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HomeContentsThemes > Dark tents and dark boxes


776.01   Dark tents and dark boxes
776.02   Photographs of dark tents, dark boxes and photographers in the field
776.03   A surviving example of a dark tent
Contemporary accounts
776.04   Contemporary accounts of nineteenth century dark tents
776.05   Sources on nineteenth century dark tents and dark boxes
Photographers using dark tents and dark boxes
776.06   Carleton Watkins: #925 Spring Valley Water Works
776.07   William Henry Jackson: Photographing in High Places
776.08   Francis Frith at the Temple of Dendara, Egypt
776.09   Jackson Brothers (Omaha, Nebraska): Scenery of the Union Pacific Railroad - #192 Dale Creek Bridge
776.10   John Burke: Fixing the Negative
776.11   Contemporary dark tents and dark boxes
This theme includes example sections and will be revised and added to as we proceed. Suggestions for additions, improvements and the correction of factual errors are always appreciated. 
Status: Collect > Document > Analyse > Improve
776.01   Equipment >  Dark tents and dark boxes 
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776.02   Equipment >  Photographs of dark tents, dark boxes and photographers in the field 
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   19thc Studio Dark Tents 
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776.03   Equipment >  A surviving example of a dark tent 
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The collection of the Musée français de la Photographie (Inventory no: D85.5509) includes a rare surviving dark tent. The illustration shows a similar example from an 1884 book. 
Contemporary accounts 
776.04   Equipment >  Contemporary accounts of nineteenth century dark tents 
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Ninetenth century accounts of using dark tents and dark boxes have survived:
  • D.L. Mundy (1874)
    My usual plan of proceeding was to erect an ordinary digger's tent, supported upon a couple of forked poles and well fastened down with guy-ropes; then, from the ridge of the structure, suspending a square photographic tent made of mackintosh material, with black calico skirts resting on the ground and kept securely fixed with stones. In fine weather this supplementary operating-tent was erected outside the ordinary dwelling; but at other times better protection was afforded by suspending it within the larger tent. A square window of yellow oiled silk, measuring about 18 inches in both dimensions, admitted enough light to work by, and was of course proof against fracture during my journeys. A packhorse carried a couple of strong leather trunks slung from the saddle, in one of which the chemicals were packed, while the apparatus was placed in the other.[1]
  • Samuel Bourne (1860)
    Or, if we wish to make sure of our pictures on the spot, and lug about a huge tent and a score or two of bottles, in addition to what is required for a dry process, the thing absolutely becomes the work of a slave. Great as is my liking for photography, I confess that were I always compelled to adopt the latter expedient when I wanted to take a picture far away from home, my journeys abroad for that purpose would be something like angels' visits—" few and far between." How many photographers could relate pleasing narratives of certain not over-pleasing incidents connected with their pictorial wanderings!—how, being mistaken for a pedlar, they have been told, when about to plant their camera to take a view of some curious old farm-house or uninhabited ruin, that they need not unpack their traps, as there was "nothing wanted;"—how many limes they have had to mourn over an upset bath of nitrate of silver, or a collodion bottle from which an ejected stopper has allowed all the precious fluid to escape;— how the perspiration has streamed from them as with lightning rapidity they popped in and out of the suffocating tent;—how some curious bull, anxious to know the contents of the suspicious-looking camera, has playfully employed his horns to lift it up for that purpose; and how they have stood looking on in silent and pensive amazement, while a gust of wind has sent tent, bottles, and camera on a rolling expedition down the mountain's side. Such are a specimen of what every photographer may expect to meet with and undergo, in the ardent pursuit of his favourite study.[2]
  • Color Sargeant D.G. Crotty (1874)
    In the afternoon, while busy cleaning our guns, a thundering noise is heard. Looking in the direction of the sound, a monster shell is observed approaching. We all drop a courtesy, a la Japanese, by getting on our knees. It passes over and thuds into the ground behind the photographic tent of Fred H___, who runs out, white as a sheet, to learn the cause of the noise, and observes behind his tent, a hole large enough to bury a mule in, caused by the shell. He immediately packed up his pictures, vamoosed the camp, and it is said, never stopped until he was safe in his own valley city, in Michigan, nor did he take any more pictures on the sacred soil.[3]
  • Paul D. Du Chaillu (1871)
    My photographic apparatus, or at least what remained of it, was much admired by friend Mayolo. He was the most inquisitive man of his tribe, none of whom were wanting in curiosity, and he was never weary of asking me questions and inspecting my wonderful stores. When I first took out the photographic tent from its box, he was amazed, after seeing it fixed, to discover what a bulky affair could come out of so small a box. After fixing the tent I withdrew the slide and exposed the orange-coloured glass, and invited the mystified chief to look through it at the prairie. At first he was afraid and declined to come into the tent; but on my telling him that he knew I should never do anything to harm him, he consented. He could not comprehend it. He looked at me, at my hands, then at the glass, and believed there was witchcraft at the bottom of it. After Mayolo had come out of the tent unharmed, the rest of the negroes took courage, and my tent was made a peep-show for the remainder of the day.[4]
776.05   Equipment >  Sources on nineteenth century dark tents and dark boxes 
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Contemporary accounts: Smartt's tents (1860s)
  1. Published in John Spiller, F.C.S., Assistant Chemist to the War Department "Photography in Application to Military Purposes", The Photographic Journal, Volume 8, Dec. 15, 1863, p.410-413.
    Besides these transportable operating-rooms, we have successfully used the square tent designed by Mr. Smartt. On several occasions the Artillery officers have had "field days" both in the grounds of the Royal Military Repository and on Woolwich Common, and with tents pitched have, under photographic canvas, allowed me to assume the command. Many useful sketches have thus been secured, and outdoor experience gained, which has since been, further extended by my pupils, some of whom at distant stations have given proof of the value which attaches to photography as a ready means of recording the geographical and military features of a country, or of reporting details of construction, whether relating to stockades, forts, or suggested improvements in military equipment.
  2. Walter Bentley Woodbury "Photography in Java. Account of a short photographic ramble through the interior of the east end of the island." The Photographic News, 15 Feb, 1861, p. 78.
    This was our first trial of Smart's tent, and as we had previously worked in a native-made affair, found everything very convenient, and easily put up or taken down; the only thing that might be improved is the window, which owing to its being placed too high, makes the development of negatives rather difficult, the light falling on the plate from above, instead of reaching it from below. The india-rubber folding-tray and washing-bottle will not stand long in this place, as on opening them they are generally all stuck together, and are with great difficulty separated. The tent is as good as can be desired for working wet collodion, with these exceptions, the later of which would probably not occur in an European climate
    Curatorial note: The spelling is incorrect and should be Smartt's tent.
Contemporary accounts: Edwards's New Model Tent / W.W. Rouch (1860s)
  1. "Report of the Jurors", The Photographic Journal, Volume 8, Jan 15, 1864, p.448.
    The Jurors referred to are those handling "Class XIV: Photography and Photographic Apparatus" at the "International Exhibition". The first section of the report was in The Photographic Journal, Dec 15, 1862, p.190.
    3150. Rouch, W. W. This exhibitor sends a series of valuable apparatus and chemicals.
    A portable operating-chamber, described as Edwards's New Model Tent, combining great portability with convenience and efficiency, differing in many of the contrivances of a similar character in the ample room afforded in the part immediately over the head of the manipulator, materially contributing to his comfort. Another well-adapted portion consists of a small water-tank placed outside, a pipe from which, with spring tap, enters the tent at a convenient corner, being always at hand for the ready use of the operator. The tent is in every respect admirably contrived to meet the wants of the amateur photographer. Various cameras are also exhibited. A well-contrived portable laboratory; an instantaneous shutter; dippers for the bath of pure silver; and other photographic requisites. Mr. Rouch also contributes samples of bromo-iodized and other collodions made according to Mr. Hardwich's formula. A medal was awarded to Mr. Rouch for his series of small photographs, which are stated to be produced in the tent referred to, and with the same kind of collodion and chemicals he exhibits.
    This report was also published in The Photographic News: A Weekly Record of the Progress in Photography, Vol.VII, March 6, 1863, p.118
   19thc Studio Dark Tents 
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Photographers using dark tents and dark boxes 
776.06   Equipment >  Carleton Watkins: #925 Spring Valley Water Works 
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The following comments by Will Dunniway and Robert Szabo, two contemporary wet-plate collodion photographers, explain the significance of this rare yellow-mount stereoview "#925 Spring Valley Water Works" by Carleton E. Watkins:
The items inside the tent:
  1. The spigot for his water supply. It is not possible to see what the container was made of, but most likely it would have been copper or brass for weight considerations.
  2. Three of the four visible bottles appear to be leather wrapped. This is to prevent the glass from breaking from a rough wagon ride between shoots.
  3. There is an open wooden box and it is uncertain what it would have been used for. It was most likely to have been used for transporting chemicals and photographic paraphernalia.
The items outside the tent:
  1. As can be seen here Carleton Watkins used a vertical bath to process his mammoth plates. It has been suggested that he used a tray as his bath to sensitize his plates but this is conclusive. There is a further point about this bath tank. He is said to have NOT used a glass liner to contain his bath. Instead it was believed he asphalt painted the inside, or something along this line. In this image, it appears that there is not a glass liner. To seal this bath for traveling, usually the glass tank will extend above the wooden rim.
  2. A mammoth plate storage box.
  3. These boxes appear to be the 5x8 inch plate storage boxes for making stereo images. They are about the right size for two rows of plates, with a divider in the middle. They are on top the large mammoth plate boxes not being used at this moment of exposure, thus, these 5x8 plate boxes are sequentially in order.
  4. A glass plate cleaning vise.
  5. The lid clamp to a silver bath tank. The metal clamp with thumb screws was used for the sealing off this bath tank when traveling. The wooden lid for this huge mammoth plate silver bath tank appears to be with this clamp.
The tent itself:
The dark tent is lined with what I think is yellow, or a very warm colored material. As you know, collodion is a blue sensitive emulsion (it is called 'Ordinary'). This being what this is, the blue will NOT be seen, where as the yellow (red or warm tones) would be seen as dark. The outer material seems to be plain white canvas duck. The white outer shell is so the interior of this dark tent would not heat up in direct sun. This color choice was a must on warm days. After about 90oF outside, the inside of the tent would elevate the silver bath to above 80o F in no time at all. At this temperature, silver bath starts to act up, and will produce flawed plates.
It is not certain that the person on the left is Carleton E. Watkins and this remains to be confirmed. 
   Carleton Eugene  Watkins Spring Valley Water Works 
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776.07   Equipment >  William Henry Jackson: Photographing in High Places 
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Nathaniel Langford in his 1873 article "The Ascent of Mount Hayden: A New Chapter of Western Discovery" published in Scribner's Monthly mentioned William Henry Jackson [5]:
Mr. Jackson, our persevering photographic artist, took a great number of views of the scenery in this vicinity including many of the cascades in the Canon, and the Tetons from all points of the compass. He is an indefatigable worker, and as often camps alone in some of the wild glens as with the company. Give him fine scenery, and he forgets danger and difficulty in the effort to "get a negative."[6]
Nathaniel Pitt Langford was a prominent member of the Washburn Expedition[7] of 1870, a lobbyist for making Yellowstone the first national park, and the first park superintendent. Mt. Langford in eastern Yellowstone is named after him. 
776.08   Equipment >  Francis Frith at the Temple of Dendara, Egypt 
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This stereoview taken by Francis Frith was marketed by the London firm of Negretti & Zambra and shows what may be Francis Frith's darkroom tent at the Temple of Dendara in Egypt
776.09   Equipment >  Jackson Brothers (Omaha, Nebraska): Scenery of the Union Pacific Railroad - #192 Dale Creek Bridge 
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This stereoview from The Treadwell Collection includes the Dark Tent of the Jackson Brothers. 
776.10   Equipment >  John Burke: Fixing the Negative 
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An engraving of a sketch by Frederic Villiers [1851-1922] that was published in The Graphic, July 12, 1879
'Mr. J. Burke the photographic artist attached to our Indian Army to illustrate the advance of the troops and the grand scenery of Afghanistan, was permitted by the Ameer of Cabul (sic) to take a series of pictures of himself and his suite at the camp at Gandamak. One of my sketches illustrates the process of 'posing' the Ameer, who indulged in a quiet smoke during the preparation of the photographic plates. After Mr. Burke had taken him in his gorgeous uniform of white and gold, the Ameer showed great anxiety to see the results, and Major Cavagnari explained to him the process of photography.'[8]
776.11   Equipment >  Contemporary dark tents and dark boxes 
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  1. Λ D.L. Mundy, "Photographic Experiences in New Zealand.", The Photographic Journal, No.254, Dec 11, 1874, p.87. 
  2. Λ Samuel Bourne, "On Some of the Requisites Necessary for the Production of a Good Photograph" read before the Nottingham Photographic Society, Jan 31, 1860 and published in The Photographic News, Feb 24, 1860, p.297. This article has been reprinted in Hugh Raynor (ed.) Photographic Journeys in the Himalayas - Samuel Bourne (Bath: Pagoda Tree Press, 2001). 
  3. Λ Color Sargeant D.G. Crotty, Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Four Years Campaigning in the Army of the Potomac (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Dygert Bros. & Co., 1874), p.41. 
  4. Λ Paul D. Du Chaillu, A Journey to Ashango-Land, and Further Penetration into Equatorial Africa, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1871), Chapter IX, p.194. There is a very similar account of this event in his later book The Country of the Dwarfs (New York: Harper & Brothers), p.176. The illustrations in his books were questioned by his contemporaries - see for example "Art. VI Equatorial Africa, and its Inhabitants" in The Westminster Review, No.CXLIX, July 1861, p.75 onwards where one of his illustrations looks very similar to a photograph of a gorilla taken by Roger Fenton in the collections of the British Museum. 
  5. Λ For a personal account see Jackson's autobiography: William Henry Jackson, 1986, Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press). Useful material included also in William C. Jones, 1992, William Henry Jackson's Colorado, (Colorado Railroad Museum); Peter B. Hales, 1988, William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) 
  6. Λ Nathaniel Langford, June, 1873, "The Ascent of Mount Hayden: A New Chapter of Western Discovery", Scribner's Monthly, vol. VI, no. 2, pp. 129-157 
  7. Λ Nathaniel Pitt Langford, 1905, The Discovery of Yellowstone Park: Journal of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the Year 1870. Reprinted in 1972 with a foreword by Aubrey L. Haines (Bison Books).
    (Accessed: 19 July 2013) 
  8. Λ July 12, 1879, The Graphic.
    This illustration has been reprinted in Omar Khan, 2002, From Kashmir to Kabul: The Photographs of Burke and Baker, (Prestel Verlag/Mapin Publishing, 2002).


HomeContents > Further research

Readings on, or by, individual photographers 
Georges Montefiore Levi 
Levi, George M., 1857, 21 September, ‘Portable Tent for Out-Door Work‘, JPS, vol. 4, pp. 43-44 [Δ
If you feel this list is missing a significant book or article please let me know - Alan - 

HomeContentsPhotographers > Photographers worth investigating

Platt D. Babbitt  (1822-1879) • George N. Barnard  (1819-1902) • E.O. Beaman • Samuel Bourne  (check) • John Burke  (check) • Samuel A. Cooley • John K. Hillers  (1843-1925) • William Henry Jackson  (1843-1942) • Georges Montefiore Levi  (1832-1906) • John Dillwyn Llewelyn  (check) • Walter B. Woodbury  (1834-1885) • Zangaki Brothers
HomeThe business of photographyEquipment > Dark tents and dark boxes 
A wider gazeRelated topics 
Expeditions and exploration 
Itinerant photographers 
Mobile studios 
Photographic vans, wagons and cars 
Wet-plate photography 

HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Dark tents and dark boxes

Please submit suggestions for Online Exhibitions that will enhance this theme.
Alan -

Thumbnail19th Century Photographic Studios: Dark tents 
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Released (March 3, 2010)
ThumbnailCarleton Watkins - Spring Valley Water Works 
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Released (January 29, 2011)

HomeVisual indexes > Dark tents and dark boxes

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Alan -

ThumbnailJackson Brothers (Omaha, Nebraska): #192 Dale Creek Bridge 
ThumbnailM. Nowack: Photographer's dark tent is set-up on the boat 
ThumbnailNegretti & Zambra: 328. Temple of Dendera 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
ThumbnailSwaine & Moate (Richmond, Indiana): Swaine & Mote's mobile darkroom 
ThumbnailV.L. Sutton: Rock City 
ThumbnailWilliam Henry Jackson: 104. Rocks near Platte Canyon 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
ThumbnailWilliam Henry Jackson: Photographing in High Places 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
ThumbnailDark tents and dark boxes: Illustrations 
   Still thinking about these... 
ThumbnailR. Konishi Illustrated Catalogue of Photographic Apparatus & Materials, 18, 2 & 3, Nichome, Honcho, Tokyo, Japan 
ThumbnailRouch's Registered Portable Dark Operating Chamber, for working in open country (1858) 
Refreshed: 05 August 2014, 22:44
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