'Speed, Perfection, Cheapness:' The Ambrotype's Epoch in Photographic History
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'Speed, Perfection, Cheapness:' The Ambrotype's Epoch in Photographic History

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My presentation on ambrotypes for PhotoHistory XV at George Eastman House on October 22, 2011. Please download to see my notes for my text and image/quotation citations.

My presentation on ambrotypes for PhotoHistory XV at George Eastman House on October 22, 2011. Please download to see my notes for my text and image/quotation citations.

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  • I first became interested in ambrotypes as a collector, because I found that they were relatively easy to find and affordable. When I tried to learn more about the process, I was surprised to find that ambrotypes suffered from a sort of “middle child syndrome” in photographic history, as they existed between daguerreotypes and tintypes and other processes. If you could sum up my presentation in a few words, it would be that I’m defending the honor of ambrotypes.
  • The purpose of this presentation is to examine the ambrotype’s history and evolution, patent and trademark controversies, and cultural responses. Another intention is to concede the ambrotype’s rightful place in photographic history as the first commercially viable means to document the world. Although the ambrotype’s popularity was brief, lasting from the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s, ambrotypes served a vital role in making photography accessible to an enamored public. (Image source: Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, between 1863 and 1865, www.loyolachicagotps.com/apps/photos/photo?photoid=127714472)
  • The term “ambrotype” comes from the Greek word ambrotos meaning immortal or imperishable . “Ambrotype” is primarily a North American term. Technically, the process is correctly known by the British phrase, “collodion positive on glass.” Other names include “daguerreotypes on glass” or “daguerreotypes without reflection.” In Europe, they were known as “amphitype” from the Greek word amphi meaning on both sides or “verreotypes” from the French word verre for glass. (Image source: 1/9 plate ruby ambrotype, ca. 1858-1864, www.flickr.com/photos/gormer/3592852333)
  • Ambrotypes are direct positive silver images, made on glass plates, resulting from the discovery that an underexposed collodion negative would appear positive when viewed against a dark background. They have a creamy appearance and a subdued tonal range. Depending on how they were made, ambrotype supports could be dark or clear glass backed with black velvet or varnish. This is an example of what an ambrotype looks like when the backing is partially removed. (Image source: Ambrotype with half the backing removed to show positive and negative effect, ca. 1858, www.luminous-lint.com/IaW/public/5/2/4/3/0/20/T/#nogo)
  • Presented in sizes and cases similar to daguerreotypes, ambrotypes were less expensive, more popular, and more convenient than this earlier process and integral in expanding photography’s commercialism. However, ambrotypes had a depreciated value during their years of popularity, as some photographers believed the technique lacked the crisp contrast of daguerreotypes. (Image source: 1/9 plate ambrotype, www.jimlyons.com/ideal.html)
  • Since daguerreotypes acquire their characteristic brilliance by reflecting light, ambrotypes, in comparison, seem to be subdued, and dark hues tend to dominate the image. However, most consumers of the images could not tell the difference between daguerreotypes and ambrotypes and perhaps liked ambrotypes more because they lacked a reflective surface. (Image source: Niagara Falls, Attributed to Platt D. Babbitt, ca. 1855, www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/190035123)
  • Another advantage that ambrotypes had over daguerreotypes were that they were considerably easier to hand color by a variety of dry and wet materials. Depending on the skill level of the artist, the effect could either look garish or, as in this example, beautiful. Using opaque blue for the background, gold paint for jewelry, and translucent colors for facial features and clothing details, tinted ambrotypes combined the best qualities of photographic and painted portraits. (Image source: Beautifully Tinted Cased Sixth Plate Ambrotype of A Young Lady, www.cowanauctions.com/auctions/item.aspx?ItemId=43804)
  • As ambrotypes required little skill and small investment, even the poor could afford to have their picture taken—a remarkable achievement for a new technology. Ambrotypes were, for the most part, used anonymously by small photographic firms. Additionally, the ambrotype’s popularity with itinerant photographers, whose output was usually limited to two sizes: sixth plate and quarter plate, may have also contributed to its down market connotation. I chose these images to demonstrate my point because they show a casualness in the girls’ posing with their dolls, as well as a carelessness in the creation of the images and their hand-tinting. For many with limited means, it was enough to have an image made—even if it was blurry. (Image sources: Girl Holding Her Izannah Walker Doll, 1857, www.flickr.com/photos/mirrorimagegallery/5948490660/in/set-72157618053812500/; Maine Girl With Dolly, www.flickr.com/photos/mirrorimagegallery/6142188046/in/set-72157618053812500/)
  • Ambrotypes hold a special place in photographic history because they broadened photography’s market appeal and provided a foundation upon which to build an industry. The medium has rarely been investigated seriously by historians of photography, due perhaps to the overwhelmingly commercial sources of the images and the relatively brief life of the medium. Beaumont Newhall wrote only one article about the process: “The Ambrotype: A Short and Unsuccessful Career.” In my opinion, ambrotypes had a short, but exceedingly successful, career because of their commercialism. (Image source: Grenville Kane, late 1850s by Mathew B. Brady, www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/190035122)
  • Before I continue, let me address the criticism against ambrotypes. The first two quotes are contemporary; the last four are from the 1850s and 60s. Interestingly enough, J. H. Fitzgibbon, the author of the last quote, had written a guide to creating ambrotypes only three years before he changed his mind against them (cf. Snelling July 1858, p. 223). Sources: Luis Nadeau, Encyclopedia of Printing, Photographic, and Photomechanical Processes, Vol. 1. A-L (Fredericton, N.B., Canada: Atelier L. Nadeau, 1994, 28. “ Divine Perfection”: The daguerreotype in Europe and America. (1999). The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 56(4), 45. Letter to editor of the Journal of the Photographic Society, on 21 August 1855 in Grace Seiberling and Carolyn Bloore, Amateurs, Photography and the Mid Victorian Imagination. London: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 30-31. George Wharton Simpson, “The Positive Collodion Process with some remarks on the alabastrine process,” read to the North London Photographic Association on November 30, 1859 and quoted in The Photographic Journal, VI: 108:312-313. Snelling’s Photographic and Fine Arts Journal, July 1858, p. 223. J. H. Fitzgibbon’s statement in 1861, in Beaumont Newhall, The Daguerreotype in America (New York, 1961), 108.
  • A more accurate description of ambrotypes is depicted in this Mathew Brady ad from 1856. Unlike miniature portrait paintings or daguerreotypes, ambrotypes offer “speed, perfection, cheapness” and embodied the modern age. This advertisement has a great line: “As the magnetic telegraph is to the mail coach in the transmission of intelligence, so is the Ambrotype to the old process of portraiting.” (Image source: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9F01E3DE1339E134BC4B52DFB066838D649FDE)
  • The creation of ambrotypes began in 1849 when Gustave Le Gray experimented with collodion on glass. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer and Peter W. Fry created collodion positives. The use of collodion in photography allowed for choices, such as ambrotypes, stereographs, paper prints, and tintypes. Whereas daguerreotypes were expensive, in terms of materials, time, and talent, ambrotypes were cheap because they required less expensive materials, less exposure time, and less expertise. One account recalled that the total time required for sitting, developing, and mounting an ambrotype was only a few minutes (British Journal of Photography, XXXVI: 1540: 725, November 8, 1889). (Image sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LeGray_portrait2-crop.jpg; www.hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk/data/topics/t092-archer-photographer.htm)
  • In 1854, James A. Cutting was granted three US patents for the ambrotype process. [Read slide]. Because adding camphor to collodion didn’t make much of a difference, the first patent was ignored. The second patent proved to be controversial because photographers using the sealing method had to buy a license to do so. The third patent should not have been granted because bromide had been used in photographic processes since 1840. There were a number of lawsuits over the second and third patents, which Cutting usually won. When the four year term for the patents expired, photographers prevented Cutting’s patents from being reissued. (Image source:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1862_JamesAmbroseCutting_Aquarial_and_ZoologicalGardens_Boston_Ballous.png)
  • While the patents were in effect, Cutting placed notices in newspapers, warning photographers not to use his process without buying a license. During this time, Cutting changed his middle name from “Anson” to “Ambrose,” to further his claim to the invention of ambrotypes and to ensure his own immortal link to the process. (Source: The Independent, November 15, 1855).
  • This notice from the New York Daily Times warns against creating ambrotypes without patent stamps. William A. Tomlinson, who placed the ad, was involved in many lawsuits over these patents, even arguing that the word “ambrotype” could not be used with any variation of the process. (Image source: New York Daily Times, September 6, 1855, 8).
  • A “true” or patented ambrotype was two pieces of glass, hermetically sealed with Canada balsam. Varnish or black velvet was applied to the back and a patent stamp was added. Although this method was supposed to be more protective of the image, in time, many Cutting patented ambrotypes fared worse that other methods of creating ambrotypes. (Image source: http://llauctions.auctionflex.com/showlot.ap?co=23728&weid=13619&weiid=6892565&lso=timeleftasc&pagenum=1&lang=En)
  • Many photographers resented having to pay for a license for processes that they did not believe should’ve been patented. They circumvented the patents by creating ambrotypes in a variety of ways, of which I’ll explain only a few. Single glass processes could be made by applying black varnish to the collodion side. Other methods included applying clear varnish to the collodion side and black varnish to the non-collodion side or using dark glass with clear varnish applied to the collodion side. These last two methods reversed the images. (Image source: Ambrotype of three Brazilian students of Law School in Olinda, c.1858. http://resobscura.blogspot.com/2010_12_01_archive.html).
  • The double glass process used white varnish to seal the image, with clear glass on the front and dark glass on the back. (I chose these images in part because I love the little girl’s expression). (Image source: 1/6 plate ambrotypes of two young sisters, www.jcosmas.com/sold.html)
  • Another way to circumvent patents is the Relievo ambrotype with single or double glass. To make one, black varnish was applied only to the area of the image contained by the sitters, then the background was scraped away to create a silhouette. Here are two examples that make their subjects appear three dimensional against their backgrounds. (Image sources: Relievo Ambrotype of two women: www.liveauctioneers.com/item/3407051; Relievo Ambrotype of Harness Maker, www.cowanauctions.com/auctions/item.aspx?ItemId=77981)
  • The expansion of photography made competition fierce, especially amongst studios producing cheaper wares. Because of this, criticism against ambrotypes often centered on their alleged low quality. Additionally, patent purchasing studios praised the Cutting method of producing ambrotypes while attacking variants. Consequently, ambrotypes, during their heyday, received a reputation as a sub-par process amongst elite photographers. (Image source: 1/9 plate ambrotype of a well dressed mother and daughter, www.jcosmas.com/casedimages.html)
  • This disparagement against ambrotypes has continued within contemporary photographic history surveys that disregard ambrotypes for being too commercial and less aesthetically pleasing when compared to daguerreotypes. Granted, many ambrotypes were poorly executed or badly tinted, but certainly not all, as I hope I tired to prove with my image selection today. The abundance of ambrotypes—good or bad—is what is important here, as it provided a new technology that was affordable for all. (Image source: 1/6th plate ambrotype of 1850's Family Squeezed Onto Settee, http://media.photobucket.com/image/ambrotype+family+settee+/photophile1/People%20of%20the%20Past/Familyfromthe1850s-Ambrotype.jpg)
  • Although the ambrotype is often thought of as a fleeting and failed rival to the daguerreotype, it did, in fact, have a beauty all its own. By making cheap but accurate portraits available to a wide section of society, ambrotypes played an important role in popularizing photography. As photographic historians, I urge you to reconsider the ambrotype within this critical context and understand its importance within photography’s early legacy. (Image source: Unidentified young sailor in Union uniform, between 1861 and 1865, www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010648842/)
  • (Image source: Cat posed with Mexican serape, ca. 1866-1868, http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/jtx&CISOPTR=387)

'Speed, Perfection, Cheapness:' The Ambrotype's Epoch in Photographic History 'Speed, Perfection, Cheapness:' The Ambrotype's Epoch in Photographic History Presentation Transcript

  • Margot Note PhotoHistory XV October 22, 2011
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    • “ cheap substitutes ”
    • daguerreotypes’ “ poorer cousins ”
    • “ photographic abominations ”
    • “ disgrace to photography and a burlesque upon art ”
    • “ abortions , and nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand taken in the United States are monstrosities ”
    • Daguerreotypes are “obscured by a black cloud called Ambrotype…the black, nasty, filthy, ghastly, dead, inanimate, flat, shade of shadows. ”
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  • Gustave Le Gray Frederick Scott Archer
    • 1 st patent: addition of camphor to collodion
    • 2 nd patent: hermetically sealing collodion positives with Canada balsam and second sheet of glass
    • 3 rd patent: using potassium bromide in iodized collodion
    • “ Caution - The term Ambrotype was originated as a trade mark to designate our patent pictures …. Any application of this term to pictures on single glass plates is therefore an infringement of our rights (injures our business) and involves the user in liability for damages .”
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