These Are the First Combat Zone Tintype Photos Created Since the Civil War


Ed Drew is an artist who’s studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, pursuing a BFA in sculpture with a minor in photography. He’s also a defensive heavy weapons and tactics specialist for the California Air National Guard.

When Drew was deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan this past April as a helicopter aerial gunner, he decided to bring his passion for photography with him. What resulted were the first tintype photos to be created in a combat zone since the Civil War.

The Brooklyn-born photographer tells us that his motivation for the project was to stay sharp and not get rusty while he was away from home. “I was really interested in making art while I was in Afghanistan so I wouldn’t lose my momentum in my absence from art school,” he says.

Many of the photographs are of his fellow soldiers who fly Air Force rescue helicopters. Some of the images show the helicopters themselves.

Creating tintypes on the battlefield was a challenging experience. In between flying on combat missions, Drew found that his chemicals would react to the harsh environment there in ways that you wouldn’t see in the quiet safety of a photo studio. It made him “really appreciate every plate’s individual creation,” he says.





As a photographer and artist I wanted to achieve something that was physical, one of a kind and very unique. I believe in the Japanese aesthetic of “Wabi-Sabi” so the idea that something is imperfect and impermanent interests me. I wanted that to translate in my Afghan images as metaphors for what I experienced in the war, I thought tintypes to be the perfect photographic process to translate wabi sabi in my portraits. – Ed Drew









You can find the entire collection of Drew’s tintype portraits from Afghanistan over on his photo website.

Tintypes by Ed Drew (via The New Yorker via Fstoppers)

Image credits: Photographs by Ed Drew and used with permission

  • superduckz

    Absolutely Fantastic Project! Bravo! Makes me want to attempt tintype!

  • Fullstop

    Great work and rather chilling photographs.

  • fahrertuer

    Some of those are really great (love the one with the crew in front of their helicopter) others leave me rather unfazed being just one more boring portrait without any personality

  • Melka

    The Multicam is beautiful even in b&w :’-)

  • Meggan

    Fascinating project but the portrait of the individual with the handgun pointing away (with finger on trigger) is ridiculous. Posing with a weapon as if its a toy is certainly not the way I personally would represent anyone in the military. The rest of the images are beautiful however. Inspiring project.

  • JP

    Others have their fingers the same way but are not black.

  • Fata Morgana

    Crushed blacks, blown out highlights, soft edges, stained – yet so good.

    All you pixel-peeping, chart reading gear heads watch and learn what photography is really about.

  • laverne_keller

    Meggan I think you need to take a better look at the airman holding the handgun(M9Berretta). I saw the same picture and if you were actually looking at it you’d see that his finger isn’t on the trigger but is actually resting on the forward edge of the triggerguard. I think you’re being influenced here by your own bias against guns in general and handguns in particular, as you show no understanding of safe handling as none of the airmen pictured have their fingers on the trigger the carbines are just more obvious then the M9 if he were to have his trigger finger as far forward as the others the end of his finger would be over the muzzle and if there were an accidental discharge it would blow the tip of his finger off.

  • Opie

    Really? For me, most of these leave as much to be desired as that overly technical work of which you speak. A few of these are certainly nice but most are pretty bland.

    Just like with those gear heads, the “how” has taken precedence over the “why”. Just because the technique is chemical rather than optical or digital doesn’t mean it’s not falling into the same trap.

    I would really have liked to see the photographer continue on this path for a while so he could sort these issues out and deliver a great set of pictures. As it stands, it seems rather premature to laud these as an example of “what photography is all about.” We can pat him on the back for trying something a bit off the beaten path, but all things considered, that’s the easy part.

  • Josh Zytkiewicz

    I usually don’t like old process photography done by modern photographers, but it really works for this type of subjects.

  • Fata Morgana

    I should’ve been more clear on the ‘what photography is about’ bit.
    You’re right that these photos aren’t revolutionary in any way, but as far as the final product, in general, the need for sharpness, cleanliness etc is far overrated in modern, non-commercial photography.

  • foggodyssey

    Agree with Laverne_Keller, it’s obvious you’ve never been in the military before or taken weapons training (to the point you don’t even know what your looking at and just assuming). The finger is resting on the outside of the trigger guard. It’s where you would naturally place your trigger finger when moving or holding your weapon. Only Arnold would walk around in a movie with his finger on the trigger, it just doesn’t happen in real life (and for good reason).

  • Anthony J. Mitchell

    Utterly amazing!

  • A Conservative

    Why didn’t I think of this when I was in Iraq. Stunning imagination and execution of the tin types. Great job, sir.

  • A Conservative

    I have over 150 rolls of black and white Tri-X film negatives that I took in Baghdad, Iraq in 2004-05. I had to go digital in 2010 in Tikrit. I much prefer the old black and white negs and prints from my darkroom. The tin types are interesting and for those who call the portraits boring, look at the old Civil War tin types. Many of them are portraits also. Why, because tin types cannot be captured with moving subjects. Ed Drew desrves kudos for thinking outside the box.

  • Jer

    In Civil War-era portraits, posing with one’s weapons was common. If the photographer was trying to capture the feel of that era, then the posing with weapons is fitting.

  • Adam

    These are really good – instead of making the current look old, they make me wonder how crisp and modern those civil war soldiers must have looked. People are people.

  • Theranthrope

    Yeah… Guns is scary.

  • Theranthrope

    Do you not know how tin-type works?
    The historical version is etching metal with (very toxic) acid and light: each exposure takes tens-of-seconds to several-minutes long, with your subject having to sit rock-still the entire time.
    You’re not going to get any interesting candids; if that’s what you’re thinking.

    The modern version means doing the same with (less toxic chemicals and) a projected film negative in the darkroom. However, to get the authentic tin-type feel; you would pose your subject just like you would for that long-exposure in the historical version.

  • Theranthrope

    I very much enjoy articles like this.

  • fahrertuer

    Yes. I do know how tintypes work

    You polish a piece of iron sheet, coat it in black laquer, coat it in collodion emulsion and expose it while wet.
    While still wet you develop the negative.

    This produces a negative but due to the fact that the black background of the plate is darker than the silver that is deposited during development it appears to be a positive image.

    No etching, just your regular wet plate process chemicals and some black laquer

    And now for the really interesting point: compared to a regular collodion process photo the exposure times can be way faster , since a darker exposure means that more silver will be deposited during development and you will get a very clear, well defined image.

    AFAIR tintype was the first process that was fast enough to not require special posing stands and cheap enough to be available for the masses.

  • kaykinkaid

    Very amazing, indeed. Look forward to seeing more!

  • Paulo

    He’s not “posing with a weapon as if its [sic] a toy”, he’s posing with a tool of his trade…much like a photographer being photographed while holding his camera, or the president with a pen used to sign a bill into law.

    The only difference between his photo and the others, he’s displaying a weapon that is holstered rather than exposed when carried. An unstated benefit of displayed weaponry, it provides historical evidence of weapons used during a given period, and sometimes was the only available evidence to determine provenance…as shown multiple times on Antiques Roadshow.

  • Kellam Clark

    I wonder what would happen if all of our finest, our brave and proud soldiers had a camera. Great project and very intriguing images.

    Kellam Clark
    Director of
    Barking Hand: A Living Tin