It’s easy to recognize when a photograph is an antique, but it’s not always as easy to identify at first glance the photographic process that was used to create it. In this blog post, we explore a few common forms of 19th-century photography through examples from the Bellamy House’s collections.
These days, photographers are everywhere. Professional photographers work both in and out of studios, and taking an amateur photo is now as easy as pulling out a cell phone. However, it’s worth remembering that taking a photo wasn’t always that simple or instantly gratifying. When the first photography studio opened in New York in 1840, the process used to take portraits was very different from today.1 There was no easy way to share copies of a photo with family and friends, so while it was much quicker to have a photograph taken than a portrait painted, the resulting image was still just as unique. Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes are three forms of early photographs that you’re likely to find in museums, antique stores, or perhaps your own family archives. Generally kept in similarly-styled small cases and all sometimes hand-colored, they are often easily confused for each other. However, each has its own distinct characteristics that can make identification easy if you know what to look for.
Daguerreotypes are the earliest successful form of photography. Invented by—and named after—Louis Daguerre in 1839 in France, they were popular through the late 1850s. To take a photograph, a copper plate was coated in silver, then polished and exposed to iodine vapors before finally being exposed to light. The earliest daguerreotypes required that a plate be exposed to light for between five and seventy minutes, but process improvements after 1840 reduced that time to between five and forty seconds. While photographers could lengthen the exposure time and take a photograph through a prism to reverse the image that was captured on a plate, they generally did not. Therefore, because the plate acted like a mirror, most daguerreotype portraits actually show their subjects the way they would have seen themselves in a reflective surface.2
Unlike a roll of film, which captures negative images that are then reversed when prints are made, the daguerreotype process resulted in a positive image being captured directly on the plate. Therefore, once the plate was developed, it could be put straight into a case. This also meant that the photos were one of a kind, and the only way to have a second copy was to take a daguerreotype of the daguerreotype.
Identifying characteristics: The image has mirror-like qualities and can disappear when viewed from some angles.
Ambrotypes were made using the wet collodion process that Englishman Frederick Scott Archer published in 1851, and they were a common form of photography for thirty years. Less expensive to produce than daguerreotypes, they captured images on pieces of glass that had been coated with an emulsion. Taking a photograph was necessarily a quick process—usually no more than fifteen minutes—as the image needed to be captured and developed before the plate dried. Unlike daguerreotypes, the resulting photo was a negative image that appeared positive once backed with black. While the image on the glass itself remained negative, the black would readily show through the transparent areas (i.e., the white parts of the negative), effectively darkening them, and be less visible through the more opaque areas, leaving them a lighter gray. Ambrotypes are also one-of-a-kind images.3
Identifying characteristics: The image is on glass and does not have mirror-like qualities. The dark areas look like they are on a layer below the light areas.
Tintypes, patented by Hamilton L. Smith in 1856, were similar in process to ambrotypes. The difference was in their affordability; using the same wet collodion process but capturing the image on a cheap piece of sheet iron that had been lacquered black or dark brown, they were more accessible to more people. Taken in studios as well as at places like seaside resorts, the low cost to produce them resulted in more relaxed or informal portraits. Their durability made them popular with Civil War soldiers, immigrants, and westward-moving Americans who wanted to keep in touch with the family and friends they left behind.4
Identifying characteristics: The image is on a thin piece of metal and is visible from all angles. It may be behind glass in a case, but the dark areas of the image do not look as if they are on a layer that is separate from the lighter areas.
- Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport, Capturing the Light: The Birth of Photography, A True Story of Genius and Rivalry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013) 180.
- Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Diane Vogt-O’Connor with Helena Zinkham, Brett Carnell and Kit Peterson, Photographs: Archival Care and Management (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006) 29.
- Ritzenthaler and Vogt-O’Connor, 34-5; Watson and Rappaport, 220.
- Ritzenthaler and Vogt-O’Connor, 35-6; Watson and Rappaport, 252-3.