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This Kansas City photographer is capturing the American landscape the old-fashioned way

A wall of portraits serve as a backdrop for tintype photographer Megan Karson in her Holsum Building studio in an old, industrial food processing warehouse in the historic West Bottoms.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
A wall of portraits serve as a backdrop for tintype photographer Megan Karson, shown here in her studio in the Holsum Building, a former industrial food processing warehouse in the historic West Bottoms.

Megan Karson is heading out on the open road this summer. She’ll spend the next three months making dreamy tintype images of the people she meets at pop up events in Montana and the Pacific Northwest.

In an age of fast, easy, and ephemeral digital images, Kansas City photographer Megan Karson is part of a movement to preserve antiquated photographic methods.

For half the year, Karson hunkers down in a West Bottoms studio to create dreamy, metallic images of men, women, children and pets. The rest of the time, the Kansas City native travels around the country capturing wild landscapes and one-of-a-kind photographs using silver, light and a 100-year-old wooden camera.

“I like to think of myself as an adventurous, old-timey camera lady,” Karson said. “I like to joke about how my camper van is my covered wagon and my dog, Rosemary, she's like my little road companion.”

Using her 1979 Chevy camper van as a traveling darkroom when she’s on the road, Karson makes images using a process known as wet plate photography, invented in England in 1851.

Montana Cowboy, Missoula, Montana 2023, left, and Saguaro/Century Plant, Arizona 2020.
Megan Karson
Karson's "Montana Cowboy, Missoula, Montana 2023," at left, and "Saguaro/Century Plant, Arizona 2020."

Last year, she made more than 400 tintype portraits from her van in 10 states. Her roadside adventures attract attention from other travelers and often spark conversations with strangers.

“It's fun sometimes to be on the side of the road with my gigantic camera and my cloak wrapped around myself while I'm working,” she said. “It's fascinating to people and I enjoy sharing that experience, because I'd like this art form to continue on in the world.”

Karson’s large, antique camera was gifted to her by a client who found it at a barn sale. It was moldy, the wood was broken, and it was missing a lens.

“I spent like days and days with little pieces of sandpaper cleaning it and polishing it, and staining it and resealing it,” she said.

Over the course of several months, Karson rebuilt it in her studio in the Holsum Building, an old, industrial food processing warehouse in the historic West Bottoms.

“Now, that's a very special camera to me because I felt like I made it and created it,” she said.

An archaic method revived

The practice of early photography is a combination of art and science. It’s a slow, deliberate process that begins in total darkness.

The first step is creating a light-sensitive plate with collodion, a flammable, syrupy solution of nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol, followed by a bath of silver.

Collaboration with Katy McRoberts, Kansas City 2022, left, and Chris Acker, New Orleans 2024.
Megan Karson
"Collaboration with Katy McRoberts, Kansas City 2022," at left, and "Chris Acker, New Orleans 2024"

“It's such a rare form of photography that it's kind of hard to find information,” she said. “I think over the last five years I've kind of honed in my skills and gotten better and better, but there's still stuff to learn and mistakes to make.”

The heyday of wet plate processes lasted until the 1880s, when tintypes fell out of favor as more modern photographic techniques evolved. By 1925, handheld cameras like Kodak’s Brownie made taking a photo cheap, easy and convenient.

The tintype’s cumbersome, expensive, not to mention toxic methods were cast aside for decades. In the 1970s, artists like John Coffer, who traveled in a horse and buggy taking photographs at Civil War reenactments, revived them.

“The history of it was just really fascinating to me and I wanted to learn,” Karson said. “Five years ago, I mentored under Will Dunniway in Southern California. He's since passed. I went out there and did a two-day workshop, one-on-one with him and learned that way.”

The process, Karson said, creates tangible objects that will last centuries and hopefully become meaningful family heirlooms.

Blackfoot River, Montana 2023
Megan Karson
Megan Karson's diptych "Blackfoot River, Montana 2023"

While the art form is perhaps more suited to the controlled confines of a studio, Karson’s passion is working outside. She creates diptychs and triptychs, or multiple exposures of a scene, to create a panorama effect of the untamed places she experiences on her forays into nature.

“I shoot a lot of landscapes,” Karson said. “Photographing portraits is my main source of income, but I love shooting landscapes and I love working outside and making images of nature.”

“That's what makes my heart the happiest,” she said.

But working on the road means Karson is often tested by the elements.

“I'm dealing with the temperature and the wind and the dust and the sun,” she said. “All that is very challenging.”

Photographer Steve Wilson is another artist in Kansas City who has spent years creating images with early and alternative photographic processes.

"What she's doing is not easy by any stretch," Wilson said. "Logistically, you have to have a place to land and chemically, there are so many variables that you have to deal with – especially in the heat — so she has some really technical issues she has to deal with.”

Wilson also admires what he called Karson’s ruggedly individualistic spirit.

"What a great life adventure she's having. I'm so impressed with her work and the verve that she chases that with," Wilson said "She's taking it to a whole new level with her wet plate tours and I find it fascinating."

Karson said it’s nice to know there’s another photographer in Kansas City who might be able to troubleshoot a problem.

“We nerd out a lot,” she said. “We'll borrow things from each other when I'm out of a chemical that's impossible to find.”

On the way to a portrait session, Karson loads her 1979 Chevy campervan. She spends about half the year traveling around the country taking photographs or the people and places she sees not he open road.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Karson loads her 1979 Chevy camper van for a private portrait session. She spends about half the year traveling around the country taking photographs of the people and places she finds.

Karson’s new project has her photographing musicians as an artist-in-residence at the New Orleans Photo Alliance. She captures her subjects in the comforts of their homes, in their backyards or on their porches. She plans to make the environmental portraits an ongoing series.

“I have a lot of friends down there who are musicians, many who spend the majority of the year touring and traveling,” she said. “As someone who also tours and travels a significant amount, I really understand and relate to how special the moments that you get at home are, because they're very fleeting.”

With clear skies and summer months ahead, she’s packing up her camper van. Karson will spend June in Montana hosting pop-up portrait sessions, and will make her way to Washington state for August.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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