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This tintype photo of Billy the Kid, created around 1880, was just sold for $2.3 million in June 2011. Was it because the picture was taken by a famous photographer? Maybe the famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady? No, this tintype photo sold for $2.3 million because of the cult of personality of one of the most famous Wild West outlaws of all time. Plus, this tintype is the only surviving photograph of Billy the Kid. The combination of the rarity and the cult of personality compound each other to create a photo of exceptional worth.
Two questions occur to me. What is a tintype photo? And why is Billy the Kid so famous?
In a tintype, a very underexposed negative image is produced on a collodion photographic emulsion, and mounted against a dark metal backing, giving it the appearance of a positive.
The process was very similar to wet-plate photography, where silver halide crystals (silver bromide, silver chloride and silver iodide) are suspended in a collodion emulsion that is chemically reduced to crystals of metallic silver that vary in density, according to the original light values of the original image.
The negative had more detail because it was very underexposed—allowing the photographer (tintypist) to shoot almost three shutter speeds faster than other processes of the day. The tintypist's shorter exposure time was a great advantage in portraiture.
The fact is that the tintype photo process was, in many ways, the Polaroid of the 19th century.
Four reasons why the tintype was like a Polaroid:
1. Very fast process – not a minute like the Polaroid, but it took only around ten minutes. After the less-than-two-minute exposure, the film would be processed, then glued to a black metal plate while the negative was still wet.
2. The cost of the photo was relatively low compared to the daguerreotype of the day. Billy the Kid paid $1.00 for 4 tintypes. (One dollar was like $25.00 in today's currency).
3. Tintypes were produced by using the actual negatives. Just as with a Polaroid, you couldn’t make a print .This was what also made the tintype so unique; only one existed.
4. The process was very archival, because it was the original negative material. The Billy the Kid tintype is 130 years old, and still retains detail.
One downside that some think kept the tintype in the world of carnival, not making it to the fancy studio, was that the image was backwards.
An innocent customer would pose for the picture, get the image in 10 minutes, pay the 25 cents, then by the time the tintype wagon was gone down the road, the customer would discover the reversal of the image and say, “Where is that tintypist, I want my picture reversed, or I want my money back."
In fact, almost all history books said that Billy the Kid was a lefty, because this famous image was reversed—his six-shooter appears to be in his left hand.
By the time the Civil War began, the tintype photo process was the standard quick and inexpensive way to get a portrait. A tintypist would pull up to a traveling carnival, a town fair, or to the outskirts of an army base. Millions of soldiers in the 1860s went to these portable photo studios pulled by horses, to sit for a tintype portrait to send home. The families of these soldiers proudly exhibited the pictures on their mantles, hoping and praying that their sons would someday return. Unfortunately, many of these soldiers did not come back.
A tintypist could get into the business for a small investment, and the photos were affordable by the common folk. Of course, the quality of the photos varied greatly, depending on the skill and experience of the tintypist.
Which brings me back to the $2.3 million Billy the Kid tintype.
Let’s look at who Henry McCarty—otherwise known as Billy the Kid—was. In a way, Billy the Kid was like a really bad 60s rock star—people say he was actually born in ‘59 (1859, that is), and true to that 60s rock star metaphor, many people had heard of him and, in some strange way, admired him, or looked up to him. He was famous mainly because his life was documented by the mass media of the day—newspapers. Here is part of an article written about Billy in 1880, from an interview with an eyewitness:
Las Vegas Gazette (30th November, 1880)
"He did look human, indeed, but there was nothing very mannish about him in appearance, for he looked and acted a mere boy. He is about five feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip; clear blue eyes, with a rougish snap about them; light hair and complexion. He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow, the only imperfection being two prominent front teeth slightly protruding like squirrel's teeth, and he has agreeable and winning ways."
Billy unfortunately lived a short life. He was well known for being a spectacular shot—always winning gunfights. He was captured many times for stealing cattle, but always managed to escape.
There have been a few movies produced about Billy the Kid that dramatize the murder of Billy by Sherriff Pat Garrett. He was shot to death in 1881—some people say at the age of 21, but in reality it may actually be closer to 17. Some people think that Sherriff Garrett lied about at least two details of the story in order to make himself look better. One was that Billy had a gun in his hand when he was shot, so that the Sherriff could claim self defense. And the second was that Billy was 21 years old, so it shouldn't look like he shot a 17 year old in the back, which he probably did.
For further info about “The Kid," just see one of the many movies, like the one with James Coburn and Bob Dylan “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” or do a Google search, and you can read many versions of his life and death.
As a lifelong photographer myself, I find it very important to realize that the worth of the photo isn’t always—or even most of the time—dependent on the name or the fame of the photographer, but rather on the combination of image quality, content, and archivability.