By Bill Dobbins
When Kodak created the Brownie camera in 1900, introducing the concept of the “snapshot” to the masses, it used the slogan: “You Press The Button, We Do The Rest” to tell prospective users that they could make photos without any specialized knowledge of photography. They could simply shoot a roll of film with a camera on which there were no shutter or aperture controls, send in the film for processing and be handed back developed film and a set of BW prints.
This system of commercial photofinishing remained a dominate way people made snapshots for some 100 years, until digital cameras were introduced that captured images on electronic cards rather than photographic film. With modern digital cameras, shooting photos is as easy as it was using a Brownie but the ability of the cameras to produce high quality, well-exposed images with the use of automatic controls has made shooting excellent photographs easier than ever before imagined.
But in many ways the introduction of photographic film by George Eastman in the 1880s and then the simple box camera a few years late, was a much greater revolution than the replacement of film photography by digital imaging. Prior to this, photography was a very difficult, labor-intensive and high technical process that required photographers to have a great deal of knowledge and experience to expect any kind of success.
Louis Daguerre introduced the Daguerreotype in 1839 but this system of imprinting an image on a mirrored surface yielded somewhat limited results. For one thing, each daguerreotype was unique and individual. There was no way to make copies, other than shooting another image of the original. So when the collodion wet plate process was developed in 1851, which created a negative from which prints could be made, it quickly took over as the dominant photographic process.
Wikipedia informs that the wet-plate system “requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes, necessitating a portable darkroom for use in the field.” That is, the photographer needed to coat a plate with an emulsion in a light-protected environment, put the plate in a holder, the holder put into the camera in order to make an exposure and then taken into a darkroom for processing – all in a relatively short time.
Shooting in a studio usually meant a darkroom was ready to hand so this process could be accomplished relatively effectively. But shooting out of the studio – such with landscape or architectural photographers or Mathew Brady doing pictures on Civil War battlefield – some kind of portable darkroom was necessary Sometimes the darkroom was built into a wagon which allowed the photographer considerable mobility photographing on location.
Many photographers nowadays decry the fact that digital photography allows the making of photos without the kind of technical knowledge required when film was the basic medium of recording images. But before film was invented the kind of knowledge and labor required of wet-plate photographers was clearly immensely more demanding. To be a photographer back then you really had to know something!
The wet-plate process was itself replaced during the 1880s by gelatin dry plates—glass plates with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin. Dry plates could be created and stored for some time before being exposed and then did not have to be processed immediately after exposure. They were also much more sensitive, which allowed for shorter exposure times. But of course it was only a few years later that film was introduced, which quickly became the primary method of doing photography for the next century.
Of course, none of these historic systems has completely disappeared. Some photographers still make daguerreotypes or do wet or dry plate photography. Many will continue to shoot on film rather than making digital images for decades to come. And there is no doubt that the technology of photography will continue to evolve and develop so that in the future what we now consider the most “modern” of image making will seem quaint, old-fashioned and obsolete.
But we are where we are today because of the effort, experiences and contribution of photographers and those developing photo technology who labored in the past. So next time you click the shutter and your digital camera, using computer power vastly beyond that which sent men to the moon, to get a bright, clear and sharp result, consider the 19th century photographer coating plates with emulsions, exposing and then developing them under time restraints in a darkroom.
Hats off to the efforts and accomplishments of wet-plate collodian photographers.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: