Remember that botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in a Spanish church a few years ago, which became a meme known as “Potato Jesus”? Photographer Jen Jansen has a copy of it displayed in front of her Bucktown studio, where it serves as a cautionary tale of what the ravages of time—and inexperienced restorers—can do to a picture.
“Potato Jesus” may be funny, but Jansen is very conscious that damaged heirloom family photos are not a laughing matter: “People bring me really old pictures and get a very emotional reaction when they see them restored,” she says. “It’s like they’re keeping a member of their family alive.”
Besides restoring photographs, Jansen makes portraits in tintype, one of the oldest photographic processes. “It’s how I can create the longest-lasting pictures,” she explains. The technique, popular in the 1860s and ’70s, employs an image printed directly onto a thin metal sheet (also known as a wet plate) coated with a special emulsion; since there are no negatives, each image is unique.
To capture them, Jansen prides herself on using a made-in-Chicago Deardorff 11×14 studio camera, a 1920s relic she’s dubbed “the Beast.” “People here seem very interested in the process, but also in the preservation of their own history. Seems like that’s the way of the city,” reckons the 41-year-old transplant from San Diego, who moved here six years ago and opened her storefront last year.
Jansen has been obsessed with photographic processes since her early 20s, when she attended a summer program on black-and-white photography at New York’s International Center of Photography. After that she worked in a number of photography labs, and went on to manage a portraiture and restoration studio, where she decided to commit to analog photography.
Now running her own business (see also @thejenjansen on Instagram), Jansen offers tintype portrait sessions (starting at $200, they’re a popular gift for couples celebrating their ten-year wedding anniversary, also known as the “tin year”), as well as photo restorations, photo conversions to tintype, and wet-plate workshops, where she teaches tintype photography while using any kind of analog camera—even a toy. Jansen also photographs events off-site, and has to find a way of building makeshift darkrooms when she does, since tintype photos need to be developed immediately.
This self-taught tinkerer doesn’t seem to shy away from creating anything from scratch; she even makes the varnish she uses to coat her photographs. Her practice may be centered on an antique technique, but she’s not really stuck in the past: “What I’m doing here is trying to create modern images of Chicagoans with this old piece of Chicago history.”
Jen Jansen Photography 2012 N. Western, 773-799-8464, jenjansenphoto.com