A Woman By Herself: Being Astonished with Margaret Muza
When Margaret Muza is developing a tintype, she expects a sort of miracle staring back at her.
She’s pleased with a photo when its subject, who is usually huddled next to her around the plastic tray she swirls “fixer” chemicals in to coat the tintype and finish the developing process, gasps as their image surfaces. “Does it stop your heart?” she asks. “Does it almost feel like it stole your soul? You can see why people in the old days, when photography was new, thought the actually camera took your soul away.”
The tintypes covering the hemlock walls in her studio are captivating, not just because of Margaret’s utterly unique medium and the antique process she breathes new life into, but also because of the way she’s captured her subjects’ eyes. As she composes an image from behind her large format view camera, the eyes are what she looks at, both first and last. The image she sees framed in her camera before she takes the photo looks upside-down and backwards, so it develops into something completely different, something that’s almost always a surprise. That part is magical even to her.
“I’m into self-portraits lately because this is a really big year for me personally. I want to document the ways I’m changing”, Margaret says. A few days ago, she had the idea to take a self-portrait directly onto a record she had in her car. “It was flat and black—that’s the recipe for the start of a wetplate image.”
She tried it the next day in her studio, and the resulting image, on such a beautifully unexpected object, is striking. “When I look at it, I’m not just looking at a picture of me; it’s an experimental object”, she says. “The way it all lined up, without my knowledge, it shows the confidence I’ve gained in myself over the past five months I’ve been here.”
Her year-long position as Pfister Artist in Residence offers Margaret the luxury of time. This is the first opportunity she’s had to work in her own studio full-time, and this allows her to spend time thinking of ways to challenge herself. “I’d never tasted that life. I couldn’t really picture what it’d be like (to take tintypes full-time). Now that I know, it’s better than I ever would’ve guessed.”
She doesn’t take the unique opportunities of this Pfister residency lightly, and she is quick to share her goals for the remaining seven months she has here: to push herself to take more risk in her art, to photograph more of the people who work here who have become dear to her, to experiment with a new large format camera that will allow her to capture bigger, more detailed images, and to soak up all the glitzy festivity of the holidays in the Pfister while offering families a way to give preserved memory as gifts.
“I turned thirty the day after I moved into this studio. I’ll always remember that I spent my thirtieth year on this earth in this beautiful hotel. I’ll leave the day before I turn 31. Whether it was on my birthday or not, this has just been the best year of my life.”
Margaret’s space in the Pfister lobby has functioned, to her delight, like a kind of storefront. People wander in anytime to chat with her about all kinds of things, including her work on the walls, the history of tintypes, photography, and the antique ephemera she’s brought in from her own home and tucked around her studio. She loves how being set up in a busy passage of the hotel has connected her with many kinds of people.
And as she gets to know these people traipsing through the hotel, she longs all the more to do them justice in telling their story via tintype. She says she goes into each photo shoot determined to take a “dynamic portrait”. If you’ve had Margaret take your photograph, you know how tintypes have the ability to bewilder even as you look at your own face, somehow showing you a side of yourself unlike what you’ve grown accustomed to seeing in pixels and film.
“My favorite subject is a woman by herself.” Margaret makes this statement how she always talks, pensive and decisive at the same time. “Being a woman is both hard and the greatest blessing.” She says that tintypes often produce a portrait that looks “tough”, which men tend to find compelling. But to her, a woman is inherently tough, whether she understands that about herself or not, and if she can use her aluminum, silver nitrate, and light to empower women, Margaret will.
She has always been entranced by the process of taking things and putting them together into something grander. As a small girl, as soon as she could clamber up on the kitchen counter, she was following recipes and baking. Today, she talks about the chemistry she uses, which would be deadly in inexpert hands, as if its poetry. She’s studied this science lovingly, and she’s becoming fluent in its language. “Before it was much more of a mystery to me, but now I know what to expect. When the chemistry behaves a certain way, I know how the image is going to turn out. The speed at which I pour the developer on, whether it beads up or coats the whole plate smoothly. If it looks thick or thin. If the plate is resisting it…I couldn’t teach this to someone. And no one could have taught this to me.”
Which is, of course, one of the most astonishing things about Margaret: she is one of only a handful of people taking tintypes, anywhere. She took a weekend class in New York City and taught the rest to herself. Her art is truly an island: when she has a question about the chemicals she uses, or her camera, there’s no one to ask. But these days, she’s less and less in need of that.
Her face on the shard of record is a testament to this. When she had this hazy idea in the middle of the night, to be both the focuser and the focal point, she had no idea if it could actually materialize as she envisioned. But the very next day, she rigged up the formula for all of her tintypes: a lovely combination of chance, history, science and skill.
Using a lamp as a stand-in for her body as she set up the shot, she placed a paper tab where her eye would be. She focused her camera on the tab, then sat down, lined her eye up with the paper, awkwardly shoved the lamp away and took the shot, not knowing if her face would be obscured by the wrapper in the record’s center, whether taking a photograph on an old record would even work at all.
But the self-portrait came out as all her best work does, beautiful and startling and somehow with the feeling of agelessness. Smudged in her own image are the fingerprints of strangers who’d touched the record before her. Margaret’s eye is gazing backwards, towards them and their history, and forward too, towards all the magic she has yet to create.