What is photography from 1850 to 1900?

Hoofs, Claws and Antlers of the Rocky Mountains by the Camera

New processes and formats emerged over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1900, photography looked a lot more like our current conceptions of photography than it had in 1850. 

Two important new processes emerged during this time. First, in the 1850s, the wet collodion process (also known as the "wet-plate process" or the "collodion process") superceded both the daguerreotype and the calotype. Wet collodion produced a negative that was endlessly reproducible, like the calotype, and produced an image with the clarity of the daguerreotype. It was also, as the name suggests, a wet process, and required the photographer to coat the glass-plate negative with a wet, light-sensitive solution just prior to picture-taking and to “fix the image” right after the exposure. As a result, the photographer had to have a darkroom on hand when using the camera. In the early days this might involve hundreds of pounds of equipment and supplies.

Over the course of the 1880s, wet collodion plates were supplanted by gelatin dry plates. With gelatin dry plates, negatives could be prepared in advance of picture-taking and stored after the exposure to be developed at a later stage. This allowed the chemistry of photography to be separated from the act of taking the picture. Gelatin dry plates were also more sensitive to light than wet collodion plates, making shorter exposure times a possibility.

As a result of the shorter exposure times of gelain dry plates, photographers could choose to hold their cameras in their hands during an exposure and abandon their clunky tripods. These hand-held cameras became known as detective cameras, and though some of these cameras were just smaller box cameras, others were designed to be disguised under clothing. Shorter exposure times also allowed photographers to take what are today known as “snapshots,” and had a significant influence on the aesthetics of photography. Still, most photographers continued to use tripods and take their time with picture-taking. Taking pictures did not become the ubiquitous practice that it is today until the twentieth century.

New forms of photographic prints also circulated during this time. In the examples below, you will be introduced to tintypes, stereographs, albumen prints, cartes-de-visite, and halftones. Some earlier types of prints, such as the cyanotype, continued to circulate, and as we will see, engraving was still used to translate photographs onto the printed page.

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