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Photographic Process History

Photography began with developments prior to the mid nineteenth century. Although the calotype, also known as salt print, was developed prior to the Daguerreotype, it was not until Louis Mandé Daguerre made public his Daguerreotype, that the evolution of photography began.

This discussion focuses on the history of photographic types. These types can be placed in several broad categories and further broken down into sub-categories.

The first forms of photography can be defined as hard photographs. This category consists of three types; the Daguerreotype, Ambrotype and Tintype. Each was developed and popularized in overlapping eras in the mid 1800s. A brief outline of each follows.

Daguerreotype: Unveiled to the world in 1839 by Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre and reputed to be the first photographic process. Daguerre had collaborated with French physicist Joseph Nicéphore Niepce until Niepce’s death in 1833. Daguerreotypes (Dags) are distinct, one of a kind images on silver coated copper plates. "Dags" are direct positive images. A negative is not required. After fixing, the highly sensitive surface must be protected, usually covered by glass. There were very few made after 1855.

Ambrotype: Ambrotypes followed the era of Daguerreotypes. F.S. Archer and P.W. Fry made a practical collodion wet plate method of fixing an image available and called it the Ambrotype. The process creates a glass negative, that appears as a positive when placed against a black background. Ambrotypes were much less expensive to produce than Daguerreotypes, and lacked the Dag’s shiny metallic surface, which some found unappealing. However, by the late 1850s, the ambrotype was overtaking the Daguerreotype in popularity; by the mid-1860s, the ambrotype itself was supplanted by the tintype and other processes. Many ambros were hand-tinted. The ambrotype was popular from 1851 through approximately 1865.

Tintype: A variation on the ambrotype process is called the tintype or melainotype or ferrotype. Beginning about 1860 it was available and became the most popular photographic process for about 30 years. The ferrotype was a minor improvement to the ambrotype, replacing the glass plate of the original process with a thin piece of black enameled, or japanned, iron (thus "ferro") or tin. The new materials reduced the cost of the productions considerably, and the image was very durable. Like the ambrotype, the image is a negative, but appears to be a positive image when viewed against the black background. The tintype was most popular from 1860 through the 1880s, yet was still made in the 1900s.

Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes and Tintypes come in various sizes, commonly defined by plate size. Almost all Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are cased images, which is not true with tintypes. Although many tintypes were housed in either leather or thermoplastic cases, the majority were left uncased. The tintype was the first form of hard photographs to be displayed without a case of any type. This was due to its durability and less sensitivity of its surface.

Plate Size in Inches
Whole Plate or full plate 6.5 x 8.5
Half plate 4.25 x 6.5
Quarter plate 3.25 x 4.25
Sixth plate 2.5 x 3.25
Ninth plate 2 x 2.5

Leather cases were the most common housing for hard photographs and are sometimes highly sought after for their design. Many of the thermoplastic cases came in two basic styles - geometric and pictographic. Geometric cases were designs based on simple patterns; pictographic or themed cases were many times taken from famous illustrations or paintings. A themed case usually commands a higher price.

Oratone: The oratone is a type of hard photograph. The oratone was used extensively by Edward S. Curtis in the early 1900s. Oratones were created by taking a glass plate coated with gelatin silver emulsion and exposing it to a negative. After the plate is exposed and developed, the back of the plate is painted gold, creating a positive image. The oratone was most popular from the 1890s through the 1920s.

Paper Photographs: The development of paper photographs helped accelerate the declining usage of hard photographs.

Most paper photographs from the nineteenth century are albumen prints. In 1851 Louis-Desire’ Evrard, a Frenchman, synthesized the available information concerning paper photographs and the collodion wet-plate process, and introduced albumen processed paper. Until the late 1880’s when the silver print was introduced, paper coated with albumen (egg white) and a salt solution was used almost exclusively by photographers who also had to light sensitize the paper with silver nitrate themselves. By the early 1870’s, light sensitized paper was available, which greatly simplified the photographic process.

Albumen Print: Made public by Louis-Desire’ Blanquart-Evrard in 1851. The printing process involves COATING a sheet of paper with an egg-white derivative and then sensitizing the paper with a solution of silver nitrate. The paper is then put in direct contact with the negative and exposed to sunlight to create a photographic print. Many albumen photographs were toned in gold chloride solution to give the print a more pleasing tone and more permanence. The Albumen process was popular from the 1840-80s. Although various sizes of albumen prints were created, many fell into two categories.

CDV: also known as the Carte de Visite. The first form of albumen photographs and was popular from 1860-1880. The CDV was popularized by Parisian photographer Andre Disdéri who patented a method of taking several photographs on a single plate in 1854. The CDV - Carte de Visite - developed from the practice of using visiting cards as a means of announcing one’s visit. Usually an albumen print, the CDV is a photograph 2.125 x 3.5 inches mounted on a card 2.5 x 4 inches.

Cabinet Card: the second most common albumen photograph. Nearly twice the size of the CDV. The cabinet card was popular from the mid-1870s through the early 1900s. These albumen photographs featured a wide variety of subject matter from portraits to the unusual!

Albumen photographs were phased out beginning in the late nineteenth century. Silver and platinum photographs became popularized and are still used today. Most contemporary photographs are produced as silver prints.

Platinum print: The most permanent photographic process. The platinum print is made by sensitizing a sheet of paper with iron and platinum salts. After exposure, the paper is then washed with a potassium oxalate solution, which creates a photographic print with a great range of gray tones. The platinum print was popular from 1890s to present day.

Silver print: These prints are produced on a paper that is coated with gelatin emulsion The paper also contains light sensitive salts. the silver print is still in use today.

In the beginning of silver and platinum print eras, almost all images were mounted, as most albumens had been previously. The first boards were black, and then varying shades of gray became popular. Eventually other neutral colors came into use such as various brown tones, creams, light greens and white. Finally the use of board mounts fell out of vogue and silver prints were unmounted as they are today.

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