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Tintype images are portraits in time for Westport photographer/firefighter

Published 1:44 pm, Tuesday, March 4, 2014

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  • N.W. Gibbons took this self portrait as a tintype, showing how he does the wet-plate photogarphic process. He will be demonstrating his technique at the Westport Library March 16. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News
    N.W. Gibbons took this self portrait as a tintype, showing how he does the wet-plate photogarphic process. He will be demonstrating his technique at the Westport Library March 16. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Photography aficionados -- and anyone else who's interested -- can see an unusual demonstration at the Westport Library on March 16 showing how to make old-fashioned tintypes.

Nathaniel Gibbons plans to pull his truck into the library parking lot that day to demonstrate how he makes tintypes from handmade equipment out of the back of his truck. If it's not a nice day, he's contemplating pulling the truck right into the lobby of the library.

"What I do out of my truck is the same as it was done 200 years ago," he said.

Gibbons -- known as N.W. Gibbons to the photographic art world -- is as interesting as the process he's demonstrating. He's a veteran firefighter and fire inspector for the town of Westport, and a former television producer and director.

As N.W. Gibbons, he has shown his photographs at many prestigious institutions and has pieces in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress and other museums.

Gibbons' tintypes of the Erie Canal are currently on display at the Westport Library through March 26.

A Renaissance man, Gibbons finds his dual roles as photographer and firefighter to be compatible, if a bit unexpected.

"It's about being an observer as a fire inspector, and as an artist," he said. "You have your skills and you use them to interpret for other people."

Gibbons became interested in photography as a child growing up in Westport. He got his first camera in elementary school, and his own darkroom by the time we was a pre-teen. His interest in the early types of photographic processes started early too, in the 1970s, when the wet-plate process -- used in the late 1800s because there weren't other options available -- had been barely used for nearly 100 years. The process died out because the first type of photo images made, daguerreotypes on copper, were expensive to make. Other wet plate processes like tintypes were also difficult to produce.

"You have to do it all at once so the negative doesn't dry out," the photographer explained.

Gibbon's love of historical photographic processes and artistic photography never wavered through his years at Yale University and later when he became a television producer and director, which he did for 15 years. All his life he spent some time -- often vacation time -- taking shots of projects that interested him.

The unusual link between his photography and firefighting came when as a film and video producer, he was contracted to make several training films for firefighters. He found the work to be so interesting that, ready for a new challenge, he trained to become a Westport firefighter in 1995. He was promoted to the position of fire inspector in 2004.

His firefighting and photography skills work quite well together, Gibbons said. What better way to document a fire scene than to photograph it?

Gibbons has a veritable photographic record of the town of Westport, particularly the fires that have occurred in town, and today he takes photos of fire scenes often as part of his job. At a recent fire at the Harvest Commons condominium complex, for instance, he wasn't the fire inspector on duty at that time, but he was asked to come and take photos of the scene anyway. The cause of that fire, which started in a basement and heavily damaged one condominium, is still under investigation.

Gibbons continues in his dual role documenting on-site for the town of Westport and undertaking many photographic projects on his own. He said he especially finds construction sites fascinating and is currently working on shooting the construction project on Iinterstate 95 near Norwalk as it progresses -- possibly the only Connecticut resident who is enjoying watching that traffic-snarling project.

"I'm documenting change" he said.

A free hands-on demonstration of the wet-plate technique for tintypes will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16, at the Westport Library. Gibbon's tintypes documenting the remains of the Erie Canal are on exhibit at the library through March 26. For more information about the library exhibit or demonstration, visit www.westportlibrary.org or call 203-291-4800. Visit www.nwgibbons.com for more information on N.W. Gibbons photography.