The Camera Story (Wet Plates: 1851--1870)

The 1840s may be said to be the period when photography was officially born. By then the world had been presented with two rival systems of photography, each with distinctive advantages of its own. The daguerreotype, though expensive, was much admired for its exquisite detail and appearance. The process however yielded a single picture at a time, each additional copy requiring a separate exposure on a new copper plate. In this respect, as in the matter of cost, it was the humble calotype which scored over its rival despite the poor rendering of detail.

Perhaps the only discovery of significance during this period was the invention of albumen paper. Tired of the limitations of the daguerreotype and calotype, inventors were looking for a way to obtain a negative on a sheet of clear glass, but there was no way light sensitive silver salts could be made to stick to the glass. Albumen (the white of a hen’s egg) had been tried as a ‘binder’ with success, but the results were too slow to record camera images. Albumen however proved to be a convenient vehicle to coat silver salts onto paper which did not require a high degree of sensitivity. Results on albumen coated paper were entirely satisfactory and were found to give good detail with a glossy finish.

Matters might have continued thus indefinitely were it not for a London sculptor named Frederick Scott Archer who made the discovery in 1851 that collodion formed a suitable substance to hold together an even layer of silver salts on glass. Collodion is nitrated cotton dissolved in ether and alcohol. In Archer’s method, collodion containing potassium iodide is poured over a sheet of glass in an even layer which is then soaked in a solution of silver nitrate. The plate, now sensitive to light, is exposed in a camera whilst still damp (the plate did not work after the collodion had dried). Following camera exposure, the still damp plate was carried back to the darkroom and developed in pyrogallic acid, and finally fixed in hypo, washed and dried.

The result of these manipulations was to yield a clean, transparent negative on a sheet of glass which when printed by contact onto albumen paper gave a positive print which showed adequate contrast, with detail rendered to the last scratch.

Archer’s process created a revolution in photography. As both exposure and development had to be carried out whilst the plate was still damp, the process soon came to be known as the ‘wet plate process.’ Collodion negatives were faster than earlier processes, so smaller camera exposures were required, and good quality prints could be made cheaply on albumen paper.

The collodion process brought with it the age of glass plate negatives. With excellent photographic quality achieved at minimal cost, the process soon established itself as a profession, and within a few years’ time displaced the daguerreotype and calotype.

The new process marked the beginning of the era when photographs produced in the mass and at cheap cost found their way increasingly into the lives of people. Viewing a paper print was not the same as holding up a tiny silvered copper plate to the eye: it made you stop and think. For the first time camera pictures began to be looked upon as art: photographic societies began to spring up and exhibitions of pictures held. In England, the Photographic Society was set up in 1853 which later became the Royal Photographic Society, and the year following saw the arrival of the British Journal of Photography which has continued publication to this day.

Collodion had the remarkable effect of making the world seem to be at your doorstep. Travel photographers like Francis Frith would carry camera gear to distant lands returning with stacks of pictures made available in albums. Travel pictures were also made into lantern slides on albumen coated plates and lecture shows by itinerant showmen moving from town to town with their gas-light magic lanterns grew to be a much sought after entertainment.

Pictures became novelties which people liked to collect and display much as they would collect stamps and antiques today. This was made possible by the arrival of an innovative new idea known as a carte-de-visite, which was nothing more than a tiny albumen print stuck onto card with the name of the photo-firm printed below. Carte-de-visites were the absolute craze in the 1860s; the shops sold cartes by the hundreds featuring celebrities, statesmen, stage actors and writers, which everyone wanted to collect and display in the parlour.

Despite the worldwide popularity the new method commanded, collodion was clearly a painstaking process. For the photographer in the field, it meant that a darkroom tent was a necessary part of the accessories carried. Early collodion photographers carried tents together with bottles of chemicals, dishes and weights, and all the necessary implements to sensitize their plates in addition to camera equipment. Having set up his darkroom tent close to the spot where a picture was planned, the photographer flowed liquid collodion onto a plate, sensitized it with chemicals himself, placed the plate in a light-proof holder and rushed to the camera which had been erected previously close by. And as the plate could be successfully developed only while it was yet wet, it gave the photographer no opportunity to rest until he had extracted the plate from the camera and hurried back to his tent to develop.

With such a paintstaking and arduous routine set before him, no one would venture to take up collodion photography unless he made a living out of it. Photography as a hobby was practically unknown. Collodion work called for a certain amount of daring and recklessness : only the most ambitious who had the leisure to pursue the craft for pleasure would venture to experiment with a process which was known to be as exacting as it was messy.

Continued below.