Heirlooms and Legacies

Make an appointment to have your ambrotype made at Guild and Gentry on February 17th by clicking here.


Heirlooms are a big part of every Southerner’s identity, whether they’re a tangible item passed from hand to hand across the generations, intangible relics brought back to life by talented storytellers, or a combination of the two.  Every family cultivates a unique identity through the things they choose to save and the stories they choose to tell.  I realized exactly how true this rings in my own life as we moved over the holidays, sifting through the items we’ve accumulated over the years, as well as the things we carried with us into marriage.

Our heirlooms range in both meaning and tactility, from my grandmother’s china and my father’s toy trucks to Cory’s favorite story from childhood — setting his trampoline on fire with a homemade rocket (God bless my in-laws).  In the long run, things are just things, but the meaning we imbue gives our possessions a second life, and in some cases, serves to carry those we love with us long after they’re gone.

A few months ago, the Market Beautiful passed through Laurel, bringing with it vendors, artisans, and craftsmen from all over the country.  We were lucky to be able to cross paths with Michael Foster, a Mississippi native and one of the few remaining colloidal process photographers in the country.  We met in the alley behind the store the day after the market to have our ambrotype made, expecting a unique photograph and a good story.

Ambrotype taken by Michael Foster



The wet plate colloidal process occurs when a glass plate, called an ambrotype, or painted tin plate, referred to as a tintype, is treated with iodized collodion and silver nitrate, then exposed in the camera while the chemicals are still wet.  The result is a negative — darker areas of the composition disappear, and lighter areas appear opaque.  If taken on glass, the print is placed against a dark backdrop, making the opaque areas stand out against the darkness to create a positive of the image.  The wet plate colloidal process was invented by Frederick Scott Archer, but James Ambrose Cutting popularized the use of glass, patenting the process in 1854 and creating the term, “ambrotype”.

The process is an interesting one, and Michael is truly an artist.  Balancing the components required to create a successful image is difficult, even for experienced photographers, but his understanding of light, composition, and texture blends with his technical skill to create beautiful images that capture the subject in a way that requires more than a passing glance.  We expected a portrait that would serve as a unique conversation piece in our home, but we wound up with an image that brought out unexpected depth in both of us.  Every time I see the print, I see some new nuance in our faces, our stance, or our surroundings that surprises me.

The fragility of the medium belies the longevity of the image; correctly processed and stored, the wet plate colloidal process results in images that will last up to 700 years.  We joked that the great-grandchildren of our great-grandchildren would wonder who we were, why we dressed the way we did, and why anyone would want a beard that long.  The process made me think, though, about the legacies that Cory and I will leave for future generations of our families.


Years ago, my mother explored the genealogy of her mother’s side of the family – the Parkers.  She fairly quickly found names and family trees, but only after reconnecting with several distant cousins who had been privy to the histories and humanity of these people, discovered that our ancestors were colorful, flawed, and deeply interesting.  Several generations were well-educated, which led to some extremely interesting family names: “Socrates”; “Conazine”; “Amazon”; “Amaranth”; and “Philander”.  Other lineages spawned itinerant preachers who traveled through western Alabama and eastern Mississippi spreading the Gospel, with one eventually making his home in Big Creek.  There were also a few darker components to our history.  One generation owned slaves, and Parkers were killed on both sides of the Civil War.  Fortunes were made and lost.  A story was passed down about Amazon Parker, whose husband was shot by an unknown assailant as he rode through their pasture.   Upon receiving the news, she ordered his body “buried where it fell”; not long after, she remarried the plantation foreman and the identity of her husband’s killer was never discovered, nor investigated.

Copy of tintype photo of Amazon Parker, courtesy of Jan Bustin Walker

This study of my ancestors made me realize that there is depth to the people we’re so used to thinking of as flat images in frames.  Some day, generations away, I hope that some descendant of ours looks at our ambrotype and sees past the dated clothing, strange hairstyles, and ancient photographic process and understands that the heirloom they’re holding is more than just a flat image.  I hope someone tells them the stories we’re living, and those passed on through us.