Walter Collins (top left) was not your ordinary Colorado photographer. Where others established solid businesses and became staunch members of Colorado society, it appears that Collins was more than glad to live on the threshold of success. He arrived in Colorado in about 1890, equipped to make small tintype portraits scarcely larger than postage stamps, which he probably sold for less than a dime apiece. His studio was a wall tent.
Collins tried to settle down in Colorado, but only once. He launched a portrait photography studio in Leadville in 1893-a few weeks before the price of silver crashed and threw Leadville into an economic tailspin. Unfazed, Collins packed his tent and his photo apparatus and roamed by wagon through Colorado, Utah, and possibly as far as Idaho. After nearly ten years on the road, he returned to Charleston, South Carolina, to live out his days as an all-purpose hometown photographer. The Charleston Museum transferred his western tintypes to History Colorado in 1986.
Tintypes had become novelty items by the 1890s-cheaper and more fun than most commercial portraits. To some extent, they bridged the gap between the informality of then-new snapshots and the studied poses and elaborate ritual of formal portraiture. Yet Collins brought a frank artistry to his work: there is a simple equanimity about his portraits that asks us just to see the people he saw, to share his affection for humanity, and to appreciate why he chose the path he did. Just looking at those faces, those clothes, is so wonderful that sometimes it hardly matters that only ten of the 1,531 Collins tintypes are identified.
By Eric Paddock, 2004
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