The history of photography Civil War Photographs Brady and Gardner
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Ambrotypes and Tintypes

In my last History of Photography article, I talked about the wet plate, or collodion process and how it was quickly adopted as the status quo in the industry. Like many things that are popular, offshoots are invented by people looking for their own piece of the pie.

Ambrotype c. 1858. The left half of the ambrotype has the dark backing removed to show the positive “effect” created from the original negative.

In the mid-1850’s a daguerreotypist in Philadelphia, PA named a new spinoff process ambrotype. Ambrotypes are made from the collodion process but were a positive-looking image on glass. Like daguerreotypes, it produced a one of a kind image, laterally reversed, had similar sizing, and were displayed in similar keepsake cases which often lead to ambrotypes being often called “daguerreotypes on glass”. Where they differ from daguerreotypes is that often the negative is bleached creating an effect when looked at against a dark background of what appears positive. To enhance this and make it even easier to view, ambrotypists lacquered the back of the glass plate with paint, or put it against black fabric or paper.

 

It’s interesting to note that in the US the display cases for ambrotypes were called “union cases”. They often were molded with patriotic, religious, or nature scenes by the process of thermoplastic molding, which was just in its’ infancy as a process as well. Also a first for photography, these cases began including hooks for hanging on the wall, or legs to stand the frame on a table. This was a huge departure in how photography was viewed. For the first time, it went from our hands as keepsakes, to adorning homes as decorations to be viewed passively and actively at any time.

Ambrotype of unidentified Union African American soldier and his family.
Tintype of unknown fireman circa 1865.

Also around the mid-1800’s the ferrotype (or tintype as it was known in the US) began making a play in the photographic world. The tintype was essentially an ambrotype, but on a thin sheet of iron, instead of glass. (Are you sensing the theme of the early history of photography that you can simply switch the material and a whole “new” process is invented?) The iron was enameled with a black (or near black) coating before another coating of collodion prior to exposure. As you might have guessed, the iron was cheaper than the silver plates and cheaper than the glass plates in other processes. As the costs got lower and more accessible, tintypists became more mobile. They developed a modified camera that housed a developer and a fixer bath (think, early precursor to the Polaroid) and with a quick dip in both, then in a bucket of water to rinse, the tintypist shook the water off and handed the tintype over to the client, often in around a minute. The “instantaneous” nature was eaten up by the public, however, it began to instill a lack of “specialness” on photography. After all, folks were used to artistic processes taking time and careful cultivation. Instant processes are viewed as mechanical and non-artistic. The tintype is effectively the “snapshot” of its’ era. So much so that many tintypes don’t have authors or creators names attached to them, also reinforcing the mechanical, non-artistic view of the time.

 

Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.

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