Tintype portraiture at the Pfister Hotel

Kat Kneevers, Contributing writer

The Pfister Hotel was a storied location in Milwaukee’s past and remains vital in its present. One of the hotel’s great contributions to the community is its artist-in-residence program, now in its ninth year.

From a selection of applicants, one is chosen for the yearlong residency. The most recent honoree is photographer Margaret Muza, who began her stay April 1.

The artist’s studio is surprisingly public, located in a main corridor just east of the lobby and near the Mason Street Grill.

The large glass windows and wide-open door mark this as a place both set apart and accessible.

For Muza, welcoming visitors drifting into her photographic studio is central to her work. She specializes in tintype portraits, a form of photography that had its heyday more than 150 years ago.

Stepping into the studio is something of a step back into the Pfister’s history. Many of the vintage furnishings come from Muza’s own collection, and the deep green walls contain examples of her tintype portraits.

Muza explains that tintypes were especially popular from the 1850s through the 1870s.

“It’s a wet-plate photographic process, so there’s no film, no negative. It starts with applying a liquid emulsion and the tin goes through a series of chemical steps to become light sensitive. It’s ready to be exposed in a large-format view cameras.”

If you are having a tintype taken, you sit quietly and still in front of the camera and your image is gradually captured on the plate.

For the photographer, the image can be a little disconcerting as it appears upside down and backwards in the viewfinder.

“There’s no mirror with these types of cameras, so it’s just a direct image from the lens. It’s called a direct positive, so everything on the image is backwards — any words on your shirt or letters in the photo would be reversed,” notes Muza.

To mark the recent closing of another Milwaukee landmark — Karl Ratzsch’s restaurant, she went down the street to take a picture of its façade. The resulting image seemed vintage in every way save for the street parking sign in front of the building.

The proximity of the restaurant was important, as there is about a 15-minute window in which to develop a tintype.

“Anywhere I take a photo,” says Muza, “I have to be within walking distance to develop it right away. That makes it a little bit harder to take photos outside. I have to bring my darkroom in my trunk, or you have to be nearby the darkroom and chemistry.”

The studio in the Pfister is kitted out with cameras, including one set up with studio lights, ready for the next portrait. It is a large wooden apparatus, with housing about the same size as the photographic plate. Another camera, even larger, sat in the large studio window. This one was acquired by Muza in Kentucky, and can make pictures of about 24 inches square.

For Muza, photography was always something of interest, but the character of vintage images is what really captured her imagination.

“I just wanted to understand what made an old photograph so interesting to my eyes, my digitally trained eyes. I did some reading and found an article online written by a man describing how you could take a tintype, exactly how they did during the Civil War. Anyone could learn, and you could take a tintype anywhere. It’s almost instant so you could hand someone a portrait not long after taking it. I emailed him and said, ‘I want to learn this process from you; how do I sign up?’ I got a response about a week later that article was written in 1975 and he doesn’t even do this anymore.”

This was not a dead end, fortunately, but only a beginning as Muza continued to pursue the antique process of tintypes, all the way from taking a workshop in Brooklyn to eventually opening a studio in Bay View, and now to her time as Pfister Artist-In-Residence.

Gallery Night Preview

Gallery Night and Day in Milwaukee has become an institution over its 29-year history, and the upcoming spring event April 21–22 is full of artistic mainstays as well as special exhibitions throughout the downtown and surrounding areas.

The Whimsy Show

Milwaukee LGTB Community Center

1110 N. Market St., second floor

Friday, 5–8 p.m.


Four artists come together with their unique and colorful styles for this special Gallery Night event. “What Color is Your Thommie Square” will be presented by Thom J. Ertl, while paintings and drawings will be shown by Jenny Anderson and Mike Kasun respectively, as well as decorated purses by Francis Toledo.

Our Trans Family

ACLU of Wisconsin

207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 325

Friday 5–10 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.–3 p.m.


This exhibition is a collaboration between the Cream City Foundation, Diverse and Resilient and the Mary Nohl Foundation, featuring images celebrating transgender people and their families.

Existence as Protest

RedLine Milwaukee

1422 N. Fourth St.

Friday 5–9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.–3 p.m.


Artist and activist Gregg Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, presents an exhibition of work that addresses issues of identity and experience from an indigenous perspective.