Photographer whose antique methods give snapshot of past

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The Independent US

The good news is that if you want to attend this summer's final wet-plate photography workshop at John Coffer's home in upstate New York, you still have a little time to book. It will take place over three days starting on 17 August. The bad news is that you will have to move quickly to make the reservation.

"It WILL be faster to write him a letter!" That is the admonishment to would-be students of Mr Coffer's antique form of photography on his website. E-mail would be no good because he does not have an internet connection or even a telephone - applications by post only.

That Mr Coffer, 54, has his own website is astonishing for a man for whom every modern convenience is a mystery. If you travel to his 50-acre farm in the Finger Lakes region of New York, you will find him living in a log cabin he made himself, with no running water and only one light bulb, powered by a solar panel. His sole method of transport is a horse and buggy.

But all of that - plus the cows, chickens and single claw-foot bath near the woods - is the point of Mr Coffer and his growing mystique among photography enthusiasts.

Unconventional though he may be, Mr Coffer is increasingly being celebrated as the father of a revival of wet-plate or so-called tintype photography, which was popular in America from the Civil War until about 1900. He finds himself being profiled nowadays in publications like The New York Times.

In recent years he has also been invited to exhibit his work in galleries and museums around the eastern United States. And more than ever, pilgrims are finding their way to his home - with or without reservations - which he now calls Camp Tinplate.

The climax of the summer is his Annual Wet-Plate Jamboree, which attracts aficionados of the tinplate method from across the US and around the world.

His newfound popularity may in part be a backlash against the unchallenging conveniences of photography today, where images are instantly available on the screen of your digital camera. The tintype method is far more arduous. Even the art of posing for a photographer and the sense of dignity that should accompany that moment has vanished in his view. People "feel they have to show their teeth like a used-car salesman," he told the Times.

Tintype was America's most important contribution to the early days of photography and became the standard for photographic portraiture, especially popular for soldiers spruced up in their uniforms in the Civil War. It involves a thin sheet of iron - not tin - which is blackened and then coated with a light-sensitive emulsion before being inserted into a camera to receive an image.

Mr Coffer uses a wooden camera he built himself with a vintage French lens. Exposures often take about five seconds. What emerges are photographs that evoke a permanency and historic tint and texture that modern photographic processes could never completely mimic.

The sense of times gone by is accentuated by Mr Coffer's choice of subjects. His images are often of hay piles, foggy meadows and animals - scenes of an agrarian society long gone by. "It is as if time stood still, 140 years ago, in the life of John Coffer," mused an introduction to a recent show of his work in Manhattan.

Recognition has been a long time coming for Mr Coffer, who began experimenting with the tintype while criss-crossing the country over seven years from 1978 with a workhorse and wagon that doubled as darkroom. He began earning a small income taking portraits of participants in Civil War re-enactments.

The Annual Wet-Plate Jamboree has just wound up and included among its guests Robb Kendrick, arguably the only other artist practising tintype photographer in America with something like a national following. Kendrick's work has recently been published in National Geographic magazine and is currently being exhibited in cities in Texas. A new book by Kendrick, Revealing Character, is a collection of wet-plate portraits of Texas cowboys.

The cost of attending Mr Coffer's workshop later this month, meanwhile, will be $585 (£300) - not that cheap, particularly as accommodation will be a tent. But by all available evidence, his art has yet to make Mr Coffer rich. He does have a washing machine at Camp Tinplate - a Maytag that was made in 1925, which he runs off a battery.