About Early Photography


The Mir­ror of Race web­site pro­vides basic infor­ma­tion about each of the images dis­played in its on-line exhi­bi­tion. This infor­ma­tion is fairly stan­dard in any art-historical schol­ar­ship, but those new to this topic may want some fur­ther expla­na­tion of the terms.

MAKER: Each images had its maker, of course, but it is worth keep­ing sev­eral things in mind about this. First of all, the early forms of pho­to­graphic process (the daguerreo­type, the ambrotype, the tin­type and the albu­men print, to name the most com­mon ones) were very dif­fi­cult to learn and per­form, expen­sive in terms of their equip­ment and appa­ra­tus, and some­times very dan­ger­ous (for exam­ple, devel­op­ing a daguerreo­type requires heat­ing up mer­cury until it gives off fumes, and the wet-plate processes include chem­i­cals that can — and often did — explode if improp­erly han­dled). For the most part, in these early years, only peo­ple who intended to make pho­tog­ra­phy their trade learned how to do it. This is why most of the early pho­tographs are por­traits: the main busi­ness of com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy was in por­trai­ture. Early pho­tog­ra­phers often did not sign their work. Some­times, they indi­cated their iden­tity by stamp­ing their names on the mat of the pho­to­graph, or on an adver­tis­ing card on the back of the image, or by a label or some sim­i­lar device. Such iden­ti­fied images are per­haps only 5–10% of what now exists from the ear­li­est period. The rest are anonymous.

Even when an inscrip­tion on a mat or a label can iden­tify an indi­vid­ual maker, this does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that this per­son actu­ally made the image. The pro­duc­tion of early pho­tographs was com­plex and labor-intensive, and many pho­tog­ra­phers — espe­cially the more suc­cess­ful ones, such as Matthew Brady — employed large num­bers of peo­ple to help them with their work. This process included receiv­ing and prepar­ing the client for the por­trait, prepar­ing the pho­to­graphic plate for expo­sure, set­ting up the cam­era and the client for the shot, expos­ing the plate in the cam­era, devel­op­ing the plate, and fin­ish­ing it for the client (which could involve apply­ing color to it by hand, plac­ing it in a brass mat and a case made of wood and paper or some­times an early ver­sion of plas­tic called ther­mo­plas­tic). In fact, the most famous and suc­cess­ful pho­tog­ra­phers might never meet most of their clients: they ran large stu­dios where teams of “oper­a­tors” would set up and take the actual photographs.

Most early pho­tographs were made in a stu­dio. This is because the early pho­to­graphic processes were dif­fi­cult and cum­ber­some: they required a great deal of sen­si­tive equip­ment to pre­pare and develop, and light­ing con­di­tions had to be opti­mal. Still, some brave prac­ti­tion­ers loaded up wag­ons with their equip­ment and went out into the coun­try­side in search of cus­tomers. These were called “itin­er­ant” pho­tog­ra­phers. It should be remem­bered that in the mid-nineteenth cen­tury, the United States was still an agrar­ian soci­ety: most peo­ple lived and worked on farms and in the agri­cul­tural indus­tries, often too far away from cities just to come in for a por­trait at a studio.

Finally, we call them “mak­ers” because a great many early pho­tog­ra­phers in the United States con­sid­ered them­selves to be arti­sans and busi­ness­peo­ple rather than artists. The vast major­ity of early pho­tog­ra­phers learned the process not to pro­duce art, but rather to make a liv­ing by tak­ing por­traits. The process was too dif­fi­cult and too expen­sive for just any­body to do it as we do today, as ama­teurs. Although some early pho­tog­ra­phers argued force­fully that pho­tog­ra­phy was an art, like sculp­ture and paint­ing, it might sur­prise us today to learn that most of the “author­i­ties” on art in the 19th cen­tury did not con­sider pho­tog­ra­phy to be an art at all — it was merely a form of mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion of images in their eyes, a skill prac­ticed by trades­men with­out tal­ent, rather than a true art form.

SITTER/SUBJECT: The vast major­ity of early pho­tographs are por­traits of ordi­nary peo­ple who went to the pho­tog­ra­pher to make an image for close friends and fam­ily. At first, pho­tographs were very expen­sive, but by the mid-1840’s com­pe­ti­tion had dri­ven the prices down far enough that even a laborer could afford a mod­est por­trait. Some­times, the cus­tomer would write his or her own name on the image, or a fam­ily mem­ber would do so on a slip of paper on in a case. But just as we today rarely label our own pho­tographs when we give or receive them, because we know who our friends and loved-ones are, and they know our faces, so too did the con­sumers of pho­tog­ra­phy in its early years usu­ally leave them unla­beled: they knew who the por­traits were, and that was enough. Pho­tog­ra­phy then was usu­ally a pri­vate mat­ter, made for friends and fam­ily, not for the gen­eral pub­lic.  But the con­nec­tions of friend­ship and fam­ily are often lost in time, and so what were once inti­mate records of a per­son — attempts at visual immor­tal­ity — have now, iron­i­cally, become anonymous.

A much smaller num­ber of pho­tographs were of sub­jects other than a par­tic­u­lar per­son. Some were out­door scenes or build­ings, some were objects or ani­mals. Some­times, a place or an object can be iden­ti­fied. It should be remem­bered that early pho­tog­ra­phy, because it was expen­sive and dif­fi­cult, was rarely infor­mal or whim­si­cal: the client usu­ally had a rea­son to have the pho­to­graph made — per­haps to record a prize-winning bull, or to com­mem­o­rate the build­ing of a house. With the advent of the glass-plate and albu­men print process in the mid-1850’s, which allowed for the mass-production of images, a greater vari­ety of sub­jects came into cir­cu­la­tion, because pho­tog­ra­phers could make prints not just for pri­vate clients who com­mis­sioned the image, but for a wider pub­lic that might be inter­ested in the subject.

GENRE: A genre is a type of work of art, cat­e­go­rized by its style, its form or its sub­ject mat­ter. The gen­res of early pho­tog­ra­phy include the following:

Por­trait: What defines a por­trait is that the focus of the image is upon the indi­vid­ual iden­tity of the sit­ter or sit­ters, even if we no longer know who these are. In this sense, we can even find por­traits of dogs and cats, as well as of peo­ple. At the same time, an image can include peo­ple with­out being a por­trait. Early pho­to­graphic por­trai­ture drew heav­ily upon the long tra­di­tion of painted por­trai­ture. In this period, painted por­trai­ture was so expen­sive that only the very wealthy could afford it. By com­par­i­son, pho­to­graphic por­trai­ture was inex­pen­sive, but it still gen­er­ally adhered to the con­ven­tions of painted por­trai­ture, if only to cap­ture some of its sta­tus. This is why most early pho­to­graphic por­traits seem so severe to the mod­ern eye: to have one’s por­trait made was still under­stood to be a seri­ous mat­ter; this was a person’s oppor­tu­nity to record him– or her­self for the ages. There are sev­eral types of por­trait, although the vast major­ity of por­trait pho­tographs were sim­ple stu­dio por­traits of ordi­nary people:

Com­mer­cial: Although this cat­e­gory strains the sense of “por­trait,” there were some pho­tographs made of ani­mals or objects used for com­mer­cial pur­poses. An inven­tor might take an image of a patented item to bring on a jour­ney to show to prospec­tive investors; a breeder might have a “por­trait” made of a prize bull.

Ethno­graphic: Por­traits of this type in the early period (1840’s through 1870’s) are extremely rare. An ethno­graphic por­trait depicts the sub­ject not as an indi­vid­ual per­son but rather as the exam­ple of a sup­posed human type. The ear­li­est know exam­ple of ethno­graphic por­traits in the United States are the images made in the late 1840’s by J. T. Zealy, on com­mis­sion from the Har­vard nat­u­ral­ist Louis Agas­siz, of slaves from South Car­olina plan­ta­tions.
Itin­er­ant: Some early pho­tog­ra­phers would travel by wagon among rural vil­lages and farms to get the busi­ness of cus­tomers who were too far away from the larger towns and cities where the fixed stu­dios oper­ated. Itin­er­ant images often look less pol­ished and more “naïve” than stu­dio por­traits:  for exam­ple, instead of an elab­o­rate back­drop, there might be only a fab­ric or can­vass hung up behind the sit­ter, the com­po­si­tion might be eccen­tric, or the pose might be stiff or unconventional.

Occu­pa­tional: Hav­ing one’s por­trait taken was con­sid­ered an impor­tant occa­sion in the period of early pho­tog­ra­phy, and often the sit­ter gave care­ful thought to his or her self-presentation. For many, their pro­fes­sion or occu­pa­tion was a defin­ing fea­ture of their iden­tity. A seam­stress might pose with her sewing kit, a min­is­ter with his Bible, a car­pen­ter with his tools, a mill worker with her shut­tle and scis­sors, a fire­man with his gear, or a sol­dier in his uniform.

Post­mortem: Death was an ever-present real­ity in the mid-nineteenth cen­tury; it was not some­thing that could be ignored or avoided, as it often is today. Dis­ease was com­mon, and ill­nesses that we can cure now with antibi­otics were fre­quently fatal. Women were espe­cially vul­ner­a­ble in child­birth, and chil­dren often died in the first years of their lives, falling vic­tim to dis­ease. For many fam­i­lies, the only mem­ory that they might be able to secure of a departed loved-one would be a pho­to­graph taken shortly after the person’s death. Many pho­tog­ra­phers spe­cial­ized in this trade, adver­tis­ing that they would come to the homes of the departed to make a portrait.

Stu­dio: This is by far the most com­mon genre of early pho­tog­ra­phy. Such por­traits were pro­duced in set loca­tions, where the pho­tog­ra­pher would have the opti­mal con­di­tions for receiv­ing the cus­tomer, con­trol­ling the light­ing, pro­cess­ing the pho­to­graph etc.

Scene: A scene is a depic­tion of a place, event or activ­ity. Scenes were fairly uncom­mon in the ear­li­est period (1840–1860), when most of the trade con­sisted in por­trai­ture. After the devel­op­ment of mass-produced images from glass-plate neg­a­tives, the mar­ket for scenes grew, once pho­tog­ra­phers could pro­duce them cheaply and rel­a­tively easily.

Archi­tec­tural, pri­vate: Some clients would com­mis­sion a pho­tog­ra­pher to make an image of a pri­vate home. A home of one’s own was a mat­ter of con­sid­er­able pride.

Archi­tec­tural, com­mer­cial: A suc­cess­ful mer­chant or busi­ness­man might com­mis­sion a por­trait of the shop or fac­tory where he did his busi­ness.
Archi­tec­tural, civic: These are quite rare in the ear­li­est period, again because of the lack of a broad mar­ket for them. They are char­ac­ter­ized by an inter­est in the pub­lic impor­tance of a city-space or build­ing.
Cityscape or town­scape: These are quite rare in early pho­tog­ra­phy. They were dif­fi­cult to make, and, per­haps more to the point, there was not much of a mar­ket for them until the devel­op­ment tech­niques for the mass-production of images.
Com­mer­cial: The new tech­niques of mass pro­duc­tion, asso­ci­ated at first most widely with the albu­men print processes, allowed pho­tog­ra­phers to pro­duce images intended for a large com­mer­cial mar­ket, rather than for indi­vid­ual clients as had been mostly the case with the daguerreo­type and ambrotype processes.
His­tor­i­cal or top­i­cal: With the advent of processes that allowed for the mass pro­duc­tion of images, some pho­tog­ra­phers made images of his­tor­i­cal places or events (usu­ally after the action had taken place because of the dif­fi­cul­ties involved in cap­tur­ing live action with the early equip­ment). The most famous of the early prac­ti­tion­ers of this genre was Matthew Brady, whose oper­a­tors took pho­tographs of Civil War bat­tle­fields after the bat­tles and sol­diers in their camps. As the tech­niques devel­oped and made pho­tog­ra­phy more mobile, pho­tog­ra­phers sought to cap­ture a wide vari­ety of top­i­cal sub­jects, from the sights of for­eign coun­tries to local points of interest.

Land­scape: In the ear­li­est period of pho­tog­ra­phy (circa 1840–1860), true land­scapes, with no per­sons or human con­struc­tion vis­i­ble, are fairly unusual. This is because it was quite dif­fi­cult to get the equip­ment to such set­tings, and also because there was lit­tle com­mer­cial demand for them. Once mass-produced tech­niques became avail­able, then land­scapes became more pop­u­lar, but daguerreo­types, ambrotypes and tin­types were one-of-a-kind items, and so a spe­cific indi­vid­ual would have to have a good rea­son to go to the expense of com­mis­sion­ing one in the out­doors, far from a com­mer­cial studio.

Occu­pa­tional: Another rare type is the scene that depicts peo­ple at work in a par­tic­u­lar trade, pro­fes­sion, or occu­pa­tion, such as a teacher teach­ing, or mill work­ers in a fac­tory. These became more com­mon with the mass-produced techniques.

Per­former: A spe­cial­ized sub-category of the occu­pa­tional por­trait is the por­trait of the per­former, whether in the the­ater, in music, or in a cir­cus. Such por­traits were sold to a broad pub­lic and the per­form­ers them­selves would use them as adver­tis­ing — but again, this only really became pos­si­ble with the com­ing of mass-produced pho­tographs. The pub­lic in the United States devel­oped a strong taste for such images in the mid-19th cen­tury, fol­low­ing the suc­cess of per­form­ers such as Jenny Lind, the so-called Swedish Nightingale.

Social/Political: Mass pro­duc­tion, based on pho­to­graphic processes such as the albu­men print, led to the use of images for social move­ments and polit­i­cal causes. An exam­ple of this in the Mir­ror of Race exhi­bi­tion are the var­i­ous images of for­mer slaves that were sold to raise funds for freed slaves in the occu­pied South dur­ing the Civil War.

Staged: Also uncom­mon is the staged scene, where the pho­tog­ra­pher sets up a shot to give the illu­sion of action tak­ing place. Because of the long expo­sure times in early pho­tog­ra­phy, it was next to impos­si­ble to cap­ture actual action.

PROCESS: This cat­e­gory cov­ers the var­i­ous tech­niques used in the United States to pro­duce pho­tographs in the early period. These processes included the daguerreo­type, the ambrotype, and the tin­type, as well as the albu­men print processes: the carte de vis­ite, the cab­i­net card, and most early stere­oviews. The fun­da­men­tal fea­tures of the var­i­ous early processes are as follows:

Daguerreo­type (1839 to the early 1860’s): An image pro­duced on a silver-coated cop­per plate. A daguerreo­type will often have a haunt­ing three-dimensional qual­ity, and it will reflect like a mir­ror. The suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tion of a daguerreo­type demanded much skill and labor, and so new and eas­ier tech­niques rapidly replaced it. A daguerreo­type is a unique image; there is no neg­a­tive from which to make copies.

Wet Plate Processes: The fol­low­ing processes are all based on the wet plate tech­nique. This involves plac­ing light-sensitive chem­i­cals in a trans­par­ent, sticky sub­stance called col­lo­dion and then coat­ing a pho­to­graphic plate with the wet, gooey col­lo­dion and then expos­ing it in the camera.

Ambrotype (1854 to the mid-1860’s): The ambrotype is a pho­to­graphic neg­a­tive on a glass plate, made to appear pos­i­tive by a dark back­ground (either dark glass, dark paint, or black fab­ric or paper). Although cheaper than the daguerreo­type to pro­duce, the ambrotype was heavy and vul­ner­a­ble to break­age, and it was replaced by the tin­type, the carte de vis­ite and the cab­i­net card. Although the ambrotype was treated as a unique image in the pho­to­graphic trade, each one pro­duced for a sin­gle client, it is in prin­ci­ple pos­si­ble to print copies from an ambrotype plate.

Tin­type (1856 to around 1900, but con­tin­u­ing in places through the 1930’s): Despite its name, the tin­type is a pho­to­graph made on a thin piece of dark­ened iron (it is also some­times called a fer­rotype, from the Latin work for iron). The tin­type was pop­u­lar because it was light and durable and com­par­a­tively cheap to pro­duce. Tin­types became espe­cially pop­u­lar in the Civil War period, because sol­diers and their fam­i­lies could eas­ily send them to each other through the mail. Tin­types are unique images; there is no neg­a­tive from which prints could be made. Some pho­tog­ra­phers used cam­eras with mul­ti­ple lenses to make mul­ti­ple tin­type por­traits of a sit­ter at the same time.

Glass plate neg­a­tives and albu­men prints (1851 to around 1910): By the early 1850’s, inven­tors had dis­cov­ered how to make a pho­to­graphic neg­a­tive on a glass plate. This allowed for the mass pro­duc­tion of prints from these neg­a­tives using paper treated with albu­men (egg whites) as the sup­port for light-sensitive chem­i­cals. This rev­o­lu­tion­ized the pho­tog­ra­phy busi­ness by the 1860’s, because now the maker could pro­duce copies for a wide mar­ket of con­sumers, not just for indi­vid­ual clients. Pho­to­graphic firms would mount large print­ing arrays on the tops of their build­ings, where they could print copies from their plates in the sun­light, because there no ade­quate arti­fi­cial light had yet been invented. The most com­mon forms of pho­to­graph using the glass plate and albu­men print process were the following:

Carte de vis­ite (intro­duced in 1854): The name, carte de vis­ite (abbre­vi­ated as CDV or cdv), is French for “vis­it­ing card.” Vic­to­ri­ans used vis­it­ing or call­ing cards as a way of leav­ing their names when mak­ing social and busi­ness vis­its, and the carte de vis­ite adopted this tra­di­tion as its own. The carte de vis­ite became enor­mously pop­u­lar in the Civil War era: because they were made on paper with a thin card­board back­ing, they were light and easy to mail, like the tin­type, and they could be repro­duced from the glass neg­a­tive, so one could give copies to friends and fam­ily. The typ­i­cal carte de vis­ite was some­what larger than a mod­ern busi­ness card or credit card.

Cab­i­net card (intro­duced in 1863): The cab­i­net card is a larger for­mat print on paper, backed by a more rigid card­board mount.

Stere­oview (intro­duced in the mid-1850’s): A stere­oview is a pho­to­graph made by a cam­era with two lenses placed side-by-side in such a way that the image pro­duced, when look at in the appro­pri­ate view­ing mech­a­nism, appears three-dimensional. There were stere­oview daguerreo­types and ambrotypes, but the process really became suc­cess­ful and wide­spread with the devel­op­ment of mass-produced albu­men prints.

DIMENSIONS: Most early pho­tographs came in stan­dard sizes. Just as today, when we buy film or have our neg­a­tives devel­oped by a store (or even our dig­i­tal images printed by an on-line com­pany), stan­dard­iza­tion makes the process sim­pler. Pho­to­graphic plates came in stan­dard sizes for daguerreo­types and ambrotypes, as did the cases in which they were dis­played; at first, tin­types fol­lowed these stan­dards, but then devel­oped oth­ers. Stan­dard plate sizes were as follows:

Six­teenth plate: 1–3/8 by 1–5/8 inches
Ninth plate: 2 by 2–1/2 inches

Sixth plate: 2–5/8 by 3–1/4 inches

Quar­ter plate: 3–1/8 by 4–1/8 inches

Half plate:  4–1/2 by 5–1/2 inches

Full (or whole) plate: 6–1/2 by 8–1/2 inches

The most com­mon plate size was the sixth plate, fol­lowed by the ninth. There were some plates even larger than the full plate (such as the so-called “mam­moth” plates, and oth­ers), but these are very rare.

With the intro­duc­tion of the carte de vis­ite, a new stan­dard size for that process took hold. It was approx­i­mately 2–3/8 inches wide and 4 inches tall, with more vari­a­tion in the height. The term “cdv stan­dard” refers to these gen­eral dimen­sions, with some variation.

With the stan­dard­iza­tion of the carte de vis­ite, the pho­to­graphic indus­try began to pro­duce photo albums in which clients could present and pre­serve their cartes de vis­ite. Because of this, by the early 1860’s, pho­tog­ra­phers also began mak­ing tin­types to the cdv stan­dard size to cap­ture some of this busi­ness, since tin­types of that size could also fit in the albums. (Daguerreo­types and ambrotypes were too bulky to fit into albums.) In the early 1860’s, the tin­type known as the “gem­type” became pop­u­lar. The gem­type was a tiny tin­type, mea­sur­ing a half an inch by an inch, and intended for use in minia­ture pho­to­graph albums. Some pho­tog­ra­phers had spe­cial­ized gem­type cam­eras with as many as six­teen lenses to make six­teen images on a sin­gle plate, to be cut up into indi­vid­ual gem­types. These were used almost exclu­sively for por­trai­ture. To review:

Carte de vis­ite stan­dard: approx­i­mately 2–3/8 by 4 inches
Gem­type:                           approx­i­mately ½ by 1 inch
Both cartes de vis­ite and many tin­types fol­lowed the carte de vis­ite stan­dard. Gem­types were always pro­duced as tin­types.
Cab­i­net cards and stere­oviews also fol­lowed gen­eral stan­dards, although with some vari­a­tions. Most albu­men print cab­i­net cards were approx­i­mately 4–1/4 by 6–1/2 inches. Most early albu­men print stere­oviews were approx­i­mately 3–1/4 by 7 inches.

DATE: It is pos­si­ble to date early pho­tographs based on a vari­ety of clues and factors:

Process: Each pho­to­graphic process had its date of intro­duc­tion and its period of use.

Maker: If the maker of the image is known, that can help date the image, if the maker’s dates of oper­a­tion are also known.

Cloth­ing style: Fash­ions in the nine­teenth cen­tury went through their cycles, just as they do now. Women’s fash­ions in par­tic­u­lar can be dated quite pre­cisely, as we know when cer­tain designs, looks, and fab­rics came in and out of fash­ion. Men’s mil­i­tary uni­forms are also good guides to dating,

Plate marks: The mak­ers of daguerreo­type plates and some early tin­type plates stamped these plates with their maker’s mark. These marks can often help us date the image.

Con­text: Some­times an object in an image can pro­vide a deci­sive clue to a date. For exam­ple, a book might have a cer­tain date of pub­li­ca­tion, or a well-known build­ing a date of construction.

Pre­sen­ta­tion: Pho­tog­ra­phers pre­sented nearly all daguerreo­types and ambrotypes, and many early tin­types, to the client in cases, with mats made of brass or some­times paper. The styles of these cases and mats changed over the years, so they can be used to date a cased image.

Inscrip­tions and nota­tions: Some­times the owner of an image inscribed the date of its mak­ing on the image, in the case, or on an accom­pa­ny­ing tag or slip of paper.

Known sit­ters: If the sit­ter for a por­trait is a known per­son, and espe­cially if it is a famous or his­toric per­son, that may offer a clue to the date of the image, because we can com­pare this image with other known images of the per­son at dif­fer­ent stages of life.

COLLECTION: This records the per­son or insti­tu­tion that owns the image.


His­tory of early pho­tog­ra­phy and pho­tog­ra­phers:
Beau­mont Newhall, His­tory of Pho­tog­ra­phy: From 1839 to the Present, revised edi­tion (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1982). This book pro­vides a broad his­tory of pho­tog­ra­phy for a gen­eral audience.

Michel Frizot (ed.), A New His­tory of Pho­tog­ra­phy (Köln, Ger­many: Köne­mann, 1998). A col­lec­tion of essays for the more advanced stu­dent, begin­ning with the pre-photographic roots of pho­tog­ra­phy in art and science.

Dat­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing early photographs:

O. Henry Mace, Collector’s Guide to Early Pho­tographs, 2nd edi­tion (Iola, WI: Krause Pub­li­ca­tions, 1999). This gen­er­ously illus­trated guide is a very use­ful resource for those who want to learn more about dis­tin­guish­ing the var­i­ous types of early pho­to­graphic process and their peri­ods of use.

Nine­teenth cen­tury cloth­ing styles:

Priscilla Har­ris Dal­rym­ple, Amer­i­can Vic­to­rian Cos­tume in Early Pho­tographs (Mine­ola, NY: Dover Pub­li­ca­tions, 1991). An inex­pen­sive intro­duc­tion for a gen­eral audi­ence, well illustrated.

Joan Sev­era, Dressed for the Pho­tog­ra­pher: Ordi­nary Amer­i­cans and Fash­ion, 1840–1900 (Kent, Ohio: The Ohio State Uni­ver­sity Press, 1995). Joan Sev­era offers an extra­or­di­nar­ily detailed dis­cus­sion of fash­ion in the nine­teenth cen­tury, illus­trat­ing the changes from year to year and decade to decade with period pho­tographs. Her read­ings of the indi­vid­ual images are fas­ci­nat­ing pieces of detec­tive work.

Comments are closed.