With The Last Jedi rapidly approaching, everyone’s been thinking not only of the future of Star Wars, but also of its past.
For many of us, myself included, Star Wars didn’t just stay on the screen. It became a big part of everyday life. Whether that meant Halloween costumes, toys, comics, novels, or cardboard box AT-ATs—Star Wars became ingrained in our childhoods.
Photographer and art editor Matthew Magruder preserves his own childhood memories with his “(Tiny) Star Wars” photo series, using a technique that’s been around way longer than the movies themselves: Wet plate collodion, or tintype, a photographic process that dates back to the 19th century. It gives the images a uniquely vintage look that turns carefully arranged Star Wars toys into black-and-white works of art.
We first became aware of his art through io9's Star Wars Facebook group, The Carbonite Freezer (which you should totally join), where fans share their artwork, cosplay, thoughts, critiques (and pretty much anything else) about the Star Wars universe.
We caught up with Macgruder via email to discuss his process, how he came to photograph his old toys, and what Star Wars means to him.
io9: How did you get into photography (and specifically tintype)?
Matthew Magruder: Photography started in my 20s when I was big into rock climbing and would take photos with a 35mm Canon and B&W [film] during my climbing trips and excursions. As my interest grew, I became interested in historic/alternative photography (cyanotypes, Van Dyke Brown). This trajectory led to learning the wet plate collodion (tintype) process. I’ve made thousands of tintypes but the stage of watching the developed plate go from a milky blue negative to a gorgeous warm positive right there in the fixer bath never gets old. The photographic processes I hold dear are ones that resonate with the way I see and feel about the world. Tintypes in particular feel like they connect with my way of seeing. I can shoot two tintypes back to back of the same person or scene and they are each unique in flaws and light and the moment.
io9: How did you decide to start taking pics of your Star Wars toys?
Magruder: My parents were going through their storage during a move and gave me a box of my childhood toys and memorabilia. And in these boxes were all my old Star Wars toys. As I was going through them I was flooded with so many wonderful memories of “playing” and the prominent role Star Wars has played throughout my life. I grew up a military brat so we moved frequently. I have numerous memories of connecting in a new place with friends around things like Star Wars.
Like so many others, the Original Trilogy films have always been comfort movies for me. I watch at them least once a year out of habit, nostalgia, and comfort, especially in preparation for the upcoming release of a new one.
With this in mind and going back to the “playing” memories, I felt a desire to find a way to play with them again as a 39 year old. The first tintype I made was an 8x10 of the Wampa from Empire. After making the first one I got hooked and just loved how light-hearted yet meaningful and personal the photographs felt, both in the process of creation and final result. The shallow depth of field and focus skewed the perspective on them and brought them to life, and I loved the texture and the amount of character that got conveyed.
It snowballed from there. I’ve made close to 50 4x5 tintypes of all the individual action figures I could get my hands on. I’ve also made a bunch of 8x10s, including some multi-plate assemblages, such as a four-piece 16x20 of an AT-AT and a 10x32 4-sided panoramic of an AT-ST.
io9: How far does your Star Wars fandom go? Are you out at cons, going to midnight premieres, a collector of merch?
Magruder: It’s pretty deep but definitely not exclusive. My sci-fi love covers a lot of area. I equally love most versions of Star Trek from the original to present TV/movies, Aliens, Marvel MCU, DC movies, Blade Runner, Lord of the Rings/Hobbit, Firefly, etc. I haven’t gone to midnight premieres in recent years, but I was at the midnight premieres of the Special Edition releases back in the late ’90s and the Prequel Trilogy. I may or may not have worn a Chewbacca jacket to the release of Rogue One.
I think I got my Last Jedi tickets ordered back in September along with another Mondo-laden pint glass. I love pop culture alt-movie posters from artists like Matt Ferguson (my favorite), Tyler Stout, Jock, Rory Kurtz, and shops like Nakatomi, Bottleneck, and Mondo.
io9: How does the Tintype process relate to your own personal interpretation of art and/or Star Wars?
Magruder: The wet plate collodion process struck a chord as I enjoy learning, challenge, and the act of working to master something. I’m still working on the mastery part of wet plate (likely a lifelong endeavor), but there is a comfort and familiarity with the process that is deeply satisfying. The mere act of creating something right then and there in my hands is creatively satisfying in a way that not many other things have ever been for me. It’s involved and laborious to travel to a location, set up the camera, get my portable dark box situated, set up the chemistry, etc. but it’s worth it when I get to see that final product right there a few minutes later.
With regards to Star Wars I also find that there’s a contextual friction or conflict between the historic nature of the process—it was prominent in the 1800s—and the scifi nature of the subject matter. Plus it just seems oddly paired and I enjoy when things are a little odd.
This interview has been condensed and edited for time and clarity.
We’ve selected a few more of Magruder’s photographs to view below, but you can see even more of his Star Wars photography, and other work, on his website.