History of Photography

Whole Plate Tintype (2014) by Bryan Hiott

Whole Plate Tintype (2014) by Bryan Hiott

This is a tintype portrait of three brothers and their sister, who live in the neighborhood near my studio at Taylors Mill in South Carolina.  Since opening my studio there in 2012, I’ve gotten to know these great kids, who are very interested in my wet plate collodion process. They’re regular visitors on the First Friday art crawl and also stop by to talk whenever they see me working.  I’d wanted to make a portrait of them for some time, and I got my chance this week.  This image also appears in the 2014  World Wet Plate Collodion Day gallery – hosted by Quinn Jacobson.  That gallery honors  Frederick Scott Archer, who invented the collodion process in 1851.  Every year on his birthday, collodion photographers around the world make images to celebrate.


A 1/4 plate  ambrotype that I made of John Coffer in 2008 appears in the trailer for Artists & Alchemists, a documentary film on artists in the digital age working to revive 19th century photographic processes. (@ 1:01 on the YouTube video). The film will be released this year.

John Coffer - Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott


Daguerrotype of Dr. Maximillian LaBorde of Columbia, SC (May 1840)

Dr. Maximillian LaBorde


In Partners With The Sun:  South Carolina Photographers 1840-1940, Harvey S. Teal discusses the first photographic portrait made in the state, a daguerrotype of Dr. Maximillian LaBorde who was a a professor of metaphysics, logic and rhetoric at South Carolina College (now The University of South Carolina).   Dr. William H. Ellet, a colleague of LaBorde’s at the college, made that daguerrotype in May 1840.

LaBorde did not enjoy the tedious process of sitting for the long exposure and later recorded his displeasure with the whole experience in his History of South Carolina College, published in 1859.  It seems that Laborde was so unhappy with his own likeness that he eventually disposed of the daguerrotype:


When the first intelligence was brought of the brilliant discovery of Daguerre, Dr. Ellet set to work at once and was taking photographic likenesses before the next vessel crossed the Atlantic.  I think I was his first subject – I might say, victim.  He had informed me he was getting up an apparatus, and I was under contract to sit for for my likeness.  When all things were ready, he called, and took me to the scene of his operations, which was in the rear of his laborotory.  The spot selected was one of the sunniest in the “sunny South,” and the day was one of the hottest in a Southern spring.  The reader will bear in mind that the art was now in its infancy, and that the effort of the professor was strictly experimental.  The light was to sketch the picture, and it was conceived that everything depended upon having enough of its August presence.  To make sure of this, a frame of ten square feet was constructed, and upon this was spread a sheet of show white canvas.  I was required to sit with my head uncovered in the hottest sun at noon day, and this frame of canvas was placed immediately behind me.  My situation was about as painful as that of Regulus when the Carthagenians cut off his eyelids, and brought him suddenly into the sun, that it might dart its strongest heat upon him.  How long I occupied the chair I cannot tell, but I know repeated attempts to catch my likeness were made, and that my poor brain felt as if it would burst from congestion.  At last it was announced to my infinite joy, that he had a portrait.  I left my seat with feelings of a martyr.  There was a portrait; but what a portrait!  The eyes were closed, the forehead corrugated, and the expression hideous.  Yet it was a portrait, and the great fact proved that light could paint it!  I preserved it for many years, and though I would not have it to grace the present volume, I would be glad, on account of its historic interest, if it had a present existence.  


Partners With The Sun

1/4 Plate Tintype of Abraham Lincoln   

1/4 Plate Tintype of Abraham Lincoln


On November 9, 1863, President Lincoln visited Mathew Brady’s Washington, DC studio, where his assistant, Alexander Gardner, made this 1/4 plate (3.25″ x 4.25″) tintype portrait.  Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address just over a week later. 

By 1863 tintypes had become the most popular and least expensive portrait option available through the wet plate collodion process.  The Lincoln tintype is housed in a hinged leather bound case and is shown under an ornate layer of stamped metal, which was typical of the period.  The interior left side of the case is lined with velvet for for protection.


Among wet plate photographers today, there is perhaps no greater lightning rod for aesthetic and technical debate than Sally Mann.  Purists in the medium will tell you that her work is not up to par and is terribly flawed.  Others will say that she is a true artist, who willingly sacrifices some technical precision for the sake of her personal expression – what Mann calls “transformative accidents” that occur on the surface of her plates.  Although in this video, Mann refers to the work of early wet plate photographers as perfect, I strongly disagree.  One need only look at peeling emulsions and comets (black specs due to contaminated chemistry) from plates made in the mid-1800s to assess that accidents have always been part of the process.  The collodion medium is fragile and inherently flawed.  Sally Mann uses the flaws to her advantage, which tips my hand that I think she is an artist.


Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott (2007)

Ambrotype by Bryan Hiott (2007)


This is a 1/2 plate ambrotype I made last fall in the Center For Alternative Photography Workshop, which was led by Eric Taubman and assisted by Keliy Anderston-Staley.  After shooting a few portraits, during the first day of the workshop, I moved outside and worked for a while.  

Visible on this ambrotype are what is known as “lines of pouring,” ridges that form as the collodion is flowed onto the plate and begins to dry.  As this was one of my first ambrotypes, I wasn’t in the habit of rocking the plate or tapping it gently as I poured off the excess collodion.  In later plates, I had the technique down and was able to avoid these lines forming.  Quinn Jacobson demonstrates proper pouring of collodion in the YouTube video below.

The Center for Alternative Photography has examples of images from their previous workshops on the alumnae gallery.  One of my images from Eric’s workshop is included on that page.


Historical Comparison of Glass Plate Lines of Flow



Above:  1865 view of Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia (half of a glass-plate stereograph by Samuel Cooley).  Below:  detailed section of Cooley’s image with lines of flow from his plate plainly visible – similar to those on my CAP Workshop ambrotype.  The technical challenges of wet plate photography have not changed in the intervening 143 years.




Quinn Jacobson Demonstrates How To Flow A Plate





In the Flatfiles at Pierogi 2000, which include a portfolio of my photographs, I came across a color image, entitled Bloody Lane, by Lee Etheredge IV.  The image was taken at the National Military Park in Sharpsburg, Maryland, where the Civil War battle of Antietam occurred in September of 1862.  Etheredge combines the image with repetitive text in a manner that might signify the quickening thoughts of a soldier marching to battle or, alternatively,  the breakdown of historical narrative and the reliance on one vivid incident to define a complex sequence of events.
Bloody Lane by Lee Etheridge, IV.  C-print 18.5 x 19 (2002) Bloody Lane by Lee Etheredge, IV. C-print 18.5 x 19 (2002)

Description of Lee Etheredge’s Work from Pierogi 2000

Etheredge continues his investigations in breaking down language from a practical perspective and reformulating it through conceptual and visual experimentation using a typewriter.

At times Etheredge develops the work as concrete poetry but more often than not he uses the 26 letters of the alphabet as elements in subtle drawn patterns. In this exhibition, in addition to the typewriter marks, he incorporates photography referencing history and place to create an historic narrative element.

Taking the Roman alphabet as his raw material and the IBM Wheelwriter as his fundamental tool, Etheredge teases out spirals of signification that range from a mathematical or “chilly” fascination with pure order to a “warm” or sensual tang that clings to language as a matrix of human thought. Arrays of letters chosen for their ink-density or curvilinear shape determine certain images. But others are constructed around text fragments drawn from specific sources and connoting quite particular narratives. (Frances Richard, 2002)


Historical Note

On the fields surrounding Sharpsburg, the single costliest day of fighting in the Civil War occurred on September 17, 1862.  Bloody Lane was the location of some of the most intense fighting of that day.  By nightfall across the entire battlefield, there were more than 23,000 combined Union and Confederate casualties (dead, wounded and missing).  The battle became known as Antietam, which refers to a creek flowing near the town of Sharpsburg.  Abraham Lincoln used the repulse of the Southern invasion of the North to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Alexander Gardner and his assistants arrived at Sharpsburg shortly after the end of fighting to begin photographing the carnage. He used the wet plate collodion process to make glass negatives from which he later produced albumen prints.  During this period, Gardner was employed by Mathew Brady, who held an exhibition of images from Antietam in his New York gallery in October 1862.  The exhibition, entitled The Dead of Antietam, shocked the American public, which had never before seen war depicted in such a graphic manner.  Reproductions of artists’ renderings had always been the primary visual means by which the public formed impressions of battles.  The immediacy and accuracy of the Gardner’s images would forever change the public discourse on war.

Bryan Hiott

Confederate Dead in Bloody Lane by Alexander Gardner

Confederate Dead in Bloody Lane by Alexander Gardner (1862)

Confederate Dead in Bloody Lane by Alexander Gardner

Confederate Dead in Bloody Lane by Alexander Gardner (1862)

In researching 19th photographic equipment, I found an example of a tintype camera with 16 lenses attributed to Roberts of Boston, a company that began manufacturing multi-lens (multiplying) cameras in 1857.  During the election of 1860, multi-lens cameras were instrumental in making small, identical tintypes that could be used to circulate a candidate’s actual image to the public.  Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of this new technology and capitalized on it to gain wider recognition, much in the same way that John F. Kennedy recognized the importance of television to political image making 100 years later.   


Button Tintype Camera (Attributed to Roberts of Boston)

Front View: Multi-Lens Tintype Camera (Attributed to Roberts of Boston)


Button Tintype Camera (Attributed to Roberts of Boston)

Rear View: Multi-Lens Tintype Camera (Attributed to Roberts of Boston)



Political Collectibles:  History of Political Campaign Buttons

By Ron Wade (about.com)


It wasn’t until the 1860 campaign of Abraham Lincoln, along with other major party nominees for President, that the likeness of a President was available for use on campaign buttons and devices. All because of the advent of the tintype or ferrotype photo process.

Extremely Rare 1864 Political Campaign Pin for President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election campaign during the midst of the Civil War. 1″ x 1 1/4″ with hole at top from which wearer used a ribbon to wear on lapel. Has some lightness – Valued at $650.

For the first time a voter hundreds of miles away from Washington could actually see what a candidate for President looked like. The 1860 ferrotype buttons for Lincoln are easily distinguishable from his 1864 re-election buttons as his famous beard was by then on all official photos of the Civil War President. And calling these “buttons” is stretching it a bit since most of these were made of a metal ring surrounding a round tintype picture with a hole punched in the top, from which a ribbon was used to hang the picture on a supporter’s lapel.

What we now know as a campaign button didn’t come about until 1896 with the patent by the now famous Whitehead and Hoag Company. The device was made of 4 pieces sandwiched together — a piece of metal on which was placed a printed image with a slogan or photo of 1896 candidate for President William McKinley or his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan. On top of that printed image was a thin piece of see-through celluloid and all of this was placed together by a machine with a small metal pin attached on the reverse. The 1896 discovery of campaign buttons was so popular that now, some 106 years later, buttons from the McKinley-Bryan race are still fairly common and can be bought for as little as $10, although most buttons are much more than that.


For full text:  Visit About.Com

Another interesting article on campaign buttons appered in Frieze Magazine on 8.29.08.

Thomas Easterly (1809-1882) was one of the early daguerrians in the United States.  Born in Vermont, Easterly began learning the daguerrotype process in 1841.  Seven years later he moved to St. Louis where he ran a successful portrait studio.  However, his interest in making landscape images set him apart from many of his contemporaries, who considered fieldwork with daguerrotypes to be technically daunting and not financially profitable. Easterly’s plates are not only a significant record of the changes taking place as St. Louis became a prosperous city; but also the work of a man with a unique vision for documentary as art.  In the 1860s, when ambrotypes and tintypes had become more popular with the public, Easterly stubbornly refused – on aesthetic grounds – to adopt the other processes and suffered financial ruin as a result.