19th Century Photographic Processes and Formats
Represented in
"Captured by the Camera"

Lillian Wilson


The Origins of Photography:
Although photography as we know it today had its roots in the early 19th century, people have used cameras since the Renaissance. The camera obscura was used to project images onto paper, which allowed them to be traced. No one was able to secure a fixed image, however, until the 1820s, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce performed the first photomechanical process. He reproduced an engraving using bitumen dissolved in lavender oil, which, when exposed to light, becomes insoluble. He also took the first semi-permanent photograph in 1827 using a process he called heliography. Niépce eventually teamed up with Louis Daguerre, who modified and improved Niépce’s technique. Daguerre became known for developing the daguerreotype, the first widely used photographic process.


Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype in the late 1830s. The process involved coating a copper plate with silver nitrate, which was then sensitized with iodine fumes. The plate was exposed to light in a camera, developed with mercury fumes, and fixed with hyposulphite of soda, or "hypo." Each specimen was unique, reproducible only by making a camera copy of it. Since the polished silver coating was susceptible to tarnish, daguerreotypes were usually placed under glass in hinged cases.

The highly reflective daguerreotype presented either a positive or a negative appearance, depending on how the light hit it.

The exposure time for daguerreotypes was originally anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, making sitting for a portrait a painful and often unsuccessful process. Innovations in the 1840s increased the sensitivity of the photographic plates and reduced the exposure time to under a minute. The popularity of the daguerreotype increased as people found that they could obtain a portrait of themselves quickly and easily. Daguerreotypes remained popular through the 1850s.


In the early 1850s, Frederick Scott Archer developed the wet collodion process of photography. Collodion was a mixture of guncotton in alcohol and ether that was sometimes applied to wounds as a liquid bandage. Collodion mixed with potassium iodide and applied to glass that was then dipped in silver nitrate provided a light-sensitive surface that could be exposed, developed in pyrogallic acid, and fixed with hypo. The image that appeared was a negative, meaning the shades of light and dark were reversed. When placed against a black background (such as glass backed with black varnish), however, these ambrotypes, as they came to be called, appeared positive. Like daguerreotypes, ambrotypes—which were popular from 1855 to about 1865—were usually placed in protective cases.


Tintypes, invented in 1856 by Hamilton L. Smith, used the same wet collodion process that was involved in making ambrotypes. The difference was in the material used as the support for the image. Instead of being printed on glass as ambrotypes were, tintypes were printed on blackened iron. Multiple exposures could be taken on a single plate and later cut apart. Tintypes were cheaper and more durable than daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, but less satisfactory in the level of detail they captured. Popular in America, tintypes were made into the 20th century.


Carte de Visite:
The carte de visite portrait was introduced by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854. The carte de visite was a small portrait glued to a card measuring 4 inches high by 2 1/2 inches wide. Made with a four-lens camera with sliding plate holder (which permitted eight exposures to be taken on one plate), cartes de visite images were printed from wet collodion negatives on albumen paper. With the production of a negative, it was possible to make multiple copies of each image.

The emergence of the carte de visite hastened the demise of the daguerreotype, which could not compete with this cheaper, faster, easily reproducible, less fragile, more portable form of photograph. The carte de visite format was extremely popular in the United States during, and persisted beyond, the Civil War.

Middle-class people made a hobby of collecting cartes de visite of family, friends, and prominent individuals in albums specially made for the purpose.


Cabinet Card:
Like the carte de visite, the cabinet photograph was an albumen print glued to a standard-sized card. Introduced during the 1870s, the cabinet card measured about 6 1/4 inches high by 4 1/4 inches wide. Since it was somewhat larger than the carte de visite, the cabinet card image could present greater detail. Cabinet cards were frequently collected in albums, as were cartes de visite.


Albumen Print:
Albumen paper was developed in 1850 by Louis Blanquart-Evrard to be used with wet collodion negatives (invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851). Albumen, which is egg white, was mixed with ammonium chloride and spread on a sheet of paper. When the mixture dried, the photographer could store the paper away until he was ready to use it. He then sensitized the paper with silver nitrate, placed it over a negative, and exposed it to sunlight. The print was washed, toned in a gold chloride solution, fixed in hypo, washed again, and then dried. Albumen paper was convenient for photographers because they could buy it cheaply in large quantities, then store it until they were about to make a print. Blanquart-Evrard’s invention was immediately adopted into widespread use and remained the standard method of making photographic prints through the remainder of the 19th century.


Gelatin Dry-Plate Glass Negative:
The wet collodion process for creating negatives required speed and coordination on the part of the photographer, who had to keep the glass plate wet with collodion throughout the photographic process. Moreover, because the photographer had to work with chemicals, the process was messy and inconvenient. In response to these difficulties, in the 1860s and 1870s several individuals worked toward a technique that would free the photographer from preparing his own plates. In 1871, Richard Maddox came up with the gelatin dry-plate negative. Maddox’s technique was perfected by others and began to come into common use around 1880.

Unlike the wet-plate negative, which had to be exposed immediately after being soaked in silver nitrate, the dry-plate was coated with gelatin bromide, which dried on the plate and could be used when dry. When the photographer wanted to expose the plates he could simply insert them into his camera and expose them without handling chemicals.

The dry-plate negative remained popular until the early 1900s. Late 19th century photographers could buy commercially prepared gelatin dry plates in quantity.

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