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.