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Early Photography In Focus

Posted on January 22, 2018 at 9:57 AM by Nancy Gebhart

Early Photography

by Charlie Coffey, University Museums intern and Guest Curator of In Focus exhibition

The digital camera has brought a new wave of ease into the photographic process. Our images are all fleeting as viewers scroll past them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Before the digital camera, photographs had to be made using light-sensitive materials and chemical reactions, and the result was always a tangible object. Most commonly the final image was on paper, but early photographic processes utilized a wide array of materials.


The Farm House Museum houses a collection of these early photographs including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. Each one provides a visual connection to the 19th century, when these processes were commonly practiced.


The daguerreotype was the first commercially available photographic process and was invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre. The process was presented to the French Academie des Beaux-Arts and the Academie des Sciences. The audience reacted in amazement, as the daguerreotype was the most precise anyone had ever come to replicating the world exactly in an image. The French painter Paul Delaroche responded by saying, “From today, painting is dead,” as he believed it was the painter’s job to replicate reality on canvas. With the invention of the daguerreotype, photography was in a better position to do so.

Daguerre’s process was purchased by the French government, and rights to use it commercially became freely available. Other photographic processes from the same period in Great Britain were patented and required payment to the inventor to utilize. Daguerreotypists were popping up everywhere and it was not long before the technique spread to North America. People like Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of Morse Code and the Telegraph, championed and popularized the process in the United States. Photographic studios became common and people could stop in to get a portrait, but the daguerreotype was a slow process, and photography in the field did not become common until later in the 19th century.


The daguerreotype itself was a copper plate polished with silver and then made light-sensitive using iodine fumes. This sensitized plate would be placed in a large box camera with a lens in front. The lens did not have a mechanical shutter like modern ones do. Instead the photographer manually took off the lens cap for the exposure time and replaced it to halt exposure of the plate, thus concluding the photograph. The image would develop on the plate when mercury fumes were applied to it. Exposure times were long, so sitters had to stay still for an extended period of time. Later developments in lens technology and chemical advancements made the process quicker.


In 1851, an English sculptor named Frederick Scott Archer invented the wet plate collodion process, of which the ambrotype and tintype are variations. The process involved the newly invented chemical, collodion, which held light sensitive silver salts onto glass or metal plates for photographic use. Archer did not patent his process and instead published it for free use, which led to its popularity. Because of this, many daguerreotypists switched to the wet plate method.


The collodion plates were much more sensitive to light than the daguerreotypes and could produce an image quicker, so many photographers started bringing their kits out in the field or on the street. It still was not easy though – every step of the process had to be completed while the plate was still wet. Therefore, itinerant photographers had to bring their entire darkroom, chemicals and all, along with them.


The ambrotype employed the wet plate collodion process on glass plates, which produced a negative image when viewed normally. Photographers then adhered a black material, such as paper, felt, or even paint, on the backside of the plate, and it would appear as a positive against the dark background.


The tintype came later, around 1856, and used the same process but on iron plates instead of glass. This eliminated the need for a black backing in the final product, and the image was always seen as a positive. Tintypes were produced in large numbers both in and out of the studio. This technology was utilized in photographing the Civil War and in United States Geological Survey expeditions. Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan are two famous photographers from this period.

Tintype technology was utilized up until George Eastman, founder of the company Kodak, popularized roll film in the late 1880s. Due to convenience and the new variety of sizes that film stock came in, many photographers stepped away from tintypes and bought their supplies from Kodak.


Today, there are some artists who continue to utilize tintype technology due to its unique look at the sacrifice of convenience. Institutions such as the Penumbra Foundation in New York still teach alternative photographic processes keep the medium alive.


Be sure to visit the exhibition In Focus from now until October 31, 2018 at the Farm House Museum to experience these three types of historic photographs.


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