Through an acrid haze of cannon smoke, the boys in blue of the 49th Indiana Volunteers advance toward a ragged band of Johnny Rebs strung out along the edge of a damp wood. Not a musket shot away, hooded under his black velvet drape, a photographer bends behind the tripod of his bulky antique lens box, waiting to capture the action. The scene is a throwback to another era—and so is the man behind the camera.
Five years ago, John Coffer, 31, sold his car, his condo, his stereo and his furniture to set himself up in the life of a 19th-century itinerant photographer. In a horse-drawn darkroom and a covered wagon pulled by oxen, he travels the country pikes of small-town America with his wife, Sue, 28, recording the timeless images of ordinary folks and would-be Civil War heroes like the mock combatants at Indiana’s annual Yellow River Festival. Using century-old equipment and techniques, he produces wet-plate tintypes, glass-plate ambrotypes and stereoviews—paired images that form a 3-D picture when viewed through an antique stereopticon.
For Coffer, living in the past is more than just a pose. In his broad-brimmed hat, wire-frame spectacles, beard and worsted clothes, he looks the picture of a traveling darkroom magician of the 1880s. He buys his homespun garb from an outfitter in Corinth, Miss, who stitches Civil War uniforms for history buffs, while Sue dresses in ankle-length woolens and antique jackets. The 6′-by-10′ covered wagon they call home is heated by a small wood-burning stove. The only visible concessions to the 20th century are a cassette player and a jar of germinating alfalfa sprouts.
“A lot of people think it’s romantic, like a rolling Little House on the Prairie,” says Sue. “Well, there’s truth to it, but I don’t see my life as highly romantic and neither does John. It’s a lot of work feeding the animals and putting up with the weather, but there is peace.” Sue helps her husband with customers and the props of his trade: painted canvas backdrop, lady’s settee and the hats, bustles and frock coats that subjects wear to look the part.
Despite his resemblance to the legendary Mathew Brady, Coffer says that the pioneering photographer who documented the Civil War isn’t his hero. “If I have heroes,” allows John, “they’re the little guys who didn’t make it into the history books, the ones who recorded plain soldiers and farm folk.” Coffer tries to duplicate the methods of these wandering lensmen down to the last detail. After setting up his subject, he dashes into his cramped darkroom to wet a specially prepared plate with chemicals that make it light sensitive. Then he rushes the plate back to the camera and opens the lens for about 20 seconds while the sitter poses still as Mount Rushmore. An hour or so later, if Coffer has judged the exposure right and the subject didn’t move, the satisfied customer walks away with a portrait, complete with antiqued frame. “It’s a different look,” explains John. “You can’t just hide behind a quick smile. When you have to sit still and stare into the camera that long, the real person comes out.”
It took some time for the real person to come out in Coffer. He was raised by his widowed schoolteacher mother in Las Vegas and studied oceanography at the Florida Institute of Technology. He hoped to become an underwater photographer, a la Jacques Cousteau, but found that the only openings were with oil companies. He held a series of odd jobs, such as driving the Monorail at Disneyland and running a charter boat service, but in 1976 he stumbled on his true passion in a secondhand photo store: an 80-year-old Century View camera. Two years later, after practicing the unfamiliar techniques in his own Florida shopping mall portrait studio, Coffer hit the road.
In 1980 his travels took him to a Mojave desert ghost town, where he met Sue, who has an art degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey. She was working in a printing shop. “John pulled into town in his wagon,” she says, “and we had a courtship exploring old mining towns. I thought he needed an assistant.” They married soon after in Victorian costume in Oregon.
Today, after putting nearly 10,000 miles behind them, the Coffers have decided to settle down, possibly on a farm in Pennsylvania’s Amish country, where the locals share their commitment to the simple life. “There are ways,” says Sue, “to learn valuable lessons from history and integrate them into your life. That shows in John’s photos. He feels such a sense of dignity in the people in those old photos. They don’t look like movie stars, but they are proud of who they are and what they have.”