Museum - An Introduction to Early Photographs


Photographs are the single most accurate view of a given time and place. Sometimes it is difficult to precisely date a photograph through the content details. People often kept the same clothes for years and building styles carried over according to personal and geographic tastes. Occassionally we are lucky enoughto find a photograph that is annotated with a place, date and name.

The study of early photography is a complex field which I do not even pretend to be more than a novice in. My interest is content first and foremost. As such, my descriptions may be general at times and often educated guesses. Please contact me if you have suggestions or comments on this material.

Understanding something of the history of photography does provide a rough time-line within which to work. One of the better online introductions to the history of photography can be found at The American Museum of Photography.

A brief timeline of early photography

Daguerreotype: 1839-1865.
The first commercially viable form of photography. The image is captured on a glass plate, coated with a light sensitive silver-halide solution. A positive only technique, these are typically housed in glass fronted cases made of gutta percha or similar material. Usually expensive, so you won't see one here for a while.

Ambrotype: 1854-1865.
A glass plate, coated first with collodion and then with silver nitrate. The image is a negative, which appears as a positive when placed against a black background. Fairly short lived, the ambrotype overtook the dagguerreotype in popularity, only to be surplanted by tintype and albumen prints. Also housed in glass fronted cases of gutta percha.

Tintype: 1856-1930.
A popular, easily produced photograph, the tintype was popular from the middle of the 1800's through the early part of the 20th century. Also called a Ferrotype, the tintype is made by coating a sheet of iron (hence Ferro) with black japanning, followed by a light sensitive solution. As with the ambrotype, the image is actually a negative that appears as a positive when viewed against the black backing. Tintypes are usually reversed, although there where cameras that corrected the image using mirrors. One of the most common forms of early photography, tintypes where offered in gutta percha cases, paper sleeves and individually for placement in albums. Tintypes came in a variety of sizes from tiny Gem through Full Plate images:
Full-plate: 6.5" x 8.5"
Half-plate: 4.5" x 5.5"
1/4 plate: 3 1/8" x 4 1/8"
1/6 plate: 2.5" x 3.5"
1/9 plate: 2" x 2.5"
1/16 plate: 1 5/8" x 2 1/8"
Gem: 1/2" x 1"

Carte-de-visite format: 1860- 1900.
Usually an albumen print (the first viable form of printed photography using a solution based on egg-whites), the Carte-de-Visite, or CDV, was a small print (2.5" x 3.5"-4") mounted on cardboard. Initially a form of calling card, the mania for the CDV started in Europe and spread to the United States. Along with CDV's of prominent personages, the CDV photographer was a popular local entrepeneur whose work immortalized the commonfolk. Luckily for us, tradesmen where particularly fond of having their picture taken.

Cabinet card format: 1866-1900s.
Typically albumen prints, cabinet cards, meant to be displayed on a mantel piece or in a cabinet, became a widely popular form as popular interest in the small photographic formats waned and the demand for large format photograph grew.
A variety of large format cards where available, each with it's own size and name:
Boudoir, 5 1/2 X 8 1/2, 1880s
Cabinet, 6 1/2 X 4 1/2, 1866 - 1900s
Imperial, 7 X 10, 1890s
Panel, 13 X 7 1/2, 1890s
Paris, 9 3/4 X 6 3/4, 1890s
Promenade, 7 1/2 X 4, 1890s
Swiss, 6 1/2 X 2 4/5, 1890s

Stereoviews: 1850s-1930s
A widely popular format, stereoviews where produced by local photographers as well as by companies. Sets of stereoviews, depicting international scenes, where sold for viewing in the parlor.

Cyanotype: 1880-1920.
Essentially a blue-print, the cyanotype was an inexpensive means of producing an image on paper. Light sensitive solutions where applied to the paper, exposed to sunlight through a negative and then fixed by flowing water over the paper to wash away the solution, leaving a Prussian Blue image.


Additional Reading
 

Collection, Use, and Care of Historical Photographs Weinstein, Robert; Booth, Larry. American Association for State and Local History, Tennessee. 1977

Photography in America: The Formative Years, 1839-1900 Welling, William. Thomas Crowell Company, New York. 1978

Cartes De Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography Darrah, William C. , Pennsylvania. 1981

Archives and Manuscripts: Administration of Photographic Collections (Saa Basic Manual Series) Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn et al. Society of American Archivists, Chicago. 1984

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