A History of Photo Processes: Part 2


Jessica Johnston of The George Eastman House carefully removes a collodion glass-plate negative from its sleeve and places it on a light box. It’s a stunningly detailed profile photograph of a 19th-century locomotive.

In 1851, Frederich Scott Archer introduced a new process that incorporated the reproducibility of the Talbot calotype and the detail and sharpness of the daguerreotype: the wet collodion. It became the dominant photography process for almost two decades, until it was superseded by the gelatin dry-plate process in the mid-1870s. Although wet collodion was a major aesthetic leap forward, its strongest liability was that the negative had to be prepped, coated, exposed and developed in about a quarter hour — before the collodion dried. The photographer had to bring to the worksite a wagon equipped with the fragile glass plates, all the coating, developing and fixing chemicals, in a fully equipped mobile darkroom, usually horse or mule drawn.

This technique was used by Brady Studio photographers for many Civil War photos, by Roger Fenton for images of the Crimean War, and by Eadward Muybridge and Carleton Watkins for their “mammoth plate” Yosemite photos. Todd Gustavson of The Eastman House shows a bulky H.B. Lewis collodion wet-plate camera from the museum’s collection. Prints made by this process are contact, limited to the same dimensions as the coated glass plate. This technique is also used for two other processes, the ambrotype and the tintype, processes that backed the glass negative with a black cloth or blackened metal plate, rendering the negative into a positive view image. Of course, like the daguerreotype, these two cheaper processes were typically employed for smaller, intimate formats and, like the daguerreotype, produced unique images.

A measure of the challenges of the wet-collodion process can be seen in this Vimeo interview with the contemporary “alchemist” Ian Ruhter, who discusses his second attempt to photograph in Yosemite using the process. Ruhter uses a truck rather than a horse-drawn wagon to haul the gear needed for the glass-plate negatives, which can measure up to 48” x 60”.


The albumen print, often in combination with the wet, then later by the dry gelatin glass-plate negative, became the dominant negative/positive image technique from the mid-19th century on, even for a while after George Eastman introduced roll film in 1884. The albumen print was developed by the sometimes photographer Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1851.

Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1869 (Credit: BNF Gallica)

Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1869 (Credit: BNF Gallica)

Mark Osterman of The Eastman House demonstrates how separated, whipped egg whites became the support base for the high-resolution albumen print process. If the equally common salt print, with its light-sensitive materials, is more like the calotype, then the albumen has many qualities of daguerreotypes, except that albumen prints are easily and cheaply reproducible in large quantities.

Many of the most sought-after photo albums of late 19thcentury travel and topographical photographers were made on albumen paper, as were the tipped-in photographic illustrations in many of the era’s scientific books.

A photo of Hypaethral Temple in 1857 by Francis Frith.

An albumen print of Hypaethral Temple in 1857 by Francis Frith.

Cartes de visite and 3-D viewer cards were printed mostly on albumen-coated paper, both for the cheaper cost and for the clear resolution needed to enhance the 3-D effect. The simplicity of the process for “printing out” in sunlight, one that didn’t require chemical development, also made it a lucrative option; the final print, however, still had to be “fixed.”

To make albumen silver prints, a sheet of paper is coated with albumen (egg white) and salts, then sensitized with a solution of silver nitrate. The paper is exposed in contact with a negative and printed out, which means that the image is created solely by the action of light on the sensitized paper without any chemical development. Because the paper is coated with albumen, the silver image is suspended on the surface of the paper rather than absorbed into the paper fibers. The result is a sharp image with fine detail on a smooth, glossy surface.


If the albumen print is the affordable “Ford” of photographic prints, the “Cadillac” is the platinum print, invented by William Willis and Alfred Clements in 1873, several years after Richard L. Maddox introduced the dry gelatin glass-plate negative technique. The two processes made a formidable combination: a high-resolution camera negative with a soft, wide-tonal-range print. No other process has equaled the sophistication of platinum printing. It became the “gold standard” (literally, when toned with the precious metal) for late 19thcentury art photographers, including P.H. Emerson and Frederick H. Evans, two English Pictorialists, as well as their American counterparts, the New York Photo Secessionists Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.

Evans in the Attics

Frederick H. Evans’ In the Attics (platinum print)

Gum bichromate over platinum photo of Stieglitz by Steichen.

Gum bichromate over platinum photo of Stieglitz by Steichen.

Though platinum printing largely disappeared during World War I because the noble metal was so in demand for military uses, it experienced a substantive revival in the late 20th century as many photographers chose to employ its unparalleled tonal range. Pre-eminent among them was Irving Penn, who in the 1980s did a platinum edition of key images from his 1940s Worlds in a Small Room series.

Tambul Warrior by Irving Penn

Tambul Warrior by Irving Penn

Penn’s portraits, as well as his exhibition at the Manhattan Pace Gallery of street detritus such as cigarette butts retrieved from city gutters, made the process cutting edge once again.

Photo by Irving Penn

Platinum photo by Irving Penn

Although the hand-coating platinum process is quite toxic, it remains highly sought after today by nature and landscape photographers such as Nick Brandt.

Rangers with Tusks of Killed Elephants by Nick Brandt

Rangers with Tusks of Killed Elephants by Nick Brandt


Edmond Becquerel, Alphonse Poitevin, Joseph Swan and John Pouncey are not names that readily come to mind when you compile a list of key photographic print inventors. But they, along with Mungo Ponton, are scientists who (among their many experiments) developed several photographic print processes using chromium rather than silver salts as early as the 1840s. Some of these techniques are quite recondite, way beyond my own elemental photochemical dabbling, but they constitute an episode of The Eastman House video series about photographic processes. Their very time-consuming, hands-on darkroom requirements, not unlike Paul Outerbridge’s 1930s carbro process from three-color matrices, is a fascinating tributary in the river of photochemical printing. Once again, Osterman gives a clear explanation and demonstration of one pigment process, the carbon print. After he squeegees two mated papers, rinses and then peels them apart in a tray of hot water, washing away the excess pigment, the resultant deep black-toned print technique is reminiscent of the classic black-and-white Polaroid technique from a 250 Land camera.

My next post (Part 3) will continue this discussion of The Eastman House video series with a look at the Woodburytype, as well as an examination of the modern photochemical era with a final fillip to digital photography.

Singer Patti Smith with her Polaroid (Credit: Eduardo Verdugo)

Singer Patti Smith with her Polaroid camera. (Credit: Eduardo Verdugo)






  1. Chris Mahoney

    I wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed your posts about the technical history of photography, and seeing the wonderful videos from the Eastman House.  Your experience of showing students daguerreotypes, and being surprised by how entranced they were by those images, really rings true.  It was always a pleasure speaking to the photography students who would come to Sotheby’s for our exhibitions.  It was a thrill — for them and for me — to really get into looking at images of all sorts, to take the images out of their frames, and really examine them as objects, as the products of the interface between a photographer and the craft.  

    You are right, of course, that a lot of photographers are using antiquated processes, and realizing how vital they still are as expressive media.  A few years ago (actually, more like a few decades ago) I wrote extensively on modern daguerreotypists.  I met some wonderful photographers during my research, many of whom I am still in touch with today, and who are actively involved in practicing the daguerreotype process.  And I recently had my tintype taken at Penumbra Foundation in New York City, an organization devoted to the teaching and practice of old photographic processes. It was fascinating!

    I hope to be covering some of this territory in a short course in the history of photography at NYU (my alma mater) geared specifically to photography majors.  It’s a non-theoretical, materials-and-processes approach to history that I’m really excited about.  What I hope to do is to hook students into the history by looking at actual photographs and discussing the processes in-depth.  They will see that, in many ways, they are dealing with the same artistic concerns that faced the earliest photographers, regardless of the process they are using.

    Chris Mahoney, Consultant, former head of Sotheby’s Photographs Department, New York  

    JOHN’S REPLY: Thanks so much, Chris, for your inspiring comment. It’s exciting to hear confirmation about how “old” photo processes and techniques are new again– and cast in new ways. It all inspires me to want to make a darkroom again–
    You’ll appreciate that I just read the recent biography of collector Sam Wagstaff, “Before and After Mapplethorpe.” It restoked the flames of my burning love of 19th century photography– and how timely it is that the Getty here in LA has just opened an exhibition of mainly 19th century images from the Wagstaff collection which they acquired to start the photography department under Weston Naef.


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