In the early 1990s, folklorist and guitar player Timothy Duffy was hired to find and record traditional blues musicians for the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Traveling throughout the South, he found many of them living in poverty, despite their seminal role in creating some of the most significant American music.
This inspired Duffy to found the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping to sustain elderly musicians while preserving their music. Since 1994, the Foundation, based in Hillsborough, NC, has supported nearly four hundred artists by helping them pay for medicines, meet mortgage payments, buy new instruments, find gigs, and gain long-overdue recognition for their great contributions. Along with making recordings, Duffy began photographing the musicians with wet plate collodion, a technique dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, when photographers used it to document the American Civil War.
The wet plate process, introduced in the 1850s, was relatively cheap and safe, and could generate hundreds of identical prints by utilizing glass plate negatives — a tremendous advantage that rendered the older one-off daguerreotype process obsolete. Even so, making wet plate images remained a cumbersome task involving a portable darkroom, coating a sheet of tin or glass with chemicals, shooting the picture, and then developing the plate before the chemicals could dry. The tintypes Duffy first made were later rephotographed to produce large negatives for making platinum/palladium prints. The final prints consist of pure platinum and palladium metallic fragments embedded in the fibers of fine rag papers, yielding images of great depth.
The idea of using an antiquated process to document old people may have been appealing to Duffy, but more important was the obvious effort it involved. Unlike surreptitiously taking candid photos with a small handheld device, Duffy’s big, tripod-mounted camera required the musicians to collaborate and directly engage in making the images. They had to hold still and pose, which gave them time to consider the impression they want to make. Duffy’s success in capturing the strong personalities projected in many of the images in Our Living Past stems largely from the dynamic participation of these natural performers in the act of being photographed.