A Thousand Words, Give or Take

By Josh Fox

            Capturing images has been an art form for nearly as long as human society has existed. From the cave paintings of the prehistoric era to the marble statues of ancient Rome to the early days of photography when people believed getting your picture taken would result in the loss of your soul; people have always had a habit of capturing single moments in life for all eternity. One of those moments took place in 1893 during the Great Excavation—or La Grande Fouille—of the Delphi. Said excavation was one of the largest and longest archaeological digs conducted at the site, and it was there that archaeologists uncovered a wide variety of important artifacts from Ancient Greece such as the Athenian Treasury, the Altar of the Chains, and the sanctuaries of Apollo and Athena Pronoia. All of them were truly monumental discoveries for the world, and they were captured using an ambrotype.

            The ambrotype—also known as the amphitype or collodion positive—is a type of photograph produced on glass using the collodion process. In this process a glass plate is coated in a layer of iodized collodion, then dipped in a silver nitrate solution. The plate, while still wet, is exposed in the camera for five to sixty seconds—depending on the lighting and the speed of the camera lens. Then, after being developed, the plate produces a negative that—when viewed by reflected light against a black background—appears to be a positive. The clear areas of the image look black, and the exposed, opaque areas appear relatively light. To make an even better image, you could coat the bare side of the plate with black varnish, adding a sense of depth.

An ambrotype of Charlotte Cushman (American actress), 1859.

            The collodion process used to make this type of photography was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851, but the actual process of making ambrotypes wasn’t patented until 1854 by James Ambrose Cutting. Ambrotypes grew in popularity because of how inexpensive they were in comparison to their predecessor the daguerreotype. They also lacked a mirror-like surface making it easier for them to be looked at. By the late 1850s, ambrotypes had completely eclipsed daguerreotypes, but they, themselves, soon became old news in the mid-1860s thanks to the tintype, which produced a similar image. Thanks to this, along with albumen paper, the first commercially exploitable method of producing a photographic print on a paper from a negative, the ambrotype lost its mainstream appeal, causing it to become little more than a footnote in the long history of photography and image capturing.



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