Today is the age of digital photography and the computer. As a child of the 1960’s I grew up with film negatives and darkrooms, but in the nascent or pioneering age of photography around the 1830’s, paper was the negative! Things were just as magical and astonishing then as they were for me growing up with wet chemical processing and seeing printed photographic images appear under a red safe light in a darkroom! Paper? Who would have thought it could hold an image?!
Photography rapidly developed during the nineteenth century and the magic of combining physics and chemistry was quickly perfected. Many different processes were experimented with and many patented by the gifted and artistic photographic practitioners of the time, some of them inventors. As Freddy Langer says in the book “Icons of Photography – The 19th Century” that images produced during that time “… represent the foundation of our collective visual memory”. In fact they were captured using a number of technologies and heliographs, daguerreotypes, calotypes and tintypes, albumen, collodion, and platinum prints were all used prior to 1900. It is heartening to know there are quite a number of amateur groups who are keeping the tradition of these old-time printing technologies alive today.
Whoa, “albumen” print photography? I had not heard of that before. In fact it was process that was a bit like walking on eggshells using a complex and careful recipe to make positive paper prints.
In fact, the recipe uses cold egg whites (“albumen”), distilled water and ammonium chloride to make an emulsion. The mixture was frothed, strained and allowed to settle and clarify for a few days before floating one piece of paper (sometimes cotton paper ) at a time onto the mixture for it to take to the paper – a procedure that had to be slow and painfully precise to get the right results. It produced a positive print on paper, which in earlier print versions of this process had highlights that turned yellow; later prints were toned to give a purplish brown tint which reduced the fading of the image.
This process was modified during the 1850’s to early 1860. Albumen was coated onto plate glass to make sticky film to which silver halide powder could be applied, resulting in a “wet plate” glass negative.
The albumen process was replaced by the ‘wet plate collodion’ or ‘wet collodion‘ method invented by Frederick Scott Archer in the early 1850’s and used to make glass negatives. Collodion is a syrupy flammable solution of pyroxylin in alcohol and ether that replaced the emulsions that were purely made from egg whites. Collodion is not sensitive to red light but to blue (read UV) light so exposing for it is a challenge!
The collodion process almost entirely replaced the first practical photographic process, the daguerreotype. A modification of the collodion the “Ambrotype” (named after James Ambrose Cutting) arose in 1854 where this process used the collodion image as a positive, instead of a negative. An ambrotype is easily distinguished from a daguerreotype because its surface is not reflective like that of a daguerreotype surface. During the 1880’s the collodion process, was largely replaced by gelatin dry plates—glass plates with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin.
Below is an image of an c.1861 albumen print of a famous person (better known wearing a stovepipe hat and a beard!):
Image Source – Library of Congress:American Memory
I find the infancy of photography fascinating as a lot of people were experimenting (notably Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre) with how to permanently capture sunlight to make a picture. In 1835 Henry Fox Talbot used paper sensitized with silver chloride, which darkened in proportion to its exposure to light. Around 1837 Daguerre invented the Daguerrotype a direct positive made in the camera on a silvered copper plate.
Below is a daguerreotype and the first authenticated image of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. Congressman-elect in 1846 by Nicholas H. Shepherd:
Image Source –Wikimedia commons
But let’s go back to the development of the paper negative. The first time I saw one of these was a facsimile copy of a “Botanical Specimen” made by Henry Fox Talbot in 1835(?) in the book “The Waking Dream: Photography’s First Century” What attracted me to the 18.3 x 10.7 cm image was that it had a beautiful soft lilac tone – something that I had not seen before, and that it made the image soft and subtle as well as striking at the same time due to its overall tone.
[Botanical Specimen] William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800–1877) Date: ca. 1835:
Image Source – Metropolitan Museum of Art
It was in early 1834, preceded by Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Necephore Niépce, that Henry Fox Talbot began using silver nitrate in his early and groundbreaking innovative experiments, successfully developing a crude photographic printing process which he called “photogenic drawing” (or photogram). Basically it was a camera-less salted paper print made of letter paper (something plentiful and handy) that was coated with a solution of table salt, allowed to dry, and then re-coated by brushing with silver nitrate solution which reacted with the table salt to produce silver chloride; which was more light sensitive. A strong solution of table salt or potassium iodide in which the prints were bathed acted to stabilise the photographic image after exposure to produce a tonally reversed, or negative print.
The solution to re-reverse the tonality of a print was relatively easy to come by. In early 1935 Talbot simply sandwiched the negative in contact with a fresh piece of sensitized paper and exposed them to sunlight to make a positive print. As it turned out, this method was not a resounding success as Talbot’s photographic materials were usually unable to produce negatives with sufficient density to allow the successful printing of positives.
However for the next few ensuing years Talbot further experimented with the camera devising ways of making negatives. His first results produced camera negatives, that were quite small and required exposures of 1- 2 hrs in strong sunlight. His attempts to produce better paper negatives by substituting silver bromide for silver chloride also produced images that were too faint to be useful.
By mid-1840 Talbot had formulated a new chemical procedure for making negatives. He produced sheets of “iodized paper” by brushing solutions of potassium iodide and silver nitrate onto paper to making a bright yellow coating of silver iodide (which weirdly was quite insensitive to light). However these sheets provided the advantage where they could be made and stored many months in advance of when they were needed. When required to make a camera negative, the iodized paper was brushed with “gallo-nitrate of silver” solution (a mix of silver nitrate, acetic, and gallic acids, to act as an accelerator), and then while still moist, put into the camera.
Using this method camera exposures were greatly reduced to a few seconds to a couple of minutes. Once exposed the sheet was rebrushed with gallo-nitrate of silver solution in a darkroom until a negative was developed. This negative could then be used as a “master” from which many positive prints could be made. Talbot called this new process the “calotype” which he patented in February 1841. Talbot further refined the calotype process by improving the translucency of the Calotype negative by waxing it (also increasing the resolution of print detail). The calotype became popular and superceded the daguerreotype.
Another interesting print development was the “cyanotype“. This procedure was discovered in 1842 by scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel which produced beautiful “blueprints” as was a means of reproducing notes and diagrams. The blue colour imparted to the print was due to the water insoluble prussian blue (or iron cyanide) left behind in the paper; hence the name cyan (or blue) – in “cyanotype” and not due to the iron cyanide compounds used!
Cyanotypes were made by printing on any surface capable of soaking up the iron solution such as watercolor paper, cotton, wool and even gelatin on nonporous surfaces. A positive image is produced by exposing the cyanotype paper to a source of ultraviolet light (such as sunlight). This was originally done by contact printing an object on the cyanotype paper such as seaweed or shells to create a photogram (a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light to produce a negative shadow image).
A photogram of Algae, made by Anna Atkins as part of her 1843 book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book composed entirely of photographic images.
Image Source – Wikimedia Commons
Many art schools still use this process today on woven fabrics to make lovely wearable and fashionable scarves and assorted garments.
Print photography has traveled along many and varied paths! Amazing indeed!