When I met up with Riva Treasure a few weeks ago, she told me about Margaret Muza and said I had to feature her on My Midwest Is Showing. In fact, Riva messaged her on Instagram right then and there, and we had Instagram-agreed to a feature before I left the coffee shop. I couldn't be happier, because Margaret is one of the nicest, coolest, and most creative people. I've only met her once, but her studio, work, and sweet personality prove it.
Margaret Muza is the photographer behind Guncotton Tintype. She uses an old photographic process, tintype photography, that dates back to the 1800s. She creates portraits and photographs that are hauntingly beautiful.
Check out my Q&A with Margaret to find out more about her and Guncotton Tintype:
My Midwest Is Showing: What is tintype photography?
Margaret Muza: Tintype photography uses the wet plate chemical process. It starts with an emulsion called collodion that is poured onto a metal plate. The plate is then placed into a bath of silver nitrate where it combines with the collodion to create a light sensitive layer. After sensitizing the plate for three minutes, and working in a dark room with a safe light, the plate comes out and is loaded into the plate holder for a large format view camera. Next, it’s exposed for a few seconds or more, depending on the light, and brought back to the dark room for development. This process is called wet plate because these steps need to be completed while the collodion is wet, about ten minutes or more depending on the temperature. After it’s developed and fixed, it gets washed, dried and varnished. A properly made plate can last 150+ years.
MMWIS: How did you discover this type of photography, and how did you learn the process?
MM: I’ve always loved old photographs. Old images gave me a haunted feeling, and I didn’t really understand why. I knew it probably had something to do with the process but I didn’t know much about photography at all before I decided to learn this. The only camera I owned was the one on my phone. When I decided I really wanted to learn this, I went with my friend Eileen to New York, and I took a two-day workshop with Rowan Renee at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. I always say it was my love of history that led me to this process, not a love for photography. It took me a while to even call myself a photographer, even though I was making every element of a photograph by hand from start to finish.
MMWIS: When did you decide to start your own business?
MM: The business was born as soon as Eileen and I got back to Milwaukee and ordered our chemistry. It took us a lot longer than we thought it would to get the hang of it, but we worked at it every night for months. We started offering cheap tintypes to friends as a way to get a little money for our chemistry while we also got the practice. They weren’t very good, but people were posting them on Instagram, and before we knew it, we had strangers emailing us for portraits. Eileen moved to Baltimore in the summertime with her family, so it’s just me now at Guncotton, but we still communicate every day about tintypes, and she is starting her own studio out there.
MMWIS: Is this your full time job?
MM: Not yet, but I’m working on it!
MMWIS: If someone wanted a tintype photograph, how would they get one?
MM: I have all the info on my website, but they can email me and set up a time to come into my studio in Bayview. Currently available on nights and weekends.
MMWIS: Do you work with other methods of photography?
MM: I recently learned how to develop film so I’ve been having fun with that. I like digital too, but I don’t own a digital camera. Maybe one day I’ll pick that up, but for now I have a lot to explore with my tintypes.
MMWIS: What has been your biggest photography accomplishment so far?
MM: I took my chemistry, darkroom, and camera with me to my family’s land last summer. My grandfather and uncles built a few log cabins and every year we all go up for the 4th of July. It was great because I took the whole day to photograph my family. My uncle Tom, who lives in Arizona, was there, and he does not like to get his picture taken. He was really cool about letting me take his though, and it’s one of my all time favorites. I’m so glad I captured on tintype all of the people I love most.
MMWIS: In a social media/instant gratification-obsessed world, why do you think people find tintype photography so appealing?
MM: I think that in this digital age, tintypes become especially valuable because they are images that can last a long time, longer than images developed on paper. I think our generation, myself included, fails to preserve memories the way our grandparents did. My grandmother kept a journal, and she has boxes of photos that we can rummage through. If we have our pictures stored only on our phones, and a catalog of our lives posted on Facebook, the next few generations will never open a dusty old suitcase in the attic and find them. In my opinion you don’t really have these things if you can’t hold them in your hands. There is something really cool about holding a tintype or ambrotype. You can feel the weight of it in your hands, and after you see what it takes to make one, you care for it like an heirloom.
MMWIS: What are you currently reading? Watching? Listening to?
MM: I just finished a book called The River of Doubt. It’s about Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition on an uncharted river in the Amazon after he lost his re-election to the White House. I just watched every episode of “The OA” on Netflix in one night. I love the Ken Burns PBS production called The Civil War. I watch it for all the tintype images, but mostly to listen to the accounts of historian Shelby Foote, the best storyteller I’ve ever heard. It took him 20 years to write a million and a half words that make up his Civil War narrative in three volumes. If he was still alive today I would find him and take his tintype, just as an excuse to meet him.
MMWIS: If someone was visiting Wisconsin for the first time, what would you tell them to do first?
MM: If someone was visiting Wisconsin for the first time, I would tell them to spend some time outside of the city. There are so many parts of this state to see. In the summer there are lots of great places to go camping, swimming, thrifting. Summertime and fall are beautiful here, but I like winter too.
MMWIS: Favorite thing about the Midwest?
MM: My favorite thing about the Midwest is its charm. I’m sure it helps that I’m from here, but traveling through the Midwest, I find so much to love in the beautiful farm land and lakes, and all the small towns to explore. The people you meet are kind and helpful.
MMWIS: How does your Midwest show through your personality and/or what you do?
MM: I’m not afraid to work hard and get my hands dirty. I'm confident in my capabilities, and I’m pretty sure I can do anything if I just put in the time to learn. It was like that learning tintypes. I’m not generally intimidated by anything hands on. I’m comfortable working with my hands and figuring things out as I go. I’m not afraid to make mistakes and I don’t like asking for help. I don’t know if that’s a Midwestern quality or not, but I know a lot of Milwaukee women who are the same way.