camera

Ambrotypes

Another post here discusses photographic daguerreotypes, so let’s now look at the next step in the development of photography.

Whereas the daguerreotype produced a negative image on a metal base, an ambrotype created a positive image on glass. The ambrotype is a variation of the wet plate collodion method introduced by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851.

For the wet plate collodion method, a glass plate was polished and coated with a thin layer of iodized collodion before being dipped in a bath of silver nitrate solution for three to five minutes. Once it had drained and dried, it was placed in a plate holder with a dark slide to protect it from the light.

1. Woon Brothers

 Ambrotype of four of the sons of the Reverend William Woon
Date unknown. Left to right: Garland William, James Garland, Edwin Turner, and Richard Watson Woon. WRM Ref: 1988.35.1

The prepared plate was loaded into the camera while still wet and the dark plate removed to begin exposure, which could take as little as five seconds, or well over a minute, depending on the light and conditions of the day. Once done, the dark slide was replaced and the plate removed from the camera for immediate treatment – it could not wait or the image would be lost. It would be developed using a ferrous sulfate developer, and the image would be fixed with potassium cyanide or sodium thiosulphate solution before being rinsed and varnished.

The resulting image looked like an underexposed negative, but would appear as a positive when viewed against a dark background. The dark areas of the image appeared as clear patches on the plate while the lighter areas of the image showed opaque. The glass plates were often painted black on one side or mounted against black velvet to make the image easier to see. They were monochrome but could be hand coloured.

2. Mr Keen

 Ambrotype of Mr Keen, a stable keeper with premises on St Hill Street. 1869. WRM Ref: 1955.74.1

Another plate of glass would be mounted over the emulsion side before the plates were mounted within a metal frame and housed in a case, just as daguerreotypes were.

Ambrotypes were significantly cheaper to create than daguerreotypes. The plates did not need to be polished or fumed, which reduced equipment and material costs, and they were made out of much cheaper glass rather than expensive silver-plated copper. It was also possible to photograph more clients per day, due to the reduced exposure time.

There were, however, disadvantages. The technique required great dexterity as the whole process had to be completed within 10 minutes before the plate dried, so ambrotypists had to have a dark room immediately available. Travelling ambrotypists would take a tent or portable dark room with all the associated chemicals with them.

3. Unidentified woman

 Ambrotype of a young woman, with hand coloured background and jewellery accented with gold pigment. Date unknown. WRM Ref: 1977.33.19

The nitrate bath solution could leave stains on clothing and furnishing, and the plates could leave nitrate residue in the camera. An overload of nitrate could be potentially explosive.

The photograph fixer, potassium cyanide, was a powerful, deadly poison, and occasionally caused cyanide poisoning. It was even drunk by one photographer to commit suicide.

Ambrotypes were still relatively quick and significantly cheaper than daguerreotypes and became immensely popular between 1855 and 1865. There are many more ambrotypes than daguerreotypes surviving today, 32 of them in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Daguerreotypes – the first photographs

In the 21st century, most of us have mobile phones, and most of those phones come equipped with a pretty good camera. We can take a photograph, add a filter, crop and edit, then share it with the world within seconds. Photography has not always been so easy and readily available.

After centuries of painstaking carving and painting to capture a likeness, in 1822, French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was the first person to make a mechanical image. He used a process called photo etching to create a permanent image on a metal plate, and was then able to use the plate to create copies of the image etched onto it.

2. Unknown child

Undated daguerreotype of an unidentified child. WRM ref: 1960.145.2

He worked with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre to further the process before passing away in 1833, but Daguerre continued with the work. He finalised the process in 1837. In 1838 he took the first photograph of a person, by accident, while he was attempting to make a daguerreotype of a street scene in Paris. Moving pedestrians and carriages are too blurry to see, but one man who was having his boots cleaned on the street corner, stayed still long enough to be captured.

In exchange for a pension from the government he allowed France to present his method as a gift to the world. Daguerreotypes were very time-consuming and intricate to make. A plate of copper was coated with silver and polished to a mirror-shine, then exposed to halogen fumes to create a layer of light-sensitive silver halide which would bear the image. Initially, exposure could take up to 70 minutes, but was refined down to only a few seconds on a bright day.

The latent image was revealed by exposing the plate to mercury fumes.  Although known to be dangerous, very little protection was taken when handling the mercury and there were reports of inattentive daguerreotypists developing mercury poisoning from it.

The plate was toned with gold chloride before being rinsed and dried, and the daguerreotypist could add colour washes to clothing and skin or gold tints to jewellery. The plate was then sealed behind a layer of glass and bound in a brass mat, before being housed in a wooden case covered with leather and padded with velvet or satin.

3. Unknown man

Undated daguerreotype of an unidentified man. WRM ref: 1802.8612

The resulting image could be seen as a positive or a negative, and had a high-shine finish, made easier to view by the padding in the case. It was a single-use image and it was not possible to make copies without creating a whole new daguerreotype. It was also quite expensive. In 1882, an advertisement for the process in the newspaper, The New Zealander, stated the daguerreotypist could take a photo in only five seconds; he charged between 10 shillings and two guineas, equivalent to $60 – $260 today.

1. Mrs J Allison

Daguerreotype of Mrs Allison, relative of Dr James Allison. WRM ref: 1975.43.19

Although it was expensive, the daguerreotype was the first publicly available photographic process. Its peak popularity was from the early 1840s to the mid-1860s. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds six in the collection, only one of which is named. This is Mrs J Allison, a relative of Dr James Allison who arrived in Whanganui from Glasgow in 1840.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Pictures from the past

Pictures from the past I

My first impression was of the shiny wood and polished brass, almost a signature look of Victorian gadgets and machinery, but the age of this camera is uncertain. It could be much newer.

The camera uses glass plate ‘film’, a single sheet of which is still in the camera, albeit in a broken but ‘taped up’ state.  This is state-of-the-art gadgetry, complete with Koilos lens and Koilos three-leaf shutter. Koilos was a German manufacturer during the early years of the 20th century, but was not necessarily the maker of the camera itself. The name “W Kenngott, Paris” is engraved on the bakelite lens surround.

I’m sure there are readers who have more in-depth knowledge of early cameras who could shed some light on this machine.

The camera folds up into a box to look like a larger version of the Kodak Box Brownie. The photographs show what it looks like unfolded. Beneath the box are three holes – possibly for a tripod?  Shutter speed and aperture are adjustable and the body of the camera can slide forward from its bellows and can track up or down, suggesting that its base remains fixed while taking a picture.

Pictures from the past IISome research (via Google) tells me this could be a Junior Sanderson model camera, made by Houghtons Ltd of London. The wood and brass design is identical, so too the seal grain leather covered body and red leather bellows. If correct, this puts the age of the museum’s camera somewhere between 1906 and 1910, although with the inclusion of a shutter speed of 1/300 it could be a little later.  I could, of course, be entirely wrong and more than one manufacturer could have used the same design and lenses.

Awhina has studied this little beauty, working out what does what and discovering the little viewfinder in brass and glass. She uses words like “gorgeous” and “cute” to describe this camera and obviously likes it a lot.

Her own interest in photography and memories of pretending to use her parents’ Box Brownie inspired her to look among the museum cameras for a subject for Midweek – “I love cameras,” she says, “I’ve always taken photos.” In fact, she says she often thought about becoming a photographer. Having seen some of her work, I think she could have realised her ambition. Fate, however, has brought her among relics of the past, like this camera.

 

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in September 2010. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.