Sloppy, but it works

Frederick Scott Archer, sculpter, artist, and photographer

Toronto. When Scott Archer announced his invention, most photographs were studio portraits by Daguerreotypists; while some people used Fox Talbot’s salted paper negatives and prints. Both processes were slow in camera and very technical requiring care and precision to obtain a reasonable result.

From the earliest days experimenters attempted to use glass plates and remove the low resolution caused by paper fibres. Sadly the emulsion adhering to glass was far too slow to use the plate in any camera of the 1840s.

In 1851 this changed with a new process perfected by Scott Archer, a Calotype photographer. He used collodion as a glue to adhere the silver nitrate to the glass plate, making the plate sensitive enough to use in a camera. One big problem: the plate had to be exposed and developed while still wet. If the plate were to dry, the sensitivity would plummet and render it useless to capture or retain an image. One had to have a darkroom adjacent to the scene to sensitize the plate, take the photograph, and develop the image before the plate dried. The era of wet plate photography and albumen prints began.  NOTE: Our program director, Ms Yvette Bessels, is a practising wet plate photographer!

While the resolution of the new process was far higher, practitioners still needed to be skilled. The process at a few seconds was faster than its predecessors but still too slow for instantaneous photographs.. Few wet plate cameras remain as they were badly damaged in use by the dripping silver nitrate solution. Lenses were another matter and easily survived the era.

Using this process started the cheaper cased image Ambrotype and even cheaper but sturdier tintype Both processes used an under exposed image bleached by a solution suggested by Archer. Ambrotypes were on glass and used a black backing to reverse the image while tintypes were used in-camera, the emulsion attached directly to a blackened (Japanned) metal plate.

The prints would roll up tightly like tubes of cigarettes. This led to the use of a thick cardboard backing for the albumen prints and the fashionable use of carte de visite cards, cabinet cards, and more. A famous American photographer (Mathew Brady) was well known for his horse drawn darkroom wagon on the battle fields of the American civil war. Only scenery and the dead were still enough for his camera.

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