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.
Kortum Trail: Blind Beach to Wright’s Beach
To the trailhead
Goat Rock Road • Jenner
From Highway 1 and Highway 116 (just south of Jenner) cross the Russian River bridge on Highway 1, and drive 0.65 miles south to Goat Rock Road at mile marker 19.15. Turn right and continue 0.75 miles to the Blind Beach parking lot on the left side of the high bluffs.
From Bodega Bay, drive 8 miles north on Highway 1 to Goat Rock Road at mile marker 19.15. Turn left and continue 0.75 miles to the Blind Beach parking lot on the left.
Shuttle car to Wright’s Beach
7170 Hwy 1 • Bodega Bay
TO WRIGHT’S BEACH: The lot is located 1.4 miles south of the Shell Beach turnoff at mile marker 16.8 along Highway 1.
Get a great bird’s-eye view of Goat Rock and Blind Beach from the Blind Beach parking lot. A steep, rough path descends the cliffs to the beach itself, 200 feet below, but for this hike, walk 30 yards back down the road to the posted Kortum Trail on the right. Ascend the grassy slope toward prominent Peaked Hill. Climb to the saddle between the 377-foot peak on the right and the rocky outcrop on the left. From the ridge, the southern views stretch past Bodega Head to Point Reyes. Descend the southeast slope, and pass through a fence to a giant rock formation on the marine terrace. Curve right to the oceanfront cliffs and continue south. Pass dramatic formations on the grassy bluffs and offshore rocks, including Gull Rock, a nesting site for gulls and cormorants. Cross a small gully and continue atop the plateau. Cross a larger gully with the aid of stairs and a footbridge. Follow a 300-foot boardwalk over a wetland. Curve inland, walk across another 150-foot boardwalk, and return to the oceanfront cliffs. Pass through a fence and continue on a gravel path to the Shell Beach parking lot. A path on the right descends the bluffs to the beach, where jagged shoreline rocks support tidepools. After exploring the beach, return along the same route for a 4.6-mile out-and-back hike or continue south another 1.6 miles to Wright’s Beach for a total of 4 miles.
If you are continuing, take the posted Kortum Trail south. Weave down into a stream-fed drainage, and cross a footbridge over the first of five seasonal creeks. Climb out of the gully to the coastal terrace and the oceanfront cliffs at an overlook of Shell Beach and the dramatic offshore rocks. Follow the edge of the bluffs and curve inland. Drop into a second drainage and cross the bridge over the ephemeral stream. Return to the bluffs, with views of Red Hill and the sandy beach at the mouth of Furlong Gulch. Zigzag down switchbacks into the gulch. Cross another bridge over the creek and a shorter bridge over a feeder stream. After the second bridge is a junction. The right fork descends steps to Furlong Gulch Beach on the south edge of the creek.
Climb back up to the 100-foot bluffs and continue south. Atop the terrace, pass a connecting trail from Grill Way. Curve left toward the house near the end of Carlevaro Way. Before reaching the house, veer to the right, staying on the trail. Drop down and cross a bridge over the fourth stream to a posted junction. Straight ahead, the right path leads to a sandy beach at the mouth of the stream. At low tide, this route can be taken to Wright’s Beach, forming a loop with the bluff-top trail. The main trail curves left and weaves across the bluffs, crossing a bridge over a winter stream near Highway 1. Follow the south wall of the drainage and return to the oceanfront, where the path joins a gravel utility road. The gravel ends at the paved access road leading down to Wright’s Beach and the campground. Wind a quarter mile down the access road to the sandy beach.
Source: “Day Hikes Around Sonoma County, 2nd Edition,” by Robert Stone.