Ambrotypes and Tintypes

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An example of melanograph printMelanograph is a trade name for a photo printed on paper using the same process as the ambrotype and tintype. This postcard melanograph portrait of C. Jefferson was made at the Texas Cotton Palace in Waco and was sent to Governor Colquitt in 1911. Despite the poor quality of melanograph images, their inexpensive cost still makes the process a choice of photographers in some parts of the world today. Image is digitally enhanced. 1930/003-15

The ambrotype or wet plate collodion process was introduced in 1851 by Englishmen Frederick Scott Archer and Peter Wickens Fry. It is a collodion negative image on glass that has been bleached and placed against a dark background in order to look like a positive image. Collodion was a sticky solution of gun cotton in ether mostly used as a medical dressing around the mid-19th century. Its ability to dry quickly and produce a tough, transparent, waterproof film made it useful to photography.

Portraiture was becoming increasingly central to families with the beginning of the American Civil War, and the ambrotype quickly replaced the daguerreotype because of its cost-effectiveness, shorter exposure time, and simpler technique. As young men across the country volunteered for military service and left their homes and families for extended periods of time, they would first have their likenesses made at a photographer’s studio. Most portraits showed them in their military uniforms, often carrying rifles and swords. Soldiers in turn carried portraits of wives, children, and other family members to the battlefield.

Since ambrotypes were printed on glass (and later, tintypes on sheet metal), portraits were often set in elaborately designed, molded, and hinged protective housings called Union cases. Introduced in the early 1850s, these cases mark the beginning of thermoplastic molding in the United States. The cases often featured scenes derived from classical works of art and popular culture. Sometimes the photographer’s name and hometown were imprinted on the gold-colored interior mat or the case’s velvet pillow. Other times, a printed card would be secured inside the case.

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A second collodion spin-off method was the tintype that consisted of an enameled black or brown-black iron plate coated with a black lacquer that provided a smooth tonal surface on which the image could be developed. Introduced in 1853, the tintype had the added advantages of being lightweight, durable, and even more affordable than the ambrotype. Because a tintype image could be ready in less than 10 minutes, this "instant" photography became very popular among those who had hitherto been unable to afford a photograph taken in a studio. This further helped dispel the air of privilege surrounding the act of having a picture made, and poses became increasingly casual and spontaneous. Where daguerreotypes had helped advance the notions of gentility, status and class, the tintype gave impetus to the American dream of free will, hard work and enterprise.

Items on display in this exhibit

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Elizabeth Fitzpatrick Elmore and son, 2011/348-8.32Elizabeth Fitzpatrick Elmore and son, 2011/348-8.32

This fine ambrotype portrait of Elizabeth Elmore and her son is overlaid with two different brass mats and a unique convex cover glass.

George Kerr, 1957/43-4George Kerr, 1957/43-4

A handsome bust portrait of George Kerr rests in a well-worn wooden case with a detached cover. The wear is typical of cased photos that were frequently handled and passed around for viewing by friends and family members.

Serena Kerr, 1957/43-5Serena Kerr, 1957/43-5

Serena Kerr’s dignified and somewhat stern pose was typical of the time. She holds a book, possibly a personal Bible.

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Sons of George Kerr, 1957/43-6Sons of George Kerr, 1957/43-6

While exposure times for ambrotypes were much shorter than for early daguerreotypes, these two boys would still have had to be on good behavior to pose long enough for the photographer.

Portrait of an Unidentified Man, 1/102-722Portrait of an Unidentified Man, 1/102-722

While the identity of this man remains unconfirmed, the large size of the photograph (a whole plate) implies that he was a man of wealth.

Major General Sterling Price, 1953/7-7Major General Sterling Price, 1953/7-7

Virginia native Major General Sterling Price served in the Mexican War where he attained the rank of Brigadier General. He was subsequently elected governor of Missouri in 1852.

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Portrait of Sam Houston, 1/102-286Portrait of Sam Houston, 1/102-286

The subject of this image is unmistakably Sam Houston, yet there are several unanswered questions associated with the photograph. Did Houston actually pose before the camera to have this tintype portrait made, to which paint was applied, or was it a mass-produced copy image?

Edna Johnson, 1946/1-26AEdna Johnson, 1946/1-26A

This tintype portrays a well-dressed Edna Johnson as a young girl posed in the photographer’s studio. A variety of painted backdrops and other props were used to add a sense of elegance to otherwise inexpensive tintype portraits.

Unidentified man and two boys, 1953/7-1Unidentified man and two boys, 1953/7-1

While the greatest number of tintypes were portraits of individuals, the process also afforded an inexpensive opportunity for friends and family members to have their photo made together. People often posed with favored possessions or accessories. This man appears relaxed smoking his pipe and the boys are proudly wearing hats.

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S.E. Hessor (?) and T.S. Scott, posed portrait, 1/102-710S.E. Hessor (?) and T.S. Scott, posed portrait, 1/102-710

The pannotype (pannus is Latin for cloth) was first introduced in 1853 as an inexpensive alternative to the fragile glass and paper supports of the time. Used only for portraits, the process resulted in a direct positive collodion silver photograph on a support of waxed textile fabric such as black oilcloth or, as in this case, leather. The textile was less likely to break or tear and allowed for the photograph to be placed in a locket or album.

Unidentified woman, 1/164-23Unidentified woman, 1/164-23

This portrait of a young woman is a good example of a small but beautifully hand-colored tintype. The photo was most likely supplied in an inexpensive card or paper mount which was lost over time.

Unidentified child, 1/164-34Unidentified child, 1/164-34

This studio photograph shows a young girl seated on a chair propped on top of another chair, with a cat on her lap. The motivation for the charming arrangement of the chairs may simply be to raise the child to the right height for the photograph. For the most part, early photographs were expensive and challenging enough to produce that the subjects were restricted to people. A small number included animals, mostly to memorialize or commemorate a pet.

C. Jefferson at the Texas Cotton Palace, 1930/003-15C. Jefferson at the Texas Cotton Palace, 1930/003-15

Melanograph is a trade name for a photo printed on paper using the same process as the ambrotype and tintype. This postcard melanograph portrait of C. Jefferson was made at the Texas Cotton Palace in Waco and was sent  to Governor Colquitt in 1911.  Despite the poor quality of melanograph images, their inexpensive cost still makes the process a choice of photographers in some parts of the world today.

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Page last modified: May 20, 2016