Bruce Morton wore dark pants, a collarless shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black suspenders. On a warm summer day in 2016, he looked as if he had stepped out of a 150-year-old photograph.
Which is as it should be for Morton, who lives in Petaluma and is the proprietor of Sonoma Tintype, a conductor on the Time Travel Express. He shoots portraits using techniques and chemical formulas dating to 1851, setting his subjects against a copy of an 1861 backdrop and photographing with cameras more than a century old.
He and his assistant dress in period clothing and speak to each other in the more formal manner of that previous era.
“We have a little performance we put on,” he said, “to try and fall into the time period. I call him Mr. Cantor; he calls me Professor.
“We keep everything as authentic as possible. We try to make the atmosphere as if they’d done time travel. It’s like taking people into another time.”
Morton enjoys teaching those who pose for him the process and history of photography. His method, he explained, is one of the early ways of capturing an image on a glass or metal plate. If the image is on glass, it’s called an ambrotype; on sheet steel, a tintype.
The primary form of photography during the Civil War, it is considered by many to be superior to modern photography because it’s almost grainless.
Morton, 77, has a background that includes serving on the National Ski Patrol and running a bottled water company. He set out to be a special education teacher, but ended up in real estate sales and development. For more than 50 years he has enjoyed photography but didn’t get into the tintype business until a decade ago. His interest deepened in the mid-1980s when his young sons began playing war games.
“I’m not keen on war at all,” he said. “I’ve experienced it.” He took the boys to a Civil War reenactment to show them what it was really like.
“They had a surgeon’s tent there, and the ‘surgeon’ had mannequin parts. After the battle, they’d bring soldiers in on stretchers. You’d hear yelling and screaming, and then a tent flap would open up and they’d throw out mannequin arms or legs covered with ‘blood.’ And I said, ‘This is war. Everyone points at the heroics, but this is true war.’ ”
Working at the event was tintype photographer John Coffer, the man Morton said is responsible for the renewed popularity of this old-school method.
“Anybody who knows tintype photography probably learned it from him or one of the people he trained,” Morton said.
“He showed me the process, and I was fascinated. He mixed his own chemicals, made his own tin plates, independent of Kodak or any photo company. I thought it was unique. He was shooting on a molecular level. His photos were sharp and clear: blacks were black, whites were white, and there was full gray-scale tone and value.”
Morton eventually traveled to Coffer’s home in upstate New York to train with him.
Sonoma Tintype began as a hobby.
“Then some people invited me to a Civil War re-creation like the one in Duncans Mills (each July).” He also takes photos of actors at the Dickens Faire.