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The Collodion - Photographic Processes Series - Chapter 5 of 12

Photography's evolution brought the past to life for everyone, not just the wealthy. Frederick Scott Archer's 1851 invention, the wet collodion process, allowed for detailed, reproducible images. This process, requiring a portable darkroom, replaced the daguerreotype and introduced ambrotypes and tintypes, democratizing photography.

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Video transcript

Up until photography only the very wealthy who could afford to have portraits painted had any notion of what their ancestors looked like. Photography was used primarily for portraits because people is what we are primarily interested in. We see it as a very popular way to do what we’ve always wanted to do which is to record the features of people we love. I’m going to show you a collodion negative on glass very carefully. This process was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. In the 1850’s you have the daguerreotype, you had the calotype paper negative. The daguerreotype was a commercial success. The plate that they hand the customer is the same plate that was in the camera. There’s no negative. What you got with the calotype was a negative and it was a negative that could be reproduced very easily. You could print dozens even hundreds of positive prints from that negative. But it made a very soft photograph. It was much less sensitive than the daguerreotype. You couldn’t do portraits easily with that process. The desire was to have the reproducibility of a positive / negative process with the precision and detail of the daguerreotype. In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer invented the process called the wet collodion process. The wet plate process can give you a negative to make paper prints. It can give you a direct positive plate called an ambrotype and another direct positive plate called a tintype. When you do the wet plate process you make a glass negative and that glass negative can then be contact printed onto various printing processes and make 1000’s and 1000’s of prints. By the time you get to the late 1850’s it really replaces the daguerreotype. The positive / negative process won out in part because it was more economically viable. It does require some advance planning when you’re taking it on the road. You have to have a portable darkroom. You pour the collodion on the plate, you dip it in the silver bath and while it’s dripping wet with silver nitrate you take the picture you come back and develop it and you have to do all of that before the plate dries. And so the people who made landscape images they had to carry a wagon with all their chemicals. It was a challenge. So you can see on this negative the pour marks which are characteristic of the wet collodion process. See this kind of wave up here that’s a pour mark from when the photographer poured the developer onto the glass. The camera that took this photograph would have had to have been quite large to accommodate a negative of this size. You could do a lot of things with collodion besides make a negative You could back it with black paper, or black cloth and you ended up with a positive. These kinds of photographs, they were called ambrotypes were generally cased and presented in the same way that daguerreotypes were. You could expose a positive onto a metal plate and for funny reasons these were called tintypes even though they weren’t made on tin. Tintypes were one of the earliest truly democratic kinds of photography. During the American Civil War we see hundreds, thousands of tintype images made by soldiers to send a picture home. This is a H.B. Lewis wet plate camera your typical civil war portrait camera. It’s the camera that the tintypes of the soldiers would have been made from. Photography shaped the way we remember things. It’s a really important cultural change. No longer through ballads and poems and stories but through looking at a likeness is the way we remember what happened and who was.