Tin works

The tin type portrait images exposed onto lacquered, smooth-sided tin cans from the tinplate produced in Trostre Tin Works

Artist Hilary Powell discusses the creation of her Tin Works exhibition on site at Trostre for Tata Steel’s 70th anniversary celebration in the south Wales town

All images courtesy of Hilary Powell

Inspired by her own family history of working in the tinplate industries, Hilary Powell’s Tin Works is a collection of photographs and portraits not only depicting the people and processes of Trostre, but created and printed onto the site-specific materials used there every day. 

Here, Hilary discusses her techniques, and what it was like to create art reflecting both the history and present day of the site as Trostre Works celebrates its 70th anniversary – while working through a pandemic when the consumer demand for canned goods reached peak numbers. 

Out of all the steelworks in Wales, why choose Trostre as the site for Tin Works? 

“My interest in working with tinplate came out of discovering family history and wanting to learn more about my ancestors who had worked in the local tinplate industries – from my father’s memories of seeing the Bynea Tinworks demolished and tracing a family tree full of tin. I was drawn to this landscape of both the history and contemporary continuation of the tin industry.” 

Why work directly on tinplate? 

“I often work on projects and use techniques where meaning and material fuse. I had previously been working on demolition sites in London, etching portraits of demolition teams into the materials they salvage, creating faces and landscapes in roofing zinc and making inks from London stock bricks. 

“My last project in Wales was a studio residency with the Curwen Studios awarded by the Josef Herman Cymru Foundation based in Ystradgynlais. That led me to a history of industry – in this case coal mining and a quest to find and make portraits of the last miners of south Wales. I made these portraits using sandstone through a traditional stone lithography technique, and used coal dust and colliery and geological maps to make the image in a project called Farewell Rock. 

“So, for me to work with tin was exciting as it was also a chance to learn and revive another technique of image making – the tintype or tinplate photography.” 

What is the artistic process for capturing the images and transferring them to tinplate? 

“I used two processes on site at Trostre. To capture images of the tin works, I turned tin cans into pinhole cameras. Some of these were left for long three-month exposures. This is a tin can containing light sensitive photographic paper and the image is burnt into the paper without the need for development via a method called solargraphy. The other tin can pinhole images were shorter exposures of one to two minutes and led to some eerie black and white images of the working tin works interior and exterior. I then developed these and enlarged them digitally to then print via commercial flatbed printer onto large sheets of tin from the works.

“The other method was the traditional wet plate photography process called tintype. I worked with an expert in traditional techniques as it was a challenge to get these exposed onto the curved surface of tin cans. For this process you use a large wooden concertina camera. We made a purpose built one to expose the portrait photographs directly onto the lacquered black surface of the tin cans we obtained from the tin works and the tin can making factories they supply.”

Hilary holding her camera, with the tin cans
to the left and Trostre photos to the right

Is it important to continue using traditional methods in art? 

“There is an element of making sure traditional skills and techniques aren’t lost, but I’m not wedded to using the traditional in a ‘confined to recipe’ kind of way. I love to work with and respect these traditional techniques and those who retain expertise in them – but I’m not puritanical in their use and make use of contemporary technology. 

“In this instance, to deal with social distancing and speed of production, the initial images of tin workers were taken digitally and then transferred to tintype which in turn were transferred back to digital and then litho for the printing of personalised metallic labelled tin cans. There are ways of faking the tintype look but there is nothing like the real method and its form of chemical alchemy.

“Tintype was one of the earliest forms of chemical wet plate photography and it was popular in the mid to late 1800s. Because of the way you could use cheap metal and the fact that it is essentially a negative appearing as a positive due to the black lacquer coating the metal, they were relatively quick and easy to produce compared to other methods that required studios and lighting. There were travelling tintype photographers at fairs, and it was often used to take portraits of working people with the tools of their trade.” 

How did you have to adapt the methods to create portraits on the curved can surfaces?

“We had to experiment and ended up building a purpose-built camera – basically a black box. The hardest part of this was applying the chemical silver nitrate and black lacquer layer evenly, but luckily I was working with an expert excited to trial it for this project.” 

Will you continue working on tinplate/steel in the future?

“I often work with a particular technique because it fits the concept, meaning and site of a project, so I wouldn’t just carry on working with it for any old subject matter. It was important for me to work on this specific project with it and I don’t feel this project is over. I’d love to carry on collaborating with the tin works, drawing out more from the archives and making a film that explores this work and material.”

Leigh Bolch, Trostre lubrication engineer

Why do you think the Trostre employees were so drawn to the project and keen to be photographed?

“I was really welcomed by Joe, the works manager, and that access was fantastic. It was great to be able to share the work with the people I photographed in their canteen and to give each person their own can as a memento of the project. There was fascination around the techniques used and it helped them to think about the material they work with in a different way. I hope they can see that the project is all about valuing the people behind vital industries.”

How has the work been received by the Trostre site and in the local community?

“It went down well and was a nice moment to celebrate both its production and the work on site and its history. I would love to do more with Trostre, and the local community. I am keeping in touch about a plan for further work.”

Will Tin Works be exhibited elsewhere?

“Yes, from July to September it will be exhibited at National Museum of Wales Swansea Waterfront Museum and then in September 2022 at Ffotogallery, Cardiff. At this point there will also be a publication fusing material, social, industrial, and family history and I hope in this time to develop the film element of the project.” 

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