After Talbot introduced the calotype (see my previous article here), the world was in search of something photographic in between the calotype’s unique paper characteristics and the daguerreotype’s pristine, crystal clear detail. In the 1840’s photographers began making the move to glass plates instead of a silvered plate as it was much less expensive and completely smooth. In 1847 a man by the name of Claude Félix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor (Nicéphore Niépce’s cousin) had a breakthrough. You see, using glass was cheaper and produced excellent clarity, but the problem with it was getting the silver salts to stick to the plate throughout the entire development process. Photographers had a hard time figuring out how to bind them properly so they didn’t just float off the glass during processing. Saint-Victor discovered he could coat the plate in albumen (egg whites) and solve the issue! Still, exposure times were too long and the quest continued.

Around the mid-1800’s, a man by the name of Frederick Scott Archer was experimenting with using collodion on glass instead of paper. While a plate was wet with iodized collodion, it was exposed, producing a negative on glass. One of the reasons this collodion process became known as a wet plate process was that the ether in collodion evaporated rapidly and was essential to the process working properly.Ultimately, it was a complicated process that required access to a darkroom on-site. The photographer had to coat the plate quickly, leaving no pour marks; pouring collodion, potassium iodide, alcohol, ether, and “gun cotton” (a nickname of nitrated cellulose due to its explosive tendencies). After the plate was coated, it had to be dipped into a bath of silver nitrate to make it photosensitive, and then immediately placed in the camera for exposure. The longer it sat/dried, the less light sensitive the plate became. Immediately after exposure, it was back to the darkroom to be developed in pyrogallic acid and then fixed with hyposulphite. Despite its complexity, the process produced excellent results and much more quickly than ever before (as quickly as two seconds) and it gained popularity.

Frederick Scott Archer’s Rochester Cathedral collodion process on albumen coated paper c. 1855.

When Talbot caught wind of the process, he thought it to be an infringement of his calotype patent and threatened to sue any photographer that used the collodion process without paying Talbot for his license from the calotype process. A photographer by the name of Silvester Laroche refused to comply with the injunction and was taken to court in 1853 in England. In the end, the court found Laroche not guilty and ultimately, Talbot failed to renew his patent. Also, around that time, Daguerre’s patent had expired as well. Now, with both patent issues out of the way, photography was free to “develop” without any licensing issues.

At this point, photography was doing well with the first half of the process, the exposing, but it still needed a better solution than the rough paper/textured prints of the calotype process. With the albumen having worked so well as a binder on glass for the negatives, eventually, albumen made it’s way onto coating the papers. In 1850, the first widely produced albumen paper began being distributed. It was smooth and glossy and replicated the details well. The goal of getting both the negative and the paper onto smoother and smoother surfaces was to support the aesthetic of naturalism. At this point in time, there was a departure from the artistic (with hand retouching or hand painting) and a move toward photography as a “true” and “natural” image that was representative of reality, and devoid of “artist” operation. Essentially, it coincided with the rise of factory processes and industrialization and was thought of as yet another automatic process.

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