Plugged In: Safer, sharper developments in photo history

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Uniquely among the arts, technology limits the subjects that we can photograph and the manner in which we do so. That was as true 150 years ago as it is today.

From the invention of photography in the 1830s until digital photography became the norm within the past 10 years, all practical photographic processes depended on chemically developing silver-based films and printing papers.

Experienced photographers frequently produced memorable results with film and paper. Less technically adept photographers found that silver-based photography placed many limitations on them, compared to what today’s novice finds easy with even a middling digital camera.

Until the early 1970s, black-and-white images were the artistic norm because color processes either had not yet been invented or, later, were too demanding for most users. Color processes were expensive, had no tolerance for less-than-perfect exposure and darkroom techniques, and allowed little or no creative control over the appearance of the final image. Facile digital manipulation a la Photoshop was barely within the realm of science fiction.

Commercially available films, particularly color films, were very slow (remember ISO 25 Kodachrome?), essentially limiting their use to bright sunshine and slow action. ISO 400 Tri-X black-and-white film was the fastest, highest-sensitivity film that could still produce a decent, 8-by-10 enlargement from a 35-mm negative. A solid, though heavy, tripod was the best available image stabilization hardware.

Even in the 1970s and 1980s, ISO 3,200 exposures capturing very fast action or subjects in near-dark conditions were barely state of the art unless you worked for three-letter federal agencies. High quality 20-by-24 color enlargements were uncommon. Indeed, the great majority of the images now deemed important to the development of fine art photography are quite small by modern standards, with final prints usually measuring less than 11-by-14.

Yet, cameras using roll film are handy and versatile compared to the equipment and chemical processes that our predecessors used to produce images that remain memorable in our cultural consciousness 150 years later. Rapid changes in photo technology and processes were frequent even in the earliest days of photography.

The first practical photographic process was the Daguerreotype, a very insensitive process that required exposure times up to 15 minutes or so. Daguerreotypes were so insensitive that the “shutter” was simply the lens cap. Making an exposure involved removing the lens cap for 10 or 15 minutes and then replacing the lens cap to complete the process, perhaps getting a cup of coffee during your wait. As you might imagine, the Daguerreotype process is not well-suited to capturing fast action like an NBA jump shot. Portraits required the subject to sit perfectly still for up to a quarter hour, with the subject’s head held still by a metal clamp. We’ll skip the next, short-lived process, Tintype, because it’s simply a variation of Daguerreotype made with an underlying polished metal plate.

My favorite 19th-century photo process is Collodion, the so-called “wet-plate” method. Collodion involved dissolving nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol, coating a large glass plate with the mixture, light-sensitizing the coated plate by a double chemical reaction involving silver, iodine and bromine, exposing the coated plate before this highly volatile mixture dried, and then immediately processing the exposure. All steps had to be completed within 10 minutes. Exposures outside the studio required a horse-drawn portable darkroom. Our first photo today is a picture of Timothy O’Sullivan’s

A horse-drawn darkroom, by Timothy O’Sullivan.

horse-drawn darkroom in the Nevada desert, made during O’Sullivan’s famous photographic reconnaissance of the American West with Army exploration expeditions.

One minor catch to the Collodion process is that nitrocellulose is a powerful high explosive that’s still in use, not to mention the explosiveness of ether fumes. I’m not aware of any Collodion photographers who suddenly exited this world through the top of their horse-drawn portable darkrooms but I suspect that smokers didn’t last long as Collodion photographers.

Collodion photographs were sufficiently sensitive to allow fairly quick exposures and often had remarkably good image quality despite their technical intricacy. The Collodion process is still in use today by some noted fine art photographers. It’s the first practical method of making negative images that could be used in turn to make multiple final prints.

Our second photo today, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” is a Collodion photograph

“The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” by Roger Fenton.

that’s among the most famous to emerge from the 19th century. It’s nothing less than the road where Britain’s famous Light Brigade charged and died shortly before this photo was taken during the Crimean War. The photograph itself is somewhat controversial because of some dispute whether any of the numerous unexploded cannonballs in the photo were placed by Roger Fenton before taking the shot. Most historians, though, consider the photo to be authentic.

Because Collodion photos were the first that could be made easily outside the studio, our

“General Sheridan and his Staff,” by Matthew Brady.

images of the Civil War by Timothy O’Sullivan and his mentor, Matthew Brady, are Collodion-process photographs. Our third photograph is a Civil War photo by Brady of “General Sheridan and his Staff.” This photo is from the U.S. Archives. If you look closely at the upper right-hand corner, you’ll notice that the underlying glass plate has shattered and is pieced together to print the image.

“Dry-plate” processes were the next step but had little immediate success because the first attempts using albumen, a protein derived from egg whites, were rather less light-sensitive than the earlier wet-plate process. Substituting gelatin for albumen greatly increased the light sensitivity and longevity of dry plates but the first gelatin dry plates were very easy to scratch. George Eastman and others learned to coat dry plates and then heat-treat the unexposed coated plates. Doing so not only made the light-sensitive gelatin emulsion quite resistant to mechanical damage but also greatly increased light sensitivity, allowing the first practical, if bulky, handheld cameras.

Once the dry gelatin process was perfected chemically, it wasn’t a very long step for Eastman to coat flexible plastic rolls with dry gelatin emulsion, resulting in the first roll film camera, the Kodak. With his roll film camera, Eastman pioneered photography for the rest of us by providing a preloaded, multishot camera that was returned by mail to Kodak for processing, printmaking and reloading. Eastman advertised that, “You take the picture, we do the rest.”

Eastman’s invention of practical roll film also made possible the first movies, filmed on what became known as 35-mm size film stock. In turn, Oskar Barnack used 35-mm movie film as the basis for the first Leica in 1925, the prototype for all subsequent 35-mm cameras.

In 1976, Eastman Kodak Company invented yet another contribution toward modern photography, digital color imaging using the now-standard Bayer filter array, named after the Kodak scientist who invented it. Ironically, the digital imaging that Kodak invented was Kodak’s undoing 36 years later. Kodak was unable to shift quickly enough from film to producing commercially successful digital cameras and was forced into bankruptcy in early 2012.

So, whenever you’re tempted to complain about some visible image noise when shooting in pitch dark at ISO 12,800, instead be thankful that you’re not in a hot, horse-drawn darkroom, coating fragile glass plates with high explosives and ether in the middle of an active battlefield.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website,



Filed under photography, Plugged in

3 responses to “Plugged In: Safer, sharper developments in photo history

  1. Jeff Hennick

    One small correction. The slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest.” ( ) Just “pressing the button” was quite a bit less than “taking the picture,” in 1888.

  2. Heather

    Another important correction regarding your statement, “We’ll skip the next, short-lived process, Tintype, because it’s simply a variation of Daguerreotype made with an underlying polished metal plate.” This is inaccurate. The tintype is the same chemical process as wet-plate collodion you described – the difference is tintypes, also known as ferrotypes and melainotypes, are made on thin sheets of japanned iron instead of glass and actually came into use after the wet-plate process was firmly established. Tintypes are not a variation of the daguerrotype process.

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