Talbot’s calotype process was often criticised for its lack of sharpness and definition compared to the daguerreotype and by the end of the 1850s it had been largely superseded by the wet collodion process. This process, developed by Frederick Scott Archer and made freely available in 1851, used a glass plate to carry the light-sensitive chemicals and achieved a resolution of detail unobtainable with paper negatives. It also allowed much shorter exposure times than were possible with either the daguerreotype or the calotype.
Such improvements came at a cost: negatives could not be prepared beforehand, as the chemicals lost sensitivity as they dried; the process therefore required coating the glass, exposure and development on the spot in a single sequence. This demanded considerable skills from photographers, particularly those working in tropical, dusty and humid climates, such as India. For photographers in the field, the necessity of transporting a portable dark tent, as well as stocks of heavy and fragile glass and a battery of chemicals, added further complications. Despite such difficulties, the wet collodion process was to dominate photography for several decades.
This albumen print from Lyon’s negative demonstrates some of the characteristics which accounted for the popularity of the wet collodion process: the sharpness and high contrast of the image, accentuated by the glossy finish which printing on albumen paper produced, all found favour with the photographic market. This view was taken by the professional photographer E. D. Lyon while employed by the Government of Madras to record the architecture of Southern India, a project which lasted several months. Lyon’s achievements with the wet collodion process are all the more impressive given the difficulties of climate and topography with which he had to contend: accompanied by his wife Anne, he transported his delicate equipment by bullock cart over hundreds of miles of unmade road, producing a unique record of Indian architecture in over 300 large-format glass negatives.