I think a photography class should be a requirement in all educational programs because it makes you see the world rather than just look at it.

~Author Unknown

This is a long post, but I wanted to explore one of my favorite topics. People ask me why I’m so interested in the early days of photography. Hopefully this post will help explain.

Photography didn’t start in the 1800s. The first photographic image from a camera may have been made then, but photography (as in, photo-graphy, as in from the original Greek, “light-drawing“) can be traced back centuries. Camera obscura (Latin for “dark chamber”) was described by many historic figures, including Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. Pinhole cameras were written about by Greek mathematicians and Chinese philosophers as early as 4th and 5th centuries BC.

My fascination with 1800s photography lies in the many advances in seemingly unrelated technology over an amazingly short period, all of which contributed to some degree toward the birth of photography. The 1800s saw what I consider an unparalleled convergence of inventions, experiments and discoveries (both intentional and accidental) by scientists, engineers, physicists, opticians, mathematicians and artists.

I know we make advances and breakthroughs daily in all areas of technology. Compared to what took place in the 1800s, today’s work seems more like refining what already exists. What took place was the visual arts equivalent of the perfect storm. I hope you enjoy reading my take on what led to the build-up of this storm. The examples I give are literally a few of the hundreds of people who fueled the storm.

The headlines in England and Europe could have read, “Perfect Photographic Storm Taking Shape…”

Strong Winds, Threatening Skies (1790s-1830s)

Many contributors to photography in the late 1700s and early 1800s had no interest in creating a new visual art form. Their goal was often to simply make the world a better place, or at least to improve some aspect of life. All were not all scientists, but all were problem solvers.

British pottery maker, Thomas Wedgwood, created some of the world’s first photographic images on paper, not because he pursued visual art, but because of his interest in helping children learn. Wedgwood realized that most children learn best visually, so he experimented with coating paper with liquids sensitive to sunlight.
He placed objects on these sheets of coated paper and exposed them to the sun. The results were dark outlines of the objects. The paper remained white only where the objects blocked the sun. In an effort to teach children how to learn, Wedgwood taught us all how to make some of the world’s first sunprints.
John Herschel, British astronomer and mathematician, is credited with many discoveries, including inventing the cyanotype process and improved a number photographic processes during his lifetime. Herschel discovered that sodium thiosulfate stabilized and preserved the photographic image. We still use sodium thiosulfate in modern wet darkrooms today. When safety is a concern, I use sodium thiosulfate in place of potassium cyanide in the wet plate collodion process.

Storm Gathers Momentum (1830s-1840s)

French inventors, Louis Daguerre and Joseph Niépce made the first photographic images. It is said that Daguerre accidentally discovered that mercury vapors develop latent images (images on exposed plates but yet to be developed) when he broke a thermometer.
Daguerre coated copper plates with silver, treated the plates with iodine vapor, exposed his plates in-camera for 20-30 minutes, then developed the plates with mercury vapor and fixed them using ordinary salt. This was the birth of the daguerreotype (1837).

On Jan 7, 1839, Daguerre presented his first daguerreotypes to amazed crowds at the world in Paris exhibition. The images were rich with detail and so lifelike that viewers became convinced that they saw the subject’s eyes in the portraits following them. This added to the belief that a photograph has the power to capture the soul of its subject.

Less than three weeks later, English inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, presented his “talbotype” printing process to the Royal Society. The daguerreotype process produced an image rich in detail, but each daguerreotype was a unique positive (no negative existed for reprinting). The talbotype process produced multiple copies from the same negative, but lacked detail.

The Perfect Photographic Storm Arrives! (1840s-1860s)

In 1846, French chemist, Louis Menard, created collodion (the chemical, not the process) as a medical bandage. The primary ingredient, nitrocellulose, is the active ingredient in some of today’s liquid/spray bandages.
Parallel but independent experiments with collodion on glass were conducted by English scientist, R. J. Bingham, French painter, Gustave Le Gray, and English sculptor and inventor, Frederick Scott Archer. Le Gray created a collodion photographic process in 1848 but it was called, “theoretical at best”.

Frederick Scott Archer – Wet Plate Collodion (our Stormtrooper Hero!)

Archer wished to make images of his sculpting subjects, so he could work from images instead of with live models over extended posings. It was common knowledge that silver nitrate liquid turned black when exposed to the sun, which meant that it made an ideal substance for painting with light. The problem was that no method existed for exposing silver nitrate to light in a consistent way. Silver nitrate had to stay wet to be light-sensitive. Even if the liquid would somehow stay on vertical surface when placed inside a camera box for exposure, the liquid would dry long before the prolonged exposure was made.

Archer found the syrup-like collodion to be the perfect solution. Archer coated a glass plate with the sticky collodion. Then, while the collodion remained wet, he coated the plate with silver nitrate over the collodion. The result was a thin uniform layer of silver nitrate over the plate, which remained stuck to the wet collodion beneath. The coated plate could then be considered light-sensitive. Because the silver nitrate stuck to the collodion, the plate could be placed straight up inside a camera box without the liquid draining off of the plate. Archer had solved the problem of keeping silver nitrate on the surface of a vertical plate, but what about the silver nitrate and collodion drying (no longer sensitive to light) during the excessively long exposure times?
Archer found that if he “salted” the collodion with potassium iodide and cadmium bromide (and adjusted the amounts of ether and grain alcohol in collodion), the silver nitrate not only stuck to the collodion, but also reacted with the new collodion solution in a way that made the plate much more sensitive to light than previous photographic processes. This meant much shorter exposure times. This, combined with parallel advancements in lens optics, allowed the wet plate photographic process to be finished before the chemicals dried. Archer began making photographic images at will, instead of by chance.

Each improvement in optics increased lens clarity and further reduced exposure times, feeding to the perfect storm. Hungarian mathematician, Joseph Petzval, created the portrait lens in 1840. In 1866, John Dallmeyer, English Optician, made the rapid rectilinear lens. German optician, Adolph Steinheil, introduced his Aplanat lens that same year.
Frederick Scott Archer essentially created liquid photographic film, along with a method for developing, fixing and permanently sealing collodion images. In 1851, he published his findings in a journal called, The Chemist, and wet plate collodion photography was born.
Frederick Scott Archer – “Unassertive” & “Over-thoughtful”
In a time when photographic patents were pursued at a furious pace, Archer never pursued a patent for his creation. He wanted his invention to be free for anyone who wished to pursue photography. Some called him “unassertive” and “over-thoughtful,” and a poor business person. Ironically, someone else could have claimed the invention if Archer had not published his findings to distribute the process to the mainstream public.
On May 1, 1851, Archer died penniless at the age of 44. A collection was taken for his burial expenses. Archer’s wife, Frances Garrett Archer, died the following year, and only one of their three children lived to adulthood. Until 2010, Frederick Scott Archer’s Kensal Green Cemetery gravesite in London remained unmarked. On May 1, 2010, the 153rd anniversary of his death, a headstone was purchased and dedicated by a group of modern wet plate collodion artists.
May 1st is now known as “Annual World Wet Plate Day”. Historic photographic processes are making their own perfect creative storm today. God bless you fine artists and craftspeople working in the arts! Keep generating vortices to feed the storm!
Wet Plate Collodion Archivability
I’ve touched on archivability of historic processes in previous blog posts, but it bears revisiting. We hear so much about archival qualities of modern inks and papers. I have no idea when a well-prepared and varnished collodion plate begins to break down, but I know it can take over 160 years before it starts!
There are plenty of original mid-1800s plates still around. I’m sure we’ll see those images will begin to deteriorate at some point in the future. Actually, I’m not holding my breath. A good varnish seal on a wet plate collodion image is almost like an air-tight vault. It’s the perfect protection against storm damage…