Images and Words: An Online History of Photography

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McGraw HillRobert Hirsch Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography, Second edition (McGraw-Hill, 2009)
Chapter: 4 Section: 1
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4 Pictures on Glass: The Wet-Plate Process

4.1. The Albumen Process

The 1840s saw the cornerstones of modernity, capitalism, and science applied to photography, as inventors searched for a low-cost, easy-to-use process that would combine the detail of the daguerreotype with the reproducibility of the calotype. Activity centered on making glass negatives, which were an ideal emulsion support base, cheaper than a silvered plate, and free from the drawbacks of the paper process. The chief obstacle in devising an efficient glass-backed process was finding a way to keep the silver salts from dissolving or floating off the glass during processing. In 1847 Claude Félix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor (1805–1870), a cousin of Nicéphore Niépce , discovered that albumen (egg white) provided an excellent binder for silver salts on glass plates. While this breakthrough blended the desired attributes of the daguerreotype and the calotype, the process’s five-minute minimum sunlight exposure time was not conducive to making portraits. [2|4|1|863]

 
Anon.
A Promising Outlook
1888 (ca)
Lithograph
8 x 11 in (approx)
 
Stereographica - Antique Photographica
Courtesy of Bryan and Page Ginns (#20 / 229)
 
Lithographed illustration from the Boy’s Own Paper
 
LL/31534
 
 
Additional examples:
 
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LL/31534 LL/31556 LL/31565 
LL/31566 LL/31398 LL/31395 
LL/31393 LL/29781 LL/29782 
LL/29783 LL/29784 



 
In 1849 Frederick Scott Archer (1813–1857), who had learned the calotype process as a visual aid for his portrait bust business, turned his "attention to collodion as a substitute for paper, with the hope that by its means a surer and more delicate medium might be produced to work upon than paper was ever likely to be."1 Archer coated a glass plate with iodized collodion and exposed it while it was wet. This proved to be the recipe for success, where as previous investigators had failed using collodion as a dry base to which iodide of silver was applied.2 The so-called collodion process provided a finely detailed negative, one that was endlessly reproducible and required less exposure time than Niépce’s method. [2|4|1|864]

 
Frederick Scott Archer
Frederick Scott Archer
1855 (ca)
Albumen print
14.3 x 10 cm
 
Creative Commons - Wikipedia
Further source information requested.
 
LL/33113
 
 

Archer did not patent his method, but Talbot claimed that Archer’s process, wherein a latent image was imprinted on a light-sensitive surface that had to be developed out and fixed, was an infringement on his own calotype patent. Talbot announced that he would prosecute any commercial portrait photographers who used the collodion process without his license. In December 1853, Silvester Laroche resisted an injunction issued by Talbot against his Oxford Street studio. The case went to trial and on December 20, 1854, a jury declared Laroche not guilty, freeing England at last from Talbot’s threats and patents. Since Talbot did not appeal or renew his calotype patent, and Daguerre’s English patent had expired in 1853, England’s professional photographers were now able to use any process without paying a licensing fee. [2|4|1|865]

The collodion process became known as the wet-plate process because all the procedures had to be carried out while the plate was damp, since the ether in the collodion rapidly evaporated. The coating procedure required speed, on-the-spot darkroom access, and the ability to follow preparation directions that read like a cookbook. Before making an exposure it was necessary to pour the collodion, with potassium iodide, a mixture of alcohol, ether, and nitrated cellulose (known as guncotton due to its explosive nature), onto a clean prepared glass plate under darkroom conditions. The photographer had to tilt the plate back and forth to ensure an even coat or the pour marks would be visible in the negative. Next, the plate was dipped into a sensitizing bath of silver nitrate and then immediately placed into the camera and exposed (sensitivity dropped greatly as the collodion dried). As soon as the exposure was made, the plate was developed in pyrogallic acid and fixed with cyanide or sodium hypo-sulphite (hypo). [2|4|1|866]

 
Anon.
Polishing the plate
1878
Book illustration
Private collection
Preparing and processing a collodion wet-plate. From Gaston Tissandier, A History and Handbook of Photography edited by John Thomson, 1878.
 
LL/33126
 
 
Additional examples:
 
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LL/33126 LL/42276 LL/42277 
LL/33127 LL/33128 LL/33129 

Photographers were willing to put up with these difficulties as the collodion’s increased light sensitivity meant that small, highly detailed portraits could be made in as little as two seconds. Also, as glass plate negatives printed faster than paper negatives, prints could be produced more quickly and cheaply. Collodion’s raw materials were inexpensive, and once mastered tended to be more constant and predictable than the paper processes. By 1855 the majority of commercial photographers had added collodion to their repertoire. Collodion ushered in a period of growth and good fortune for the budding commercial photographic community. It would eventually dethrone the daguerreotype, calotype, and albumen processes and reign until the introduction of the gelatin dry plate in the 1880s. [2|4|1|868]

4.2. The New Transparent Look

The introduction of the collodion process solved a series of technical problems and heralded a new aesthetic ideal as well. Photographers had been dissatisfied with "the imperfections of paper photography" and wanted a negative capable of delivering "fineness of surface [and] transparency."3 They desired a negative/ positive process capable of rendering a consistent tonal range with ample density and detail in the highlight and shadow areas. Collodion’s transparent glass support solved these difficulties and resolved the aesthetic concerns of clarity, chiaroscuro, and resolution, signaling the demise of what D. O. Hill saw as the artistic virtues of the calotype—its rough and unequal texture. [2|4|2|869]

 
Hill & Adamson
D.O. Hill, R.S.A.
1843
Salted paper print
21.4 x 16.4 cm
 
George Eastman House
Record Id: 1979:0012:0009
 
LL/35636
 
 

"Transparency" referred to a direct translation of reality in which subjects were not "suggested," as in the calotype, but were clearly stated and defined without overt intervention, as in the daguerreotype. Naturalism began to be the benchmark of photographic practice. Its goal was not to interpret or interact but to concretely represent the world, naturally, with previously unmatched depth of clarity, capable of preserving enormous amounts of visual information. The glass support of the collodion replaced the obscure shadow areas of the calotype with a clear, distinct, and unobstructed view. The idea of naturalism would lead to a decline in retouching the negative for serious artistic effect, and indirectly supported the notion that photography was an authorless process in which the subject imposed its presence onto a plate. Such an uncompromised natural image was thought to be "truer," easier to see and understand than anything previously obtainable. [2|4|2|870]



 
A new printing paper was essential to retain the detail and sharpness of the glass negative. The first practical albumen paper, with a smooth and glossy surface, was designed by Blanquart-Evrard in 1850 and rapidly supplanted the matte surface of the calotype, remaining in use until the end of the nineteenth century. According to J. Towler’s 1864 edition of The Silver Sunbeam, when making albumen paper, one was supposed to use only fresh eggs and then get "the white of egg, entirely freed from the germ and yolk, and beat the egg up well with a wooden spatula until it is completely converted into froth. This operation must be performed in a place as perfectly free from dust as possible; and then the albuminous mixture is covered with a clean sheet of paper and put aside to settle for a number of hours." Fortunately, while photographers could make their own albumen paper, it also could be purchased already prepared, spawning the beginning of the manufacture of presensitized paper. [2|4|2|871]

 
J. Towler (author)
Title page for "The Silver Sunbeam (Eighth edition)" by J. Towler (New York: E.& H.T. Anthony & Co., 1873)
1873
Title page
Google Books
The enlarged eighth edition includes a large number of woodcuts.
 
Interestingly the woodcuts are usually placed on pages that have no relationship at all to the textual content.
 
LL/34520
 
 

The laborious steps in the albumen paper process included beating the mass of egg white; allowing it to froth in earthenware vats; fermenting it in tall glass jars; filtering it, beating it again, refiltering it, and salting it with chlorides; and dying it pink, mauve, or blue. Then paper, such as Rives B. F. K., was floated by hand in the mixture. Next, the paper was dried and stored for three to six months, so the albumen could completely harden, and then it was coated again and hung up to dry in the reverse direction to equalize the unevenness of the first coating. [2|4|2|872]

Albumen paper gave a new look and consistency to photographic printmaking, allowing for the production of editions, where the first to the last images all look the same. Such consistency had not been possible with the calotype, where differences in the surface and texture of the paper support and the hand-applied emulsion produced noticeable changes when multiple prints were made. This new found consistency diminished the distinctive differences of the individual print, causing it to lose its uniqueness and reducing its market value as an artistic object. Another major atttribute of the paper print—its replaceability—also meant that people did not give the photograph the respect they had given the daguerreotype. A damaged albumen print was not considered a catastrophe, as another print could be made. [2|4|2|873]



 
This idea of the replaceability of photographs was encouraged as the photograph became synonymous with other machine-produced objects of the industrial culture. Photography became commercially viable, as more of its components could be carried out by a division of labor that allowed a few skilled managers to control an operation of unskilled employees. Assembly-line production techniques and attitudes replaced those of a personally crafted object. By 1894, the Dresden Albumenizing Company’s staff of 180 opened 60,000 eggs daily for the production of double-albumenized paper.4 Repeatability had substituted for the calotype’s distinctive atmosphere and character, as easy replication became the order of photographic business by the end of the 1850s. [2|4|2|874]

 
Anon.
Dresden Albumenized Paper
1892
Advert
Google Books
The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times - Almanac for 1892, Volume 6, Advertising section, p.117.
 
LL/35310
 
 

The collodion process produced a tremendous demand for albumen paper. The new paper not only provided more detail than a salted paper print, but it changed the surface look of the paper photograph. The albumen’s glossy surface sheen gave photo-based images a novel appearance. This glossiness was considered very modern and machine-like and was accepted as part of the new system of representation. It also further removed the photographic print from traditional printmaking, where shininess was an undesirable characteristic. In collodion’s early days, practitioners diluted their albumen with salt water to reduce the gloss to a luster. As the wet plate’s popularity grew, photographers used undiluted albumen to reveal the abundant detail of their glass negatives, raise the contrast level, and provide a greater luster to the print. By the 1860s double-coating of the paper with albumen became a standard practice, giving prints a truly glossy appearance. [2|4|2|875]

The base color of the paper, once the dominion of each photographer, became standardized as commercially prepared papers, with a limited range of colors, achieved market domination. These new surface changes provided unmistakable evidence that the image originated from a photo-based process. Albumen prints were gold-toned to make the print more stable and alter their intense red-brick color to a more acceptable warm purplish-brown or even a blue-black hue. [2|4|2|876]


Ambrotypes
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4.3. The Ambrotype

The rapid commercial adoption of the collodion process and the immediate invention of a series of spin-off processes—the ambrotype, the tintype, and the carte de visite—ensured collodion’s rapid domination of the field. The ambrotype was a collodion, positive-looking image on glass that when first introduced was referred to as a "collodion positive." The name ambrotype was devised by the Philadelphia daguerreotypist Marcus A. Root in 1855, from a Greek word meaning "imperishable." When first shown in the United States, in December 1854, they were called daguerreotypes on glass and often were mistaken for daguerreotypes because they too are laterally reversed, one-of-a-kind objects that are frequently hand-colored, made in the same-size formats, and put into similar cases. In Europe ambrotypes were generally referred to as amphitypes. The ambrotype lacked the highly reflective surface of a daguerreotype and appeared somewhat dull in comparison, but it was less expensive to make. Frederick Archer and other calotypists discovered that the density of a collodion negative could be varied through a bleaching process. When such a bleached image was viewed by reflected light against a dark background, it appeared as a positive. This effect can be observed with any negative, even without using a bleaching process. In practice, most photographers underdeveloped or underexposed the glass plate to achieve the same effect. After processing, the plate was varnished on the front to protect the image surface and then lacquered with an opaque black on its backside or placed against black paper or velvet. It is often possible to identify an ambrotype because its backing has deteriorated. When the black varnish starts to crack and fracture the image can give a visual sense of separation and physical relief (fake 3-D) as well as a ghostlike translucence. [2|4|3|877]

 
Anon.
Untitled Portrait - Ambrotype with half the backing removed to show positive and negative effect
1858 (ca)
Ambrotype
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin
LL/33130
 
 
Additional examples:
 
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LL/33130 LL/6897 LL/18521 
LL/9194 LL/17453 LL/17454 
LL/13036 


History of the Miniature Case
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The Henry Clay case
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Ambrotypes
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Ambrotypes often were set in elaborately designed, molded, and hinged cases called Union Cases. Introduced in the early 1850s, Union Cases marked the beginning of thermoplastic molding in the United States and were produced in hundreds of designs featuring scenes derived from classical works of art and popular culture concerning history, nature, patriotism, and religion. Sometimes the photographer’s name and hometown were imprinted on the gold-colored interior mat or the case’s velvet "pillow" as an abbreviated form of advertising; other times, a printed card with greater detail would be secured inside the case. The case gave the ambrotype a physical weight. Secured with a catch, it also maintained an element of surprise, a sense of drama as one held a jewel box-like object in one’s hands, wondering what was going to be pictured inside. As the case was opened this sense of theater became part of the viewing experience. [2|4|3|878]

 
Holmes, Booth and Haydens (maker)
Berg 1-9
n.d.
Union case
Private collection
Courtesy "Nineteenth Century Photographic Cases and Wall Frames"
© Paul K. Berg - Used with permission
 
LL/11887
 
 
Additional examples:
 
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LL/11887 LL/11893 LL/11895 
LL/11900 LL/11906 LL/11917 
LL/11889 LL/11891 LL/11899 
LL/11905 LL/11903 LL/11911 
LL/11912 LL/11921 LL/11918 
LL/12483 LL/11999 


Ambrotypes
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Japanese Ambrotypes
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Ambrotypes were generally used in portraiture. The posing was usually intimate, featuring tight head and shoulder shots, which worked well with the small format generally chosen. The glass surface of the ambrotype could reflect a viewer’s image into the scene, though not as intensely as the daguerreotype. A negative image could be produced by holding the ambrotype at different angles to the light, but it was still much easier to view than a daguerreotype. Unlike most American daguerreotypes, some ambrotype cases had hooks on the back for wall hanging, and others had pop-up legs to allow the picture to stand upright in its frame. By the mid-1850s the ambrotype had surpassed the daguerreotype as the portrait medium. [2|4|3|879]

 
Anon.
Butcher with Rabbits
1860 (ca)
Ambrotype, 1/4 plate
Christopher Wahren Fine Photographs
Christopher Wahren Fine Photographs - Auction (Skylight Gallery Catalog 28,April 30, 2009, #21)
 
Showing a butcher with two rabbits. Pink tinting applied to butcher's face and hands. Housed in a period passe-partout mount with faux tortoiseshell design. Overall dimensions of mount 6 x 5 inches (15x12 cm).
 
An extremely unusual image of a French butcher preparing this tasty foodstuff. Despite numerous pet rabbit images, this image of a rabbit being prepared for food is the first such I have seen. In the 19th-century and earlier, animals (particularly small ones like rabbits) were killed much closer to the time of consumption. (Christopher Wahren)
 
LL/32287
 
 
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LL/15288 LL/11243 LL/11341 
LL/6627 LL/29789 


Ambrotypes
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In July 1854, James Ambrose Cutting (1814–1867) tried to profit from the American portrait business by patenting a method for sealing collodion images in their cases.5 Outraged over Cutting’s "ambrotype patent," American photographers banded together for the first time, eventually forming the National Photographic Convention, to fight what they considered to be an illegal patent. The patent was reversed in 1868 thanks to this organized effort and to the rising popularity of new imaging systems such as the stereograph and the carte de visite. By 1861, however, the ambrotype was on the way out and the making of collodion pictures on paper was in.6 [2|4|3|880]

 
Edward Anthony
Bottle of Developer based upon the patent of James A. Cutting used in the collodion process
n.d.
Bottle
Collection Matthew R. Isenburg
LL/9710
 
 
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Tintypes
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Tintypes - Exterior views (1860-1900)
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4.4. Pictures On Tin

A second collodion spin-off method was the ferrotype, first described by French photographer Adolphe Alexandre Martin in 1853. The name ferrotype (in Latin ferrum is iron) was originally used by Robert Hunt in the mid-1840s for a paper negative process (Energiatype) that utilized an iron-compound developer. Basically an ambrotype made on a thin piece of sheet iron instead of glass, the ferrotype was an enameled black or brown-black plate that was coated with collodion and sensitized just before exposure. The process was patented in February 1856 by Hamilton L. Smith (b. 1819), who assigned his patent rights to his collaborator Peter Neff. The patent only covered how to produce what Neff advertised as melainotypes. Neff attempted to exploit the process’s commercial potential by building a tinplate factory, sending out teachers to instruct daguerreotype operators in the new method, and giving away a 53-page manual, The Melainotype Process, Complete. Tintypes, as they were known in America, were made in a variety of sizes, the most common being 2 1/4 x 3 1/2 inches (the same size as the carte de visite), and were often hand-colored. The name, tintype, evolved from popular usage. The tintype never achieved a high level of market influence, but it did find a niche and outlasted all the wet-plate processes (a dry tintype process was introduced in 1891). It was used by itinerant and street photographers until it was replaced by the Polaroid process in the 1950s. [2|4|4|881]

 
Anon.
Fireman
n.d.
Tintype, 1/6 plate
Be-Hold
Courtesy of Larry Gottheim - Be-Hold (46 / 62)
 
LL/9053
 
 
Additional examples:
 
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LL/9053 LL/33131 LL/11353 
LL/29767 LL/10831 LL/27074 
LL/8638 LL/9065 LL/24289 
LL/11542 LL/6933 LL/22007 
LL/24363 LL/32255 LL/9081 
LL/30977 LL/30978 LL/24358 


Tintypes
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Tintypes - Exterior views (1860-1900)
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Tintypes were the visual currency of soldiers and their families during the American Civil War because they were lightwight, durable, and cheap, with little "gem" sized tintypes, taken with a multilens camera, being sold in multiples for 25 cents. Many tintypists were unskilled in other photographic processes, and occupied the lowest rung on the photographic ladder. In fact, big city studio photographers considered tintypes to be low-class pictures practiced by "cheapjacks" who were only interested in making quick money, who knew nothing about photography, and whose deceitful practices diminished the profession’s reputation. Those who specialized in the process often traveled from town to town, working on the street, out of a wagon, or in a rented room, using a modified camera that doubled as a tiny darkroom and allowed all the processing to take place inside the camera. Such cameras had slotted bottoms to hold canisters of developer and fixer for processing. After fixing, the plate was given a quick rinse in a bucket of water, waved through the air to speed drying, and handed to the customer. It was considered an instant process since it could be done in about a minute. The tintype was never as popular in Europe, where it was used almost exclusively by street and seaside photographers. Like most daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, tintypes are generally unsigned works. Its practitioners are the largely forgotten and unnamed photographers we know today as "anonymous" or "unknown photographer." [2|4|4|883]

 
Anon.
Ferotype Preservers
n.d.
Packaging
Collection Matthew R. Isenburg
LL/9726
 
 
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Tintypes
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Tintypes - Exterior views (1860-1900)
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The tintype’s image did not jump out at the viewer but lay flat as if it were rolled onto the tin surface. The tintype’s tonal range appeared uniform because its black backing absorbed a great deal of light, and it did not possess the mirrorlike sheen of the daguerreotype or the glass depth of the ambrotype to enhance contrast. However, what the tintype lacked in aesthetic qualities it made up in social significance: Citizens could have their likeness recorded for less than 25 cents, further democratizing the process of commemoration. The tintype’s universal affordability also spoke to the nineteenth-century American notion that societal position was not solely predetermined by one’s birth status, visually denoting the American Dream of possible upward mobility. Democracy not only gave the industrial classes a taste for the arts and letters, it also brought a technological spirit to the arts. [2|4|4|884]

 
Anon.
Memorial Still Life (Washington State)
1870 (ca)
Tintype
7 x 5 in
 
Paul Cava Fine Art
Courtesy of Paul Cava Fine Art
 
LL/10835
 
 
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LL/10835 LL/30995 LL/18512 
LL/18513 LL/6932 LL/11629 
LL/10836 LL/10883 LL/11977 
LL/11628 LL/6921 LL/30013 
LL/11070 LL/24366 LL/13258 
LL/29770 LL/24361 LL/10833 
LL/24292 LL/6929 LL/9069 
LL/9072 LL/4353 LL/2757 


 
FOOTNOTES
  1. Frederick Scott Archer, The Collodion Process on Glass, second edition, enlarged (London: Printed for the author, 1854) 10.
     
  2. Archer credited Gustave Le Gray’s pamphlet of 1850 as the first published account of collodion and its possible use, but he pointed out that Le Gray never provided the details that would qualify him to call it a photographic method. Archer released the first account of his process in the March 1851 issue of The Chemist and followed it up with his self-published Manual of the Collodion Photographic Process (1851).
     
  3. Frederick Scott Archer. “The Use of Collodion in Photography,” The Chemist, no. 2 (March 1851), 257.
     
  4. The Photogram, vol. I, 1894, 159.
     
  5. Cutting and Isaac Rehn, his friend and business partner, both took out patents covering several photographic ideas that were not their own. Nevertheless, the U.S. Patent Office gave Cutting the legal right to sell licenses for the use of collodion photography. He hired agents in several areas of the country to sell permits ($100 per town of 5,000 people) and bring legal proceeding against photographers who were making collodion pictures without a license.
     
  6. In 1862 Cutting was committed to the Worcester, MA, Insane Asylum and remained there until his death in 1867. The administrator of Cutting’s estate filed for an extension of his patent. Some of America’s most influential photographers, including Mathew Brady, Abraham Bogardus, John Carbutt, Alexander Hesler, and John Whipple, met on April 7, 1868, at the Cooper Institute in New York to form the National Photographic Convention for the purpose of establishing America’s first national photographic organization and to fight the ambrotype patent.
     

 

Sections

=> 4.1 The Albumen Process 4.2The New Transparent Look
 4.3The Ambrotype 4.4Pictures On Tin
 4.5The Carte de Visite and the Photo Album 4.6The Cabinet Photograph: The Picture Gets Bigger
 4.7The Studio Tradition 4.8Retouching and Enlargements
 4.9The Stereoscope 4.10The Stereo Craze

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