Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes were some of the earliest photographic processes to gain widespread popularity. Beginning in the mid-19th century, each successive technique improved upon the others in terms of availability, affordability, and processing speed. Photography as we know it today is a reproductive medium, however each of these processes produced single, unique objects.
Experimenting in close collaboration with Nicéphore Niépce, the first to create a permanent photographic image, Louis Daguerre worked to perfect a commercially viable photographic process. In the summer of 1839, he released details for the process in France and the daguerreotype was introduced to the world. Complicated chemical manipulations made the process difficult to replicate and extended exposures of three to fifteen minutes made portraits implausible. However, entrepreneurial daguerreotypists in Europe and America quickly introduced improvements to reduce exposure time, thus making way for the first photographic portrait studios.
To produce one, a photographer made the exposure on a polished copper plate that they coated with a thin sheet of silver and treated with light sensitive chemicals. After exposure, the latent photographic image was developed with the aid of mercury fumes, then the image was fixed with further treatment to remove its sensitivity to light.
The process creates a direct positive, akin to slide film, and since there is no reproduction via enlargement it is highly detailed even by today’s standards. The mirror-like image is prone to damage and tarnishing; therefore, they are generally displayed in delicate cases that are often hinged, glazed, and padded. Daguerreotypes (and the following processes) came in a variety of sizes, ranging from whole plate at 6.5 x 8.5 inches down to a sixteenth plate at 1.375 x 1.625 inches.
With long exposures by today’s standards, portraitists used a variety of techniques including posing tables, furniture, and even head rests to keep their subjects still enough so that the resulting image was sharp and not blurred.
Keep a close eye on photographs of small children as there is a subsection of 19th century photographs of children referred to as hidden mothers. In these, the mother (presumably) is present in the composition to help brace the child for the long exposure. They are often hidden behind curtains or chairs or cropped out of the frame. However, a hand or an arm may be spotted, which helped keep the child still for the duration of the exposure. The resulting photographs are sometimes comical, often eerie, or frequently both.
Advancements to making photographs continued throughout the ensuing years, and in 1951, Frederick Scott Archer presented a new technique for creating negatives known as the wet plate process. With this method, light sensitive materials were applied via a collodion binder to a glass plate. The technique is cumbersome; glass plates needed to be coated, exposed, and then developed before the chemistry dried and light sensitivity faded. Soon after, Archer modified the process by adding black backing materials (paint, fabric, or paper), which made the pale gray negative appear as a positive image.
The term ambrotype was coined not by the inventor of the process, but by James Cutting who patented the process in America. Therefore, in England they are often referred to as collodion positives. Easier to produce and cheaper to make than daguerreotypes, they quickly became popular in portrait studios in the mid-1950s.
Made on glass, an ambrotype does not have the reflective quality of a daguerreotype and hence was easier to view. To embellish the photographs, many photographers hand-colored the glass plates to tint cheeks red or paint jewelry gold before adding a protective varnish.
Similar to the daguerreotype’s run, the ambrotype’s popularity was short lived and dimmed with the advent of the tintype, which gained widespread adaptation in the late-1850s. The tintype uses the same application of wet collodion as the ambrotype but applies the light-sensitive materials to a thin sheet of blackened iron in place of glass.
Sturdier and even cheaper, the tintype was extremely popular throughout North America. The entire process, from coating the plate to development, was fast, allowing a sitter to walk away with a quickly produced photograph in only a few minutes. Their affordability democratized photography to the masses and tintypes became known as the vacationer’s memento.
While these processes date to the forefront of the photographic medium and modern techniques have replaced them, there are artists that actively use them in their practices today.
Adam Fuss uses historical and contemporary processes including both camera-based and cameraless techniques to create large-scale daguerreotypes to explore themes of temporality and memory that are present throughout his work.
Binh Danh has worked in a variety of alternative processes throughout his career. He began making daguerreotypes in the National Parks to create new, unique view of scenes that photographers such as Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams have ingrained into the visual iconography of the American West. In Danh’s daguerreotypes, the viewer becomes an active participant with their reflection part of the composition.
Sally Mann has used 19th century techniques and particularly glass-plate negatives with the collodion wet plate process to create photographs that imbibe an aesthetic quality to her photographs that reference the historical nature of the subject matter that she works with. After a horrific accident in 2006 and physically confined from photographing in the landscape, she began a series of intimate self-portraits. Rather than create perfectly clean photographs, Mann embraces the wet plate process and the inherit imperfections it produces. Beyond the image, the resulting ambrotypes and tintypes capture the artist’s physical and gestural process.
Will Wilson is a photographer that creates tintype portraits for his ongoing series Critical Indigenous Photography Exchange. A Diné artist, Wilson has set out to shift the focus away from the Eurocentric gaze that photographers like Edward Curtis placed on Indigenous cultures in the early 1900s with an ambitious goal of shifting the dialogue to a contemporary, multifaceted view of Native North American cultures. Wilson works with the wet plate process and tintypes as it was one of the first photographic mediums used to image Native American peoples. As opposed to his predecessors, his portrait sessions are truly a shared exchange. He encourages his subjects to bring objects of cultural significance and at the end of the session, in a balancing of power between the photographer and subject, the sitter receives the original photograph in exchange for granting Wilson license to use the image in his practice.
Photographic processes have advanced tremendously since Louis Daguerre’s announcement of the daguerreotype in 1839. While many photographers use digital technology today, some are still making use of early historical processes through a contemporary lens.
Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes are three early photographic processes developed in the 19th century. While there is a lineage that tracks the development from one to the next, by no means were they the only photographic methods available at the time. Future posts will delve further into more processes from the advent of photography.
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