Collectors of antique photography can find the Internet a particularly fertile, and sometimes frustrating, place to shop. This is because many sellers have no idea by what photographic process the photo they are selling might have been made or what to call it. And because some sellers are not familiar with the characteristics used to identify each type of image, they may call a daguerreotype an ambrotype, or vice versa. And, cased tintypes are quite innocently identified as daguerreotypes. On any given day a particularly nice image can be found misidentified as something it is not. Sometimes this can be to the collector’s advantage because a worthy antique piece will be accompanied by a ridiculously low price. But more often, a tempting image described as having been made by their preferred process, and for which they were willing to pay a premium, will be discovered to be something altogether different than what they thought they were buying.
Sometimes, it is possible for the buyer to recognize immediately when an item has been misidentified, if the Internet seller has provided clear pictures of the piece in question. But the majority of the time the error isn’t apparent until a purchase is unwrapped at home. That’s when they discover they’ve just bought a cased tintype, instead of an ambrotype. Or worse, a CDV (Carte de Visite) image on card stock, cut to size and cased behind glass. The seller may have also purchased the piece in this state, unaware of the many different types of early photographic images there are, and ignorant of the fact that these differences are important to a collector. And, they in turn list the item exactly as it was described to them, and give it a corresponding, respectable price.
Collectors aren’t likely to complain if they underpay for an image that was misidentified and priced too low. This actually occurs more often than one might think, even though the ferrotype (or ‘tintype’) is rather ubiquitous and most collectors/dealers quickly learn to recognize the obvious characteristics that identify them, it is still possible to buy tintypes that are, in fact, actually their more prized kin – an ambrotype or daguerreotype. While it’s true that virtually no one would complain about paying only $5 or $10 for an item valued at $50 or more, inequity still exists in a transaction like this because the seller has shorted himself or herself by their own lack of knowledge.
With an aim toward helping both the buyer and seller, we offer here a crash course in early photographic processes to assist you in identifying several of the earliest and most popular types of images.
A Frenchman, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, introduced the first practical photographic process in March of 1839 in Europe. The process arrived in America in September of the same year, and by the end of the year entrepreneurial experimentation in America had drastically reduced the long exposure times originally required. As the shorter exposure times assured the ability of people (especially children) to be able to sit still long enough to deliver a steady likeness of themselves to the plate, the popularity and economic viability of ‘sun-paintings,’ as early photography was known, was assured.
To be a successful daguerreotypist one had to have an excellent background in chemistry. The image was produced by the action of light and mercury on carefully crafted sheets of silver plated copper. Daguerreotypes can be recognized rather easily, once you know what to look for. Due to their almost luminous reflective surface, much like a mirror, the image is usually only clearly viewable on a single direct plane.
A daguerreotype was not automatically reproducible, as were images made through other processes that followed, so each one will be a unique image. Because of the specialized knowledge required to produce excellent examples of this type of photograph, their production began to be phased out after 1851, when photos by the Collodion process were found to be both cheaper and easier to produce. Few daguerreotypes were made after 1860.
Also known as ‘melainotypes,’ ambrotypes were one of several photographic products that could be produced via the Collodion process. Basically, a thin negative image is developed on a glass plate. When the silvery, under-developed negative image on the glass has a dark background placed behind it, a positive image is seen. Uncased and without its dark background an ambrotype’s nature is easily recognized. Unlike a daguerreotype, an ambrotype image on glass can be seen from any angle.
Although a slightly less toxic pursuit than creating a daguerreotype (which required chlorine and bromine fumes and hot mercury), the making of ambrotypes by the Collodion process could also be dangerous and deadly. Collodion was a thick liquid of guncotton dissolved in ether and alcohol, which had proved useful on the battlefield as a wound dressing. It was also highly explosive. It wasn’t unusual for a careless or clumsy photographer to set his place of business (which often was his home) on fire, and some died in their pursuit to capture images of people and places.
Although ambrotypes enjoyed popularity somewhat longer than did the daguerreotype, from the 1850’s to about the 1880’s, eventually a more resilient type of photograph, the ferrotype, took their place.
Like the ambrotype, ferrotypes were made using the Collodion process and were also known as melainotypes. Neither of the two original names for the ferrotype stuck. The public used the colloquial term of ‘tintype’ to refer to these photos on metal, even though they contained no tin. They are actually photos developed on a thin sheet of japanned (blackened) iron. Introduced in 1853, they became the preferred photo medium for those of modest means or people living in rural parts of the country, without the access to the high class ‘operating rooms’ (as early photography studios were known) of large cities. Itinerant photographers were still making cheap tintypes for the masses as late as the 1950’s.
Sturdier than daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, ferrotypes could be placed in letters and sent through the mail. During the Civil War traveling photographers set up tents in armed encampments on both sides of the struggle and often the tintype image of a uniformed loved one would arrive in the weeks post, to be followed later by the news of their demise at Bull Run or Vicksburg. Because they became so popular in rural America (a town’s dentist might also have been the local photographer), they became somewhat of an American institution.
Nearly everyone can identify an uncased tintype, but because they were made for so long a period of time, they are often suggested to be older than they actually are. The best way to date a tintype, other than an established provenance, is to consider the dress of the person or persons in the picture. This is usually easier to do if the subject is a woman, since fashions are more easily connected to a specific time.
Each of the processes above could have been made in a variety of sizes, depending on the type of camera, number of lenses used, and the skill of the photographer. Generally the ‘whole plate’ of any process will be the most valuable since they were generally more difficult to produce and often required special equipment. The most popular size of any process seems to have been the sixth plate. Undoubtedly price was the major consideration in regards to any of the sizes given here:
Whole Plate – 6 1/2″ x 8 1/2″
Half Plate – 4 1/2″ x 5 1/2″
Quarter Plate – 3 1/4″ x 4 1/4″
Sixth Plate – 2 3/4″ x 3 1/4″
Ninth Plate – 2″ x 2 1/2″
Sixteenth – 1 3/8″ x 1 5/8″
(Please note these are close approximations, there will always be slight variations in size.)
Although the flexibility of the metal on which a ferrotype was made allowed for actual cutting to size for lockets and other applications, there were also tiny “Little Gem” tintypes about the size of a postage stamp. These were not cut from larger images but made simultaneously on a single plate by a special camera with 12 or 16 lenses.
There are other tidbits of specialty knowledge about early photography that are well worth knowing, but just being able to differentiate the most common types of antique images is a good start. Some basic knowledge may prevent you or your customer from making a costly mistake when buying a photographic item and/or placing one in inventory.