Monday, March 17, 2014

Preserve Your Memories: A Short History of 19th Century Photography

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

I have a digital camera which lets me take a dozen pictures a minute.  I can discard the blurry ones, save this one, print that one and it’s all quite convenient.  Photographic technologies weren’t always so easy.  Scientists and artists began working to develop a method of photography around the turn of the 19th century.  Early images were made on treated paper, metal and glass, but they literally took hours of exposure time to form. 

Then Louis Daguerre introduced his marvelous daguerreotype in 1839.  A daguerreotype was a piece of glass which had been prepared with a silver compound, exposed to light for 5 to 10 minutes, and then treated in a special chemical bath.  The result was a negative image with a mirror-like finish burned onto the glass.  By 1850, it was the most popular form of photography in the world.

Locally made daguerreotype, 1853
There were several competitors to the daguerreotype which sprang up in the 1850s.  One was the ambrotype, developed in 1851, which produced a positive image on a piece of glass.  The other was the tintype.  Despite the name, the tintype was a photograph produced on a piece of enameled iron.  Unlike its glass competitors, the tintype was both relatively inexpensive to make and quite durable for viewing and transport.  While daguerreotypes and ambrotypes needed   protective cases to keep them from breaking, a tintype could be carried in ones pocket.  Moreover, like a Polaroid, a tintype camera produced a finished picture in minutes.  This photographic technique peaked in popularity in the 1860s, but remained in use by street and fair photographers well into the 1930s.  It recently saw resurgence in use by a group of United States Airmen stationed in Afghanistan.  Check it out:

Tintype family portrait, ca. 1860s

The problem with each of these techniques was that it could only produce one image.  Throughout the 1840s, there were numerous attempts at developing a process which allowed for multiple prints of the same image.  Ultimately, the most successful was the collodion wet plate process developed by Frederick Scott Archer in the 1850s.  The process produced a glass plate negative which could then be used to produce any number of prints.  The images it produced were incredibly sharp and detailed but the process had some draw backs.  Each plate needed to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within 15 minutes.  That was fine for studio portraits, but it meant that any field photography required a portable darkroom.

Print of portrait of Thomas Stewart made 
with collodion wet plate process, 1864

In 1871, Richard Maddox developed a dry plate process which allowed for glass plates to be prepared long before the picture was taken.  Between 1873 and 1879, a number of inventors made a series of improvements to the process.  In 1879, George Eastman invented a machine to coat plates and opened the Eastman Film and Dry Plate Company in Rochester, New York.  The development of pre-made dry plates not only made things easier for professional photographers, but lead to an explosion in amateur photography.  Locally, there as an amateur photograph club that dated back to the 1890s. 

Local photographers club, 1902

The new dry plates were also more sensitive to light, which meant faster exposure times.  There was no more holding a pose for minutes at a time.  Now there could be action shots!

Runners on dry glass plate, 1897

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I've heard of most of these techniques for years but never knew of them in order. Thanks, Rachel!