The Dawn Of Mass Production
(Wet Plate Collodion)

Photographic innovators in the 1840s sought to combine the high definition of the daguerreotype with the reproducibility of the calotype. In 1848, a young English sculptor named Frederick Scott Archer made a decisive discovery. Archer had become dissatisfied with the images he could produce with the calotype process. The paper negative’s fibers and texture distorted the final print. It had been known for years that a glass negative was the likely solution, but a clear medium was needed to bind the light-sensitive materials to the glass.

Experiments began as early as 1839, but it was Archer who found the answer in collodion, a viscous liquid invented just a few years earlier to dress and protect wounds. In 1851 Archer announced his discovery, the wet plate collodion. The process required that the negative be exposed and developed while the negative was still wet, hence the name wet plate collodion. The collodion process could be used to create positives in many ways including ambrotypes (on glass), tintypes (on metal), and paper prints (printed from a negative).

The wet plate collodion was the beginning of photographic mass production, greatly increasing the accessibility of photography for the general public. By 1860, the daguerreotype had all but disappeared, and the collodion process would be dominant until the 1880s.

The world of photography was enriched by Archer’s discovery, but the inventor was not. He intentionally published his process without pursuing a patent and died poor and unrecognized a few years later.

Unidentified. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ca. 1855. [zoom]
Varnished salted paper print, 5 3/4 x 4 3/8 in.

This photograph is likely a copy of a daguerreotype. Loss of detail in such copies necessitated hand retouching. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was the most popular American poet of the 19th century. His poems “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” “Evangeline,” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” helped to establish a national mythology. Edgar Allan Poe called him “unquestionably the best poet in America.”

Mathew Brady. Wendell Phillips, 1850s. [zoom]
Varnished hand-colored salted paper print, 17 x 12 1/2 in.

This enlarged copy of a daguerreotype illustrates the use of a solar enlarger. Developed in the late 1850s, enlargers, often placed on rooftops, projected an image from a negative to a larger piece of paper. The subject’s eyes, hair, and lips were treated with varnish (since yellowed) to improve the tonal saturation of the salted paper print. Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) was, with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, one of the three most important American abolitionists. The movement’s leading orator, he was known as “abolition’s Golden Trumpet.” Phillips later supported other progressive causes, including women’s suffrage, Native American rights, and temperance.

Anthony’s Iodized Collodion. Advertising broadside, 1857. [zoom]

E. & H. T. Anthony, founded by brothers Edward (1819-1888) and Henry (1814-1884), was the dominant American photography retailer and manufacturer in 19th century America. In this advertisement the firm points out the problems associated with homemade supplies and offers its own commercial preparations. One testimony for Anthony’s collodion states, “[having] tried almost every other maker that I could; and having made my own Collodion for several years…[yours] excels all others in its brilliance … It is also the most sensitive and therefore excellent for children.”

Unidentified. Marguerite, A Former Slave, early 1870s. [zoom]
Hand-colored tintype, whole plate
Unidentified. Child Holding an Apple, ca. 1860. [zoom]
Hand-colored ambrotype, ninth plate

Exposure time was a formidable challenge for the 19th century photographer who surely shuddered when a young sitter entered the room. Noted historian Robert Taft wrote, “Ah, the children. Here there could be no twenty second exposure… full light, the largest stop in the camera and the combined efforts of the photographer, the candy, and the entire family.”

Unidentified. Display of Photographic Studio Equipment, ca. 1865. [zoom]
Hand-colored tintype, quarter plate

Portrait photographs in the 1850s and 1860s required subjects to sit motionless for exposures often lasting twenty to sixty seconds. To aid in this formidable task, head clamps and sit-still apparatus, as depicted in this tintype, were common to early photographic studios. “The public dreaded going to the gallery almost as much as to the dentist.” One observer wrote, “Glare, bareness, screens, iron instruments of torture, and a smell as of a drug and chemical … a photographer’s operating room is always something between a barn, a green-room, and a laboratory.”

James Irving and Christopher C. Schoonmaker. Ambrotype, ca. 1857-1861. [zoom]
Hand-tinted ambrotype, sixth plate

The portrait of this exquisitely dressed sitter is embellished with rose tinting on the cheeks and lips. Ambrotypes, which largely replaced daguerreotypes in the late 1850s, were usually presented in the elegant cases associated with daguerreotypes. An ambrotype of this kind typically cost 12 cents ($3 in today’s money), while an equivalent daguerreotype cost $2.50 ($65 in today’s money).

William C. North. John D. Rockefeller at Age Eighteen, ca. 1858. [zoom]
Hand-tinted ambrotype, sixth plate

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was the wealthiest man in history and the founder of a great philanthropic dynasty. No American fortune has approached that of Rockefeller as a percentage of the United States economy. Rockefeller sat for this rare early photograph at age eighteen when he was an assistant bookkeeper in Cleveland. After spending the 1860s building his oil business, he formed Standard Oil in 1870.

On loan from the Stephan and Beth Loewentheil Family Photographic Collection.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Autograph Letter Signed, May 31, 1880. [zoom] | Additional images:

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) under the penname Lewis Carroll, was an accomplished amateur photographer. This letter reflects the difficulty of creating a single wet plate collodion image. Dodgson apologizes for rudely dismissing two boys, explaining that they had burst into his studio just as he began to expose a photograph. He writes that by “the Finger of Fate, by most extraordinary good luck, my sitter did not move and the picture was not spoiled.” Dodgson created nearly 3000 images. Soon after writing this letter, he abandoned photography, perhaps because of the waning use of his preferred photographic process, wet plate collodion.

On loan from the collection of Gail ’56 and Stephan Rudin.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Xie, One of Lewis Carroll’s Favorite Subjects, ca. 1880. [zoom]
Albumen print, cabinet card mount

Dodgson photographed Alexandra 'Xie' Rhoda Kitchin (1864-1925) from age four until just before her sixteenth birthday. In this letter he laments that, “though I have accepted with all realization the fact that Xie will be taken in one year… it is less likely I shall find [a subject] as beautiful.”

On loan from the collection of Gail ’56 and Stephan Rudin.

Carleton E. Watkins. “Golden Gate Entrance to Harbor of San Francisco,” ca. 1868. [zoom]
Albumen print, 12 3/4 x 20 1/2 in.

The most important visual chronicler of the 19th-century American West, Watkins (1829-1916) transported 2000 pounds of equipment by mule, including a custom-built 75-pound “mammoth camera,” hundreds of pounds of glass and the chemicals for coating and developing plates on location in the wilderness. With vast energy, extraordinary equipment, and genius for composition, Watkins produced 18 x 22 inch mammoth wet plate negatives depicting with remarkable detail the vastness and scale of western landscape. Watkins’s photographs helped persuade Congress to create the Yosemite Grant in 1864, the first time the federal government set aside land for preservation and public use.

Making of a Tintype by George Eastman House. Process Historian Mark Osterman demonstrates the making of a Civil War-era tintype.

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