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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.