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Photographic Processes

The decades following photography's experimental beginnings in the 1820s and the public availability of a practical photographic process from 1839 were characterised by the introduction of a bewildering proliferation of photographic processes. Daguerre's silvered metal plate, which created a unique photographic image, was swiftly challenged by the negative-positive processes on paper, developed and championed by William Henry Fox Talbot and others. In the 1850s paper gave way to glass as the preferred negative support and the salted paper print of the 1840s was superseded by albumen and other papers. This evolution was driven by a complex interrelationship of artistic, technical and commercial needs. If individual photographers defended the superior expressive potential of particular processes and techniques, scientific attention, aware of the fugitive silver image's proneness to fading, was being directed towards printing processes using more permanent compounds, such as carbon. The many different processes that were introduced during photography's first half-century possessed both technical and artistic merits and disadvantages, and each contributed to the remarkable variety of nineteenth-century photography. The following selection illustrates only a few of the most significant of these, but each highlights the remarkable variety of aesthetic and technical ingenuity devoted to photography in its formative years.


Portrait of an Indian Army Officer Enlarged image
Portrait of an Indian Army Officer
Photo 922 (1)
John William Newland, Portrait of an Indian Army Officer, Calcutta, 1850s

Announced in Paris in 1839, the daguerreotype was the first publicly available photographic process. The daguerreotype image was created on a silvered metal plate exposed to iodine fumes, forming a light-sensitive surface of silver iodide. Development was achieved by exposing the plate to fumes of heated mercury and the image fixed in a salt solution. The daguerreotype produced an image of remarkable sharpness, but unlike competing processes, each daguerreotype was unique. This proved to be the major factor in its demise, compared to the negative-positive processes, from which unlimited copies could be made. J. W. Newland, the photographer of this portrait, had practised as a daguerreotypist in North and South America, the Pacific and Australia, before establishing a studio in Calcutta in about 1850. Although his studio remained successful throughout the 1850s, Newland himself died in 1857, one of the early victims of the Indian Mutiny.


Study of algae Enlarged image
Study of algae
C.192.c.1 f.55
Anna Atkins, Study of algae, c. 1844

One of the oldest and longest surviving photographic processes, the cyanotype or blue-print was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1840, using a mixture of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide to produce a light sensitive paper. As a relatively simple process to prepare and manipulate - it required no development or fixing other than washing - it was popular among amateurs throughout the nineteenth century and has also been widely used by engineers and architects for reproducing technical drawings ('blueprints'). This image is one of a large collection produced by Anna Atkins between 1843 and 1853 entitled Photographs of British algae: Cyanotype Impressions. These photographic impressions were made without the use of the camera, by placing specimens directly onto the sensitised paper and exposing them to sunlight.

Waxed Calotype Negative

The Taj Mahal Enlarged image
The Taj Mahal
Photo 35 (15)
John Murray, The Taj Mahal, Agra, c. 1855

William Henry Fox Talbot's calotype process, the first practical negative-positive photographic process, was patented by him in 1841. A sheet of good quality paper was first treated with light-sensitive silver compounds before exposure in the camera. The 'latent' image thus produced was then developed in gallo-nitrate of silver and fixed. This concept of negative-positive photography, allowing the production of an unlimited number of prints from a single negative, has formed the basis of photographic practice up to the present day, and is only now being challenged by digital imagery. The calotype negative was the subject of many refinements in the 1840s and 50s and it was common practice for photographers to apply heated wax to the developed negative in order to increase printing transparency and lessen the visibility of the paper fibres (the French photographer Gustave Le Gray also introduced a waxed-paper process in which the wax was applied before the sensitising and exposing of the photograph). In India, Dr John Murray of the Bengal Medical Service was one of the most skilful practitioners of the calotype process in the 1850s and early 1860s. Concentrating on the Mughal architecture of northern India, he produced an extensive series of large format views, using paper negatives of up to 20 x 16 inches in size.

Salted Paper Print

Portrait of Dr James Julius Wood Enlarged image
Portrait of Dr James Julius Wood
C.128.k.10 (18)
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Portrait of Dr James Julius Wood, 22 October 1843

Once a paper negative had been secured, any number of positive prints could be created by contact printing. Preparation involved soaking good quality paper in a sodium chloride solution (table salt) and then brushing it with a solution of silver nitrate to produce light-sensitive silver chloride. Exposure of the sensitised paper to sunlight, in contact with a negative held in a frame, resulted in the emergence of a visible image without subsequent development. This 'printed-out' image was then fixed and toned. Salt prints, unless subsequently coated, have a characteristically matt appearance, with the image embedded in the paper. Although lacking the sharpness of detail associated with the daguerreotype, salt prints from calotype negatives exhibit an expressive softness of tone much prized by early photographers. This portrait of the Rev. Julius Wood is one of a large series taken by Hill and Adamson to serve as references for a group portrait of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland that Hill had been commissioned to paint. These portraits, with other scenes and views, were later issued in a small 'edition' of 12 known copies, entitled One Hundred Calotype Sketches.

Wet collodion negative

Interior of the Tuncum Enlarged image
Interior of the Tuncum
Photo 1000 (ON 2975)
Edmund David Lyon, Interior of the Tuncum, Madurai, India 1868

Frederick Scott Archer's wet collodion process, announced in 1851, became the standard photographic negative process for both amateurs and professionals from the mid-1850s until the early 1880s. The glass negative, with its structureless film, fine grain and clear whites proved immediately popular and within a decade had superseded both the daguerreotype and the calotype processes. To prepare the negative for exposure, a sheet of glass was coated with a solution of iodised collodion (a syrupy liquid composed of soluble gun-cotton, ether and alcohol) and then made light-sensitive by immersion in a bath of silver nitrate. Known as a wet process because the glass negative required sensitising, exposing and processing while the chemicals were still damp, it required considerable manipulative skill, but produced a negative of unsurpassed sharpness and a broad tonal range. This view, on a 10 x 12 inch glass plate, is one of a large collection of photographs of architectural subjects commissioned from Lyon by the Madras and Bombay Governments in the late 1860s.

Albumen Print

Helmet and visor from the Royal Armoury Enlarged image
Helmet and visor from the Royal Armoury
Jane Clifford, Helmet and visor from the Royal Armoury, Madrid, c. 1866

The albumen print, announced by the French photographer and publisher Louis-Désiré Blanquard-Évrard in 1850, was the most widespread print medium in use between the mid-1850s and the 1890s. While the printing process was chemically similar to the salt print, the albumen print is generally distinguishable by the glossy sheen imparted by a preliminary sizing of the paper with albumen (egg white) and salt. This sealing of the paper created a surface layer on which the silver image was formed, and made possible much greater density, contrast and sharpness in the final image than had been possible with the plain salted paper print. After the albumen coating had been applied, the paper was made light sensitive by the addition of silver nitrate, and printed in contact with the negative. The fixed print could then be toned to create a wide variety of colours, ranging from purple-black to a rich chocolate brown. Although it continued to be used well into the twentieth century, its popularity declined after the mid-1890s, in favour of a variety of manufactured papers. This print is one of a series of studies of objects in the Royal Armoury at Madrid made around 1866 and is notable for its finely-controlled lighting and rich toning. The blacking-out of the background in this image isolates and increases the dramatic impact of the objects.

Carbon Print

Portrait of Charles Baudelaire Enlarged image
Portrait of Charles Baudelaire
Etienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, 1860s

The Jerwood Photography Project at the British Library Photographic Processes Etienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, 1860s P.P.1931.peg.vol.3 Carbon print The inherent propensity to fading of the silver-based photographic of the image was a source of concern from the earliest days of photography and considerable research was carried out in the attempt to produce permanent images. Perhaps the most successful of these was the carbon process. First patented by A. L. Poitevin in 1855, the process utilised the fact that gelatin mixed with an alkaline bichromate becomes insoluble when exposed to light. When printing from a negative, those parts of the image representing shadow tones were hardened by the exposure to light, while light areas, protected from exposure, remain unhardened and can be subsequently washed away. Carbon and other pigments could be used as colouring agents to obtain an almost unlimited range of tones in the final image. Because the process does not employ silver salts, the resulting image is resistant to fading and was widely used in book illustration in the 1870s and 1880s. This photograph of the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was published in the Galerie Contemporaine (Paris, 1878), one of many compilations of photographic portraits of contemporary celebrities produced on both sides of the Channel in this period.


X-ray study of two goldfish and a saltwater fish Enlarged image
X-ray study of two goldfish and a saltwater fish
Joseph Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta, X-ray study of two goldfish and a saltwater fish, 1896

Photogravure is a photo-mechanical rather than a true photographic printing process. Still in use for high quality monochrome reproduction, the process involved transferring a photographic image onto a grained copper plate, which was then etched to depths corresponding to the shadows and highlights of the original. The resulting image could then be used as a printing plate in the normal way. Photogravure dates back to the early days of photography, when William Henry Fox Talbot devised a printing system which would produce photographic reproductions in ink. Talbot's process, which he termed 'photoglyphic engraving,' saw little commercial application until Karl Klic perfected the process in the 1870s, using carbon tissue as the etching resist. This image is one of fifteen x-ray photographs published in Eder and Valenta's Versuche über Photographie mittlest der Röntgenschen Strahlen (1896). While the work itself is primarily a documentation of the technical aspects of x-ray photography, these finely printed photographs are elegantly beautiful images of both man-made and natural objects.

Further pages from the project:

Photographic Processes Photographic Processes
The world in focus The World in Focus
Exploration and Archaeology Exploration and Archaeology
The image of war The Image of War
Making the modern world Making the Modern World
In the public eye In the Public Eye

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Discover more:
Photographic Processes
The World in Focus
Exploration and Archaeology
The Image of War
Making of the Modern World
In the Public Eye


Additional Links
Catalogue of Photographically Illustrated Books
Catalogue of Photographics
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