Guide to 19th Cent. Images

I’ll break down the different photographic media in the most concise way I know, starting with the earliest forms moving forward chronologically up through where I’m familiar. I’ll list what the image is printed on and then it’s differentiating qualities. I’m by no means an expert, so please don’t hesitate to correct me. I’m not going to go into the history or the exact science of the processes, just the the physical qualities to look out for.

In general, as I move from the one process to the next, you can assume each image produced is cheaper, more popular, less “formal” and less private than the proceeding photos.

The daguerreotype is direct and unique positive made on a silvered copper plate. It has a mirror-like quality that’s fairly striking in person, but difficult to differentiate online from other processes like ambrotypes and cased tintypes when you can’t actually inspect it by hand. If done by a skilled daguerreotypist, they’re unbelievably detailed and clear, often holding more depth than most modern photographs. They’re super fragile in regards to oxidization as well as direct physical contact, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever see one uncased. The earlier forms of the daguerreotype required super long exposure times (3-10 minutes), but later with improved lenses and sensitization processes, exposure time dropped to less than a minute. In my opinion, the subjects in the later forms of the daguerreotypes often seem more expressive and relaxed. Daguerreotypes were used most heavily between the 1840’s and very early 1860’s, but were most popular in the 1850’s.

The ambrotype is a direct and unique positive made on glass. They don’t have that mirror-like quality, depth, or clarity that daguerreotypes sometimes have, but they’re impressive images none-the-less. More often than daguerreotypes, though, they’re hand-tinted—leaving the subjects with rosy cheeks for future generations to oggle at.  The exposure time is under a minute, giving rise to an even more lively portrait. Ambrotypes are also cased due to their fragility. In the UK, they’re sometimes called collodion positives. They were most heavily used in the second half of the 1850’s, and up through the very early 60’s.

The tintype is definitely my favorite of the 19th century photographic media. It’s a direct and unique positive on metal, often iron, in the same process as the ambrotype. Unlike the ambrotype, though, tintypes need not be cased or mounted and and are sturdy enough to be housed independently. Early on people cased them like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, but soon recognized the unnecessary expense and increasing collections in their home and did without. Towards the end of the 19th century, they were mounted on paper slips with printed ornamentation. Tintypes were exceptionally cheap compared to their photographic predecessors, making them a favorite for informal portraits, for friend groups, photographic experimentation, and entertainment. They were exceedingly popular in America, but didn’t really take off elsewhere—although the British call them “ferrotypes”. Naturally, with more people using the camera and with much more informality, the images produced are often out of focus, unclear, or underdeveloped. However, I think it’s what makes them that much more interesting. I truly think the tintype, next to the bicycle, was one of the most important and democratic developments in American history. By the 1860’s, tintypes started becoming a favorite photographic media, basically replacing those comparatively stuffy and expensive daguerreotype and ambrotype portraits. Between the 1860’s and 1900, they were the most popular form taken by vernacular photography.

The albumen print is a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. Because it’s based on a negative, the image is immediately reproducible. Therefore, the albumen photograph is first type to be widely used in advertising and of commercial images such as landscapes, buildings, celebrities, and leaders. While occasionally the subjects are exceedingly boring, many photographs have an awesome story, propaganda, or exploitation piece meant to be proliferated on a mass scale. Often, they provide a taste of consumer and political culture in the 19th century.  Albumen photographs are printed on paper and have a soft,  brownish quality about them. Sometimes there’s a photographer’s name and studio, or even a story of the subject photographed if the albumen print is mounted on cardboard. A photographed called a carte de visite. Later on, a larger version of the carte de visite was created and called a cabinet card. Both are albumen prints mounted on cardboard, but just happen to be of different sizes. Albumen prints on their own were popular in throughout the second half of the 19th century typically as travel photos or landscapes and buildings. Carte de visites, meanwhile, were popular from the 1860’s through the 90’s until cabinet cards supplanted their use up through the early 20th century mostly for advertising or portraiture.

Summarily, daguerreotypes are on a copper plate and cased; ambrotypes are on a glass plate and cased; tintypes are on iron sheets and can be on their own; while albumen prints are paper, carte de visites and cabinet cards are albumen prints mounted on cardboard in varying sizes.

There are many more processes, but these are the most significant and popular media in the 19th century, and the ones you’ll see most on my blog. If you have any questions or comments, let me know.