Utah Photographer Takes Portraits To The 1800s

Feb 7, 2021, 10:31 PM | Updated: Feb 8, 2021, 6:24 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — 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.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Local News

Customers looking around for trees to purchase. (KSL-TV)...
Erin Cox

Utah farmers say real Christmas trees prices continue to rise

Utahns looking for a real Christmas tree may notice a few extra dollars to the price tag compared to past years.
2 days ago
West Valley City police at the scene of the crash on  3100 S 3200 W. (KSL-TV0...
Michael Houck

Three car crash closes road in West Valley City

A person was sent to the hospital in serious condition after a three-car crash on Saturday, according to West Valley Police.
2 days ago
Michael Houck

South Jordan police investigate suspicious death involving vehicle fire

South Jordan Police are looking into a "suspicious" death involving a vehicle fire that happened on Thanksgiving.
2 days ago
Local customers shop celebrate Small Business Saturday at Beehive Naturals (KSL-TV)...
Karah Brackin

Utah businesses see support during Small Business Saturday

Small Business Saturday marks a day to celebrate and support the small businesses in a community, many of which depend on the influx of shoppers coming in.
2 days ago
West Valley police officers respond as a protest at the West Valley City Police Department is disru...
Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com

Utah Man pleads guilty to pepper spraying Black Lives Matter protesters

A man pled guilty on Tuesday to hitting Black Lives Matter protesters with pepper spray at a demonstration in West Valley City in September 2020 as part of a plea deal.
2 days ago
A trash can fire that Mountain Green officials say is suspicious. (Mountain Green Fire Protection D...
Michael Houck

Mountain Green fire crews take down ‘suspicious’ trash can fire

First responders extinguished a burning trash can Friday evening, replicating a fire from a year ago in the Mountain Green area.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 reasons you may want to consider apartment life over owning a home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Take this quiz before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t let a ransomware attack get you down | Protect your workplace today with cyber insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Utah Photographer Takes Portraits To The 1800s