera, marking where the frame will be. Eve Cohen awaits having her portrait taken. Eve Cohen's image is seen projected on the back of the camera, where Hyams will attempt to set his focus. Tintype portaits on display at Hyam's studio in Salt Lake City. Some of Hyams' clients have wanted to have their portraits taken while wearing masks, as a way of memorializing recent times. Hyams prepares to remove the lens cap and trigger the flash. Hyams and Cohen examine the portrait in the darkroom. Cohen's finished portrait — Hyams doesn't know if it was in focus until he's developed the plate.

The process is meticulous. While modern flashes mean his subjects don’t have to hold still like many did in the 1800s, a headbrace helps them maintain the proper distance from the lens.

“The depth of field is so shallow that if you drift an inch, everything is out of focus,” Hyams said while fiddling with the camera.

Once he inserts the plate, the viewfinder will be blocked and he won’t be able to make any more adjustments.

Hyams’ studio, called “Luminaria,” has taken a hit during the pandemic. A big part of his business revolved around holding group workshops, teaching others how to master his art. But for some, this unsettling age is something they want to remember — he’s seen customers wanting to have their portraits taken with their masks on, as a way of remembering this strange time.

“The draw is, it’s a photographic record of a very strange time we’re all universally affected by,” Hyams said. “The best word for it is ‘surreal.'”

All it takes is one brief moment — Hyams removes the cap from a hundred year old lens, triggers the flash and just like that, the past becomes palpable.

He walks to the darkroom where he pours chemicals over the metal plate. Cohen peers over his shoulder as the image stares out from under the liquid — thankfully, in perfect focus.

Beneath the surface, past and present merge. As for the future? For Hyams and his business, he’s just living in the moment.

“It sounds totally cheeseball, but like, do what you love and love what you do,” he said. “It may not be a wise business venture, but I’m enjoying it.”

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Utah Photographer Takes Portraits To The 1800s