Photography is all around us. We spend our days literally surrounded with images on computer screens, TVs, and in magazines and newspapers. Our homes are filled with photos of our children, our pets, and our parents. Our lives are constantly being recorded for future viewing, and most of us share our life timeline with friends and family via social media.
In the modern age of smartphone cameras and Instagram, it is difficult to imagine how photography all began. The predecessors of modern photography were so vastly different from our ‘snap and shoot’ digital cameras. It is difficult for us to fathom photography as a complicated, chemical process that only professionals were capable of performing. The reality is that most people have no idea how their camera works, and there are many young people who wouldn’t recognize a photo negative if they saw one.
Some might argue that photography is a lost art form, while others may say that it has evolved in that it is now a mode of self-expression in which we can all take part. A brief description of three major historical photographic processes will give you insight into where it all started.
Louis Daguerre was a renowned set designer in the 19th century known for his detailed and lifelike sets. In 1839, he introduced the daguerreotype, which was the first predecessor of modern photography. Until that time, only wealthy people were able to have family portraits, because only the elite could afford to commission a painter. This new invention changed the world in that for the first time ever, middle-class families could have their portrait taken. The truly magnificent thing about this type of photography was its unbelievable detail. It was far more lifelike than a painting, and less expensive.
The process involved a treated silver-plated copper sheet. It was treated in order to make it sensitive to light. The plate was then ‘exposed’ with mercury vapors. For those of us accustomed to our snap and shoot digital cameras of modern times, it is hard to imagine just how revolutionary Mr. Daguerre’s invention truly was.
Wet Plate Collodion
In the middle of the same century, Frederick Scott Archer invented the wet plate collodion process. It involves treating glass with chemicals, and then developing the images from the exposed glass. It was not a terribly difficult process, but needed to be done very quickly before the plate dried.
What made this process so special was that for the first time, people had negatives. They could make numerous copies of the same image using the exposed glass. It was a less expensive, and a much quicker process than the daguerreotype while still quite beautifully detailed. This made wet plate collodion a wildly popular replacement for the daguerreotype.
Tintype (or Ferrotype)
Not long after the wet plate collodion process became popular, the tintype was patented by Hamilton Smith and William Kloen in America and England, respectively. Originally, it was referred to as melainotype, and later as ferrotype. Still later, it became known as the tintype.
The tintype was a variation on the collodion process. It used iron in place of the glass used in the wet plate collodion process. The two main advantages of this process were that the images were more durable and the tintype was lightweight and portable.
Having learned more about these historic photographic processes, it has probably become clear to you that photography has quickly evolved over the last two centuries. Imagine yourself a middle-class mother in the mid-1800’s when the daguerreotype was introduced. It must have been absolutely thrilling to imagine that you could record your family’s likeness and preserve it for all time. This is something that is widely taken for granted now, but was a luxury that most middle-class people would never have believed was possible.
When you consider the leaps and bounds that photography has made in such a short period of time, it probably won’t surprise you that some purists of the art form feel that something has been lost. In the upcoming documentary film, ‘Artists and Alchemists‘ you can meet 10 photographers attempting to revive (and, thus, preserve) the three above mentioned photographic processes. The film is due to release in 2014 and is surely to be a great viewing choice for anyone interested in the history (and current state) of photography as an art form.