Tales from the Archives: the Ambrotype

By Kes Murray, Registrar

Sometimes, working in an archive brings you new objects you would never encounter in your everyday life. In my case, it was the Ambrotype. I, of course, had heard of and seen glass plate photographs. However, I had never seen one in person, or even handle one.

In a recent collection, which we called the French House Collection, was an Ambrotype. Our archivist knew exactly what it was the moment she saw it. I, on the other hand, had never heard of an Ambrotype.

Image of a Caucasian woman, sitting in a chair. She is wearing a black dress and has rosy cheeks. The photograph is enclosed in a gold frame
An Ambrotype of an unknown woman, from the French House Collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection (A021.12.21)

So, what is an Ambrotype?

Ambrotype is a type of glass-plate photography popular during the 1850s-1880s. It followed the Daguerreotype, the first publicly available type of photography.

The Ambrotype is created using the Wet Collodion process. This process was invented in 1851 by British inventor Frederick Scott Archer, but the Ambrotype was patented in the United States by James Ambrose Cutting.

The Wet Collodion process involves coating a glass plate with chemicals that makes it sensitive to light. As the glass plate sits within the chemicals, the photographer will focus the camera and position the subject. When the glass plate is allowed the proper amount of time in the chemicals, it is then placed within a camera (see our Korona View Camera!). These steps are done in a dark room since when the chemicals set on the glass plate, it will become sensitive to light.

A large wooden camera. It has an accordian style bellows, and the lens slides along the bottom
Korona View Camera, circa 1900-1903 (008.1.1). This is the type of camera that would have taken an Ambrotype. This particular one does use glass plate negatives, but is from thirty years after the Ambrotype went out of use.

Once in the camera, the photographer will remove the lens cap and expose the glass plate to the subject and light. This exposure is done for about twenty seconds. Then the lens cap is placed back on the camera and the glass plate is removed. The glass plate is then finished in a developing solution and allowed to dry.

Back view of a wooden camera, showing where the negative gets inserted
Back view of the Korona View Camera. The glass plate fits into the grey compartment. 008.1.1

To finish, sometimes a photographer would add pigment to an Ambrotype, such as rosy cheeks or even colour for their clothing or jewelry. Our French House Collection Ambrotype has such pigment, with rosy cheeks.

Close up image of a Caucasian woman, sitting in a chair. She is wearing a black dress and has rosy cheeks
A close up of the French House Ambrotype. You can see their rosy cheeks, an added detail after the photograph was taken. A021.12.21.

The glass plate was then put into a protective case with a black backing. This black backing is crucial, as this makes the photograph visible (see the National Museums Scotland photograph for a great example of this crucial step!).

A photo of a Caucasian woman, encased in a gold frame. The left half of the photo appears to be negative while the right half is positive
An example of an Ambrotype without the black backing. As you can see, it is nearly impossible to see the person without the black backing. From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland,

By the late 1800s, the Tintype replaced the Ambrotype as the dominant photographic method.

Though the Ambrotype was only used for around thirty years, it is a fascinating type of photography and an interesting example of the development of early photography.


Sources consulted

https://asc.ucalgary.ca/photohistory/ambrotypes/#:~:text=The%20ambrotype%20was%20introduced%20in,cheaper%20and%20easier%20to%20produce.

https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/find-out-when-a-photo-was-taken-identify-collodion-positive-ambrotype/

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-Scott-Archer

https://www.loc.gov/collections/liljenquist-civil-war-photographs/articles-and-essays/ambrotypes-and-tintypes/

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