Born 150 Years Too Late -John Coffer

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Born 150 Years Too Late -John Coffer

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Coffer-crop-flip-1000x532WATCH THE VIDEO BELOW

 

Published: August 3, 2006

 

FRED R. CONRAD/The New York Times

John A. Coffer sitting for a portrait on his farm in Dundee, N.Y.

THERE are those who, on hearing that the tintype photographer John A. Coffer lives without car, phone or plumbing, might call him a Luddite. This, he insists, is not true — for one thing, he has a computer. He even has a computer room. The walls are bales of hay, the roof is tin, and the power source is a 75-watt solar panel outside in the pasture. Mr. Coffer, who lives on a 48-acre farm in the Finger Lakes, built his computer room in March. It’s lasted nicely through heavy rains and if it falls apart, Mr. Coffer says, no matter: He’s invested all of $15 in it.

You consider yourself a dedicated artist because you lived in a tenement walk-up without air-conditioning? Mr. Coffer, who is one of the few people credited with a recent revival of tintype photography, and who supports himself with the sale of his work and his tintype workshops, does not just make photographs as one did in the 1860’s, he lives, to a large extent, the way one might have in the 1860’s. (In late July, he played host to his sixth annual tintype jamboree, free of cost, for dozens of fellow aficionados.)

He spent seven years on the road with a horse and buggy, and that’s the way he still gets around. He uses an outhouse. He lives in a small log cabin, which he built. The heat in the cabin comes from a wood-burning cast-iron stove, so that everything in the cabin, including Mr. Coffer, has the soft, smoky scent of soot.

One also senses, early on, a low smoldering anger. Mr. Coffer, who, with his suspenders, straw hat, horse and buggy, is frequently mistaken for Amish, is not a mad artist in the woods, but he can be a somewhat cranky one. Asked why subjects in 19th-century photos rarely smiled, he says it is because they were dignified; it is only in recent times that people “feel they have to show their teeth like a used-car salesman.” He is annoyed with the values of modern women — an attitude which is easier to understand once you learn that his wife, after a short time in the cabin, ran off.

And while Mr. Coffer, who is 54, prides himself on living off the grid, he does not want to be lost there. Meeting a reporter for the first time, he brings his scrapbook of newspaper stories about his life on the road. Much of Mr. Coffer’s work in those days was at Civil War re-enactments, and as he flipped through his scrapbook, he said that he sometimes drove eight and a half days in his buggy to get to a site, while the re-enactors pulled up in their trucks or vans.

“You’d be surprised at how delicate some of these re-enactors are,” Mr. Coffer said.

No one could ever accuse Mr. Coffer of being delicate. His log cabin is 12 feet square. He hauls water from his well with a two-bucket yoke. He sleeps in a small loft, with sheets that scream out for an intervention. Since Mr. Coffer has no refrigerator to which he can affix photos, a few favorite tintypes cling to the cross-saws on the cabin wall.

One shows two young women Mr. Coffer met at a Civil War re-enactment a few weeks ago. They’d been bored, so he’d photographed them in their Civil War underwear — pantaloons and tops — along with a whiskey jug and gun belt that he added “to make it interesting.” Mr. Coffer is a man, it is becoming clear, who could use an online dating service, but as his computer is not connected to the Internet, some hardy woman of pioneering spirit will have to find him, taking care not to kick the chickens as she crosses the cabin threshold.

It is also clear that Mr. Coffer is a very handy fellow. His farm includes a half-dozen structures: wagon barns, outhouse, darkrooms, root cellar, all of which he built. The skull atop Mr. Coffer’s corral is what remains of White Lightning, an ox who appeared in many of his tintypes. Mr. Coffer reduced the skull to bone by placing it on an anthill.

Mr. Coffer is not opposed to all modern convenience. His solar panel charges batteries for the single bulb in his cabin and for the radio on which he listens to NPR. He keeps his expenses to the bone. His cabin cost $800, most of it for cedar shingles. The handsome claw-foot cast-iron tub near the woods, in which he bathes in fine weather, was $1. The 60-gallon cauldron that he uses to heat bath water was $20.

How often does he bathe?

Twice a week in winter, when he uses a portable aluminum tub indoors; every day in summer.

What about the sheets?

Mr. Coffer proudly led the way to a 1925 Maytag, which is outside the cabin, near the woods. The rubber wringer is corroded but the inside is fine. Mr. Coffer hauls the water from his well and hooks the Maytag up to a battery. The washer cost $15 at a farm sale.

The big question: why does Mr. Coffer choose to live like this?

“Modern living was always too fast for me,” he said. “I was not good at 20th-century living.”

He grew up in Las Vegas. His father was a magician and hypnotist; his mother was a schoolteacher who refused to marry his father until he became a responsible provider. That turned out to be never. His father gambled; both parents were hooked on diet pills. Both are now dead. Although his father was “kind of a louse,” Mr. Coffer admired his independence.

Mr. Coffer, as a young man, tried several careers: doing underwater construction on oil rigs; running a diving business; working as a studio photographer in Orlando, his subjects schoolchildren and businessmen.

“There was one approach to portraiture,” he later wrote, in a self-published book “Horsehair In My Soup: Book 1.” “The broad smile, the flash, the color prints that fade all too soon and the aura of glamour that surrounded the studio began to grate against my sensibilities. Something within me was intent at looking deeper than face level.”

Then one day, he saw an old wooden Century Number 4 camera in a shop window and knew, in an instant, that it would change his life. He bought the camera for $50 and began photographing re-enactments, soon trading in his car for a horse and buggy. He mixed his own chemicals, creating images on glass and metal plates.

It took about an hour to make a portrait, including sensitizing the plate, taking the picture, then developing, fixing, washing, drying and varnishing the plate. Subjects also had to sit unmoving for several seconds, sometimes with the aid of a neck brace. Sitting for that amount of time, it is difficult to hide one’s true face.

On the road, Mr. Coffer also found a wife.

“Big mistake,” Mr. Coffer says now. His wife had wanted adventure, but after a while she said she’d leave if they didn’t settle down. In 1985, they came to Yates County, where land was $300 an acre and an Amish community provided a support system for horse-drawn conveyances. Mr. Coffer’s wife stuck around for the building of the cabin. Then came her demands for the car and the phone, he said. Then, he said, after two years in the cabin, she ran off with Mr. Coffer’s assistant for the bright lights of Ithaca. She left him 18 years ago and Mr. Coffer hasn’t had an affair of the heart since.

“Nobody likes it up here, I guess,” he said, out in the canvas-covered darkroom in the pasture, as evening came on and with it time to milk the cow. “It’s like a monastery here, I guess.”

He could go out and try to meet a woman.

“I used to do all that, go to singles bars,” Mr. Coffer said. “It was cheap. It just wasn’t fulfilling. I don’t want to live up to other people’s expectations. I own this land, 50 acres free and clear. I’ve got a lot of money in the bank. I’ve been in galleries in New York. And yet girls go, ‘He doesn’t have a phone.’ ” Mr. Coffer rarely curses, but speaking about women, he does. They’ll chase down a guy 10 feet in debt over his head, working at some dead-end job, who’s got a phone and a car, he said angrily.

Actually, it’s probably the lack of plumbing, he was told.

“I love my outhouse,” Mr. Coffer said. “It is a little bit of a challenge in January, but I don’t linger out there.”

Also, since we’re on the subject, there’s no place inside the cabin to bathe. That claw foot tub near the trees might be okay in August, once, if a lady is feeling like doing a little nymph in the woods number, but after that, forget it. There aren’t many hippie chicks left. And Mr. Coffer is 54, and if we’re talking women his own age, they’ll be getting up in the middle of the night to hit the bathroom. Often.

Mr. Coffer was unmoved. He happens to like living as he does, he said. Conveniences like e-mail and phones end up being your master. Driving a horse and buggy, he’s not beholden to auto and gas companies.

“I was a great student of how people lived in the 19th century,” he said. “I emulate my heroes, the independence people had, the old wagons and things. It’s just more of an earthy way of moving, the natural rhythm, the poetry, the pace.”

And he headed down to the pasture, to the cows.

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