Daguerreotypes & Ambrotypes

Daguerreotype photography spread rapidly across the United States but not in the United Kingdom, where Louis Daguerre controlled the practice with a patent. Richard Beard, who bought the British patent from Miles Berry in 1841, closely controlled his investment, selling licenses throughout the country and prosecuting infringers.

In the early 1840s the invention was introduced in a period of months to practitioners in the United States by Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph code. A flourishing market in portraiture sprang up, predominantly the work of itinerant practitioners who travelled from town to town. For the first time in history people could obtain an exact likeness of themselves or their loved ones for a modest cost, making portrait photographs extremely popular with those of modest means. The vast bulk of 19th century portrait photography affected by itinerant practitioners was of inferior artistic quality, yet the work of many portrait painters was of equally dubious artistic merit, and although photographic images were monochrome, they offered a technical likeness of the sitter no portrait painter could achieve.

The daguerreotype was a positive-only process allowing no reproduction of the picture.

The Daguerreian era spanned only twenty-one years 1839 – 1859, the Ambrotype even less, 1854 – 1865. In the early days of photography, when portrait painters were suddenly no longer in demand, we see the hand of the artist who switched to the new medium. The real artist understood lighting, how to pose his subjects and get the best possible image. Of course, not all were artists, just men of vision and artistic abilities.

In this section you will see those talented and often unidentified men and women, who were able to conjure up the very best from their materials and subjects.

Back in those early days, everything was learnt on the job. This was the new medium. Who would have guessed that they would become so highly prized by collectors more than 140 years in the future.

The ambrotype process is a photographic process developed in the mid-1850s from the wet plate collodion process of Frederick Scott Archer and patented in 1854 by James Ambrose Cutting of Boston, despite Archer’s previous work. The process creates a positive photographic image on a sheet of glass.

One side of a very clean glass plate is covered with a thin layer of collodion, then dipped in a silver nitrate solution. The plate is exposed to the subject while still wet. (Exposure times vary from five to sixty seconds or more depending on the amount of available light.) The plate is then developed and fixed. The resulting negative, when viewed by reflected light against a black background, appears to be a positive image: the clear areas look black, and the exposed, opaque areas appear light. This effect is achieved by coating one side of the glass negative with black varnish. Either the emulsion side or the blank side can be covered with the varnish: when the blank side is blackened, the thickness of the glass adds a sense of depth to the image. In either case, another plate of glass is put over the fragile emulsion side to protect it, and the whole is mounted in a metal frame and kept in a protective case. In some instances the protective glass was cemented directly to the emulsion, generally with a balsam resin. This protected the image well but tended to make it darker.

The ambrotype was much less expensive to produce than the daguerreotype, and it lacked the daguerreotype’s shiny metallic surface, which some found unappealing. By the late 1850s, the ambrotype was overtaking the daguerreotype in popularity; by the mid-1860s, the ambrotype itself was supplanted by the tintype and other processes.

The premier 19th Century photo gallery