Feb 28, 2014

Phototypes: 50 years of the 'phototype' in photography

Fifty Years of Photography in Prints, Plates and Types: 1829-1880

Perhaps a little energetic for the 1970s but exuberant with congratulatory fanfare, Time-Life International’s 1976 book The Techniques of Phototgraphy thus begins, “Photography! It burst upon the sedate, self-satisfied world of Victorian Europe with the force of an exploding comet.” Makes me sorry I missed it.

The latter half of the nineteenth century was indeed an especially productive period for photography. In little over fifty years photography rapidly escalated from Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce’s first permanent, camera-made image in 1829 (some sources say 1826), to a pastime and profession commercially supported and publically embraced. Indeed the period saw the birth of a new technology, a new occupation and a new art form, things we may take for granted today. Often our photographic timelines begin with the announcement and demonstration of the daguerreotype to the French government in 1839, but it is really Niépce’s eight hour image that began it all.

Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce’s first photograph taken from a second story window. This photo is generally credited to 1829, though some sources  reference 1826. 

Thereafter, each new development came hot on the heels and borrowing heavily from its predecessors. New chemical combinations, developing procedures and fixing processes were constantly tweaked and experimented upon, and were matched by equal efforts in printing and reproduction. By the 1880s photography not only had a firm following, an eager market and highly skilled practitioners, but it was also commercially supported by cameras, chemicals and plates. Furthermore photographs had become reproducible, relatively quick and inexpensive. Its uses were quickly recognized and solicited by emerging media from news to science. Photography’s apparent veracity was fairly seized upon in a period where the romance of exploration was fast becoming tainted by colonial expansion. Almost from the start, photography was recognized as a judicial tool. As early as 1852, an American photographic journal records French lawyers using photographic evidence to help sway juries. This was only made possible by advances in calotype printing methods (1841) and the wet plate collodion process (1851). By 1888 George Eastman was to introduce his first box camera and in so doing democratized photography and set it on a path leading firmly towards the indulgence of images that we enjoy today.

It is from this period that we see emerging a variety of photographic ‘types’. With even a slight interest in photographic history you may well have come across some of them. I am of course talking about daguerreotypes, calotypes, tintypes ambrotypes and a few others. In my readings it seemed quite a messy affair difficult to separate either by date or by process since there was much overlap and borrowings. So I decided to try and wrap my head around the various ‘types’ and what I learnt I have posted here.

I have tried to be brief, only detailing the salient points in the process and have tried to relate them to each other, by way of process and/or by their contribution to photography. Of course what follows is far from exhaustive and I have no doubt glanced over processes or the like that may well deserve more attention or at least more description. The ‘era’, I mention alongside each type or process is occasionally vague and in these instances often indicate a series of progressive developments. I have listed a few key figures which reference people associated with the development and discovery of the processes and not practitioners. I have also tried to understand why some ‘types’ were superseded by others from an aesthetic perspective and why some, despite their associated hardship endured. Thus, I mention a few drawbacks in each instance but it must be remembered that some of these ‘problems’ were actually sought and championed by artists drawing from the particularities of the medium.

Finally, in a nod to the pre-digital era much of the information here was sourced through books and not the internet. The most important of these are:
·      van Tulleken K., (ed), The Techniques of Photography, Time-Life International (1976).
·      Zakia, R. and Stroebel, L., (eds), The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, Focal Press (1993, third edition)
·      Mulligan T. and Wooters, D., (eds), A History of Photography. Taschen (2005)

I hope that what follows will at least partially help to elucidate the apparently muddy, but robust photographic waters of the later half of the nineteenth century.

The Heliograph
Era: 1822-29
Key Figures: Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce (credited with inventing photography)
Process: Literally means ‘sun writing’. Niépce, interested in making multiple copies from a single master image, experimented with the then new lithographic printing process. Wanting to improve his invention he formed a partnership with fellow Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in early 1829.
Drawbacks: Niépce battled with partially fixed images for nearly thirteen years before he rendered a permanent image in 1822 by direct contact. Required very long exposure times.
Contribution: In 1829 he created the first permanent in camera image. His partnership with Daguerre led directly to the photographically pivotal introduction of the Daguerreotype. Unfortunately, Niépce died six years prior to the announcement.

Salted paper prints
Era: mid 1830s to mid 1850s
Key Figures: William Henry Fox-Talbot.
Process: Simple artist’s paper was soaked in a solution of common salt and dried. It was then sensitized in a bath of silver nitrate and dried in the dark. Placing a negative over the paper and exposing to sunlight yielded an image that could then be toned and fixed.
Drawbacks: Had very long exposure times. Were out competed by albumen prints (see below). Like calotypes salted paper prints lacked detail, though this was often seen to be aesthetically beneficial.
Contribution: The earliest photographic prints on paper. It was with salted paper prints and then the calotype process that Fox-Talbot experimented (see below).

The Daguerreotype
Era: 1839.
Key figures: Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre.
Process: An elaborate process in which a highly polished copper plate was coated with silver iodide. After exposure the plate was fronted with glass and encased for protection.
Drawbacks: Single image that couldn’t be duplicated. Fragile, due to the glass front, and relatively expensive. Really only suitable for viewing in the hand (as opposed to on the wall) due to the reflectivity and angle of light when viewing. 
Contribution: In the 1840’s, “photography” was mostly understood to mean “daguerreotype”.The first workable and manageable photographic process. Allowed for consistency and controllability. Daguerrotypes established photography’s communicative, commercial and aesthetic viability in the minds of civilians. Daguerre not only introduced a new technology to the world, he also introduced a new profession and a new art form. Produced wonderfully sharp and grainless images with a huge tonal range.

Unidentified  daguerreotype, circa1850

Calotypes (Callotype. Briefly also called a Talbotype, mostly by Talbot)
Not to be confused with the Collotype process (see below).
Era: 1840s
Key Figures: William Henry Fox-Talbot.
Process: A development off Talbot’s own earlier ‘photogenic drawings’ which used salted paper prints (see above). Calotypes incorporated a chemical development process, not just light sensitized paper reacting to sunlight as with the ‘drawings’. Had a distinctive artistic ‘charcoal’ drawn look. Calotype negatives could be prepared dried and stored, then brushed with a solution immediately prior to use. The back of the negative was coated with a wax derivative, hence the calotype’s reproductive capacity.
Drawbacks: Its distinctive ‘soft drawn look’ was both liked and disliked. Contribution: Drastically shortened exposure times to between 30 seconds and 5 mins. Calotypes were the first viable process that allowed any number of positives (mostly salted paper prints) to be printed off one original negative. Established the precedent from which most modern photography is based. Lacking the shorter exposure times and details preferred by daguerreotype portraitists, calotypes were generally used more for architectural and view photography.

William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864.

Collotypes (Sometimes also called photogelatin printing)
Era: Developed mostly between the 1840-50s.
Key Figures: Mungo Ponton and Alphonse Poitevin
Process: A screenless printing process that relies on the effect of light on bichromated collids (a variety of viscous substances, like gelatin or albumen, that have been sensitized through the addition of a bichromate, usually potassium bichromate). Bichromates harden and become insoluable when exposed to light. This is the principle behind all the non-silver based photographic processes. The prepared plate is washed in water which causes the gelatin to swell, giving collotypes a distinctive reticulated pattern. The plate is then inked for printing. Highlights form where unhardened gelatin repels the ink, and lowlights form where hard gelatin accepts the ink.
Contribution: This process, being screenless, facilitated the development of photographic reproductions in books and other print media.

Cyanotype (Blue-print process, Prussian-blue process
Era:Invented in 1842.
Key Figures: John Herschel
Process: The cynotype is similar to other contact printing methods, like salted paper printing but uses different chemicals (ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricynide) to sensitize paper or cloth. This is developed in contact with the negative, then washed and fixed in water. The image is embedded in the fibres of the paper, unlike Albumen prints or collodion prints, and has a characteristic blue colour.
Drawbacks: It was never popular and never anywhere near a dominant process. After the British Algae books (see below) the process wasn’t used much until the 1880s.
Contribution: Three volumes of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions by Anna Atkins published in 1843 is considered to be the earliest example of a book illustrated only with images from a photographic process.

Details of the title page, and algea cynotype from the 1843 book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. 

Era: 1850s
Key Figures: James Ambrose Cutting, Frederick Scott Archer, Peter W. Fry.
Process: Really just a collodion wet plate negative with a dark backing of either cloth or varnish
Drawbacks: With a varnished or glued material backing, the ambrotype could not be duplicated. Although housed in a case similar to daguerreotypes, it remained fragile. Ambrotypes were important, but fairly quickly consumed by improvements and affordability made with wet plates and albumen printing.
Contribution: Compared to daguerreotypes, this process was cheaper, easier and less toxic. Ambrotypes are non-reflective and are thus easier to view than daguerreotypes. Although wet plates allowed for multiple images to be reproduced, affordable ambrotypes were still sought by a general public who had no need for multiple images as a single displayed family photo was often deemed sufficient.

Union soldier with his family, circa 1863-65

The Wet Plate (Collodion on glass process)
Era: 1850s-1880s
Key Figures: Frederick Scott Archer
Process: Wet plates used glass negatives coated with a sticky (collodion is based on the Greek word meaning  ‘glue’) collodion mixture (mostly nitrocellulose or ‘guncotton’ dissolved in ethyl ether and ethyl alcohol). Light sensitive potassium iodide crystals could then adhere to the plate.
Drawbacks: The plates had to be laboriously prepared and then exposed within about 20 minutes depending upon climatic conditions and before the collodion could dry. Later the drying process was slowed which gave wet plate photographers a couple of hours at most. Photographers thus had to carry all their equipment and chemicals into the field. The glass plates were fragile but could be scrapped clean and re-used if necessary. Like the daguerreotype the chemicals were quite toxic.
Contribution: Yielded excellent clarity and image detail and revolutionized photography through shortened exposure times (1-15 seconds). It was an inexpensive process that was later used with the ambrotype and tintype (see below). Allied with developments in the printing arena, especially albumen printing, the wet plate helped topple the daguerreotype’s dominance, a position the plates held for a further three decades.

Rev. David Leavitt, circa 1855–1865. Glass wet collodion negative. 

Albumen prints
Era: 1850
Key Figures: Louis-Desiré Blanquart Evrard.
Process: A sheet of paper, coated with albumen (egg white), is sensitized with a solution of silver nitrate then exposed whilst in contact with a negative. Albumen prints were ‘printed out’, meaning that the image is created by light reacting to sensitized material without the use of chemical developers.
Drawbacks: Required long exposures and were susceptible to fading.
Contribution: Albumen prints were the first photographic prints whose image was not embedded within the fibres of the paper, but instead adhered to the surface layer, the coating itself. They were relatively easy to reproduce off a single negative and recorded fine detail accurately. For these reasons they spelt the demise of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.

The Tintype (ferrotype, melainotype)
Era: 1850s (1853)
Key Figures: A.A. Martin, Hamilton L. Smith, Victor Griswold, William Kloen and Daniel Jones.
Process: A wet collodion process using a black (hence melainotype) lacquered iron (hence ferro) plate. By the 1880’s the wet collodion process was replaced by dry(plate) gelatin emulsions:
Drawbacks: Image is laterally reversed (like you would see yourself in a mirror) and has a dull appearance, similar to an ambrotype. Negative image made positive by a dark backing. Like the daguerreotype, tintypes were a ‘once-off’ and couldn’t be duplicated.
Contribution: Tintypes heralded the universitality of photography. Photography, photographs and photographing now became far more spontaneous, and therefore far more accessible. They were cheap and easy to produce. By using special multi-lensed cameras, multiple images could be taken at the same time. 

A tintype photographic portrait of two girls posing in front of a painted background in San Francisco

Era: 1864
Key Figures: Walter Woodbury
Process: Unpigmented bichromated gelatin is exposed whilst in contact with a negative. The gelatin hardens in relation to the amount of light it receives and the hardness of the gelatin determines its permanence when washed. Unexpossed sections dissolve and so leave a very hard but finely detailed relief of the image. This is pressed into thin lead plates to form a mold which is then filled with pigment and printed onto paper.
Drawbacks: Not necessarily seen as a draw back, but yielded a single tone image.
Contribution: The woodbury process was a precursor to the dry plate, had superb detail and wonderful permanency.

The Dry Plate (Gelatin on glass process)
Key Figures: Richard Leach Maddox
Process: Sticky collodion was eventually replaced with gelatin which meant plates could be prepared well in advance. Thus began the advent of commercially available photographic materials. Gelatin was mixed with light sensitive silver salts and dried.
Drawbacks: Initially the dry plate’s key drawback was its unpredictable sensitivity to light.

Contribution: Efforts to simplify the arduous nature of wet plate photography saw continuous improvements made in the direction of dry plates. Dry plates were about ten times more sensitive to light so exposure times were further shortened. Chemicals used were far less toxic, especially compared to the daguerreotype. It was only when stable and commercially available dry plates appeared, first in 1875 but widely by the early 1880’s, that dry plates superseded the wet plate. Convenience and availability fuelled popularity and gave rise to the amateur photography market from the 1880’s onwards. An off shoot of gelatin dry plate production was a development towards gelatin silver printing, the dominant black and white photographic process of the twentieth century.