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Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes & Tintypes: The Rise of Early Photography

Tintypes | Early Photography

Lot 51: Quarter Plate Tintype of an Elegantly Dressed Standing Black Woman, Est. $300-500

 

The Early Photography collection of Rod MacKenzie has piqued the interest of everyone from experienced collectors to those interested in a glimpse of American history.

Looking at these images from our vantage point in the 21st century, we can note with fascination how average people in the second half of the 19th century actually looked and dressed. Before the development of photography, we could typically only observe the past in painted portraits, which depicted mostly upper middle-class and wealthy members of the populace.

Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes were the first three early photographic processes to gain widespread popularity. Developed in the mid-to-late 19th century, each successive technique improved upon the others in availability, affordability, and processing speed. Despite these improvements, each process produced a unique, one-of-a kind image–the only one!

Daguerreotypes

Daguerreotypes | Early Photography

Lot 100: Full Plate Daguerreotype Family Portrait, Est. $1,500-2,500

The daguerreotype, the earliest of the three photographic processes, came into use in about 1839. Daguerreotypes cost around five dollars (about a week’s wages), so they were not affordable for the majority of the people.

To make a daguerreotype, the photographer exposed an image on a sensitized silver-plated sheet of copper. This resulted in a polished silver surface that produced a shimmery image when developed.

The exposure time took anywhere from a few minutes to as long as 20-30 minutes for very large images. For portraits, in order to keep the person or persons from moving and thus blurring the picture, the photographer would place iron stands or armrests behind the sitters to help keep them still.  If you look closely at these images, you can sometimes see the base of the stands behind the feet of the subject. You might also see a blur on the image from a wiggly kid or shaky aged hands.

The daguerreotype image is almost always reversed left to right, unless a mirror was used inside the camera. That’s why the insignias on the soldier’s belt buckles are backwards!

Ambrotypes

Ambrotypes | Early Photography

Lot 35: Half Plate Ambrotype of a Gothic Cottage with a Boy and Dog Sitting on the Porch, Est. $600-800

Developed in 1851, the ambrotype took over the popularity of the daguerreotype and pretty much displaced it by 1860. It was much cheaper to produce than a daguerreotype, could be made with a shorter exposure time, and you didn’t have to tilt the plate to see the image. The ambrotype made photography more affordable for middle and working class people.

Ambrotypes were made on a glass plate coated with a wet, light sensitive substance, which when developed and dried, produced a negative image. The negative then had to be mounted against a dark background or coated with a dark varnish to give the illusion of a positive.

Tintypes

Tintype | Musicians | Early Photography

Lot 57: Quarter Plate Vocational Tintype of Four Musicians, Est. $400-600

The tintype was developed in 1853 using a similar technique to the ambrotype. Called a collodion process, this technique requires the photographic material to be coated, exposed, and developed on site.

The tintype image, however, was mounted against a thin sheet of black-enameled (or japanned) iron instead of glass.  Unlike earlier photographs, a tintype is unbreakable.

Interestingly, the term tintype is a misnomer. Because the iron they were mounted on was so thin, many assumed it must be tin, and the name stuck.

The entire tintype process was quick and cheap. Within a few minutes, the customer could take an image home with him at the cost of a penny or less at first.

By the 1940s, tintypes cost about 25 cents. Almost everyone could afford tintype pictures of their loved ones.

Photography has come a long way from these first three techniques. I wonder how it will continue to change and evolve over the next hundred years?

Read more about the history of the collection, or see highlights of the collection, to be auctioned on October 30th in the American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction.

Daguerreotypes Part II: Highlights of the Early Photography Collection of Rod MacKenzie

Daguerreotype

Lot 94: Half Plate Daguerreotype Portrait of a Seated Union Officer in Dress Uniform, Est. $1,500-2,500

On October 30, 2011, Skinner will offer the first part of the Early Photography collection of Rod MacKenzie in our American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction. Read Part I of this series to learn more about Rod MacKenzie’s sophisticated taste as a collector.

MacKenzie’s extensive knowledge of American history, particularly of the Civil War, is represented by dozens of extraordinary images of military officers and soldiers. The collection includes portraits of soldiers of all types:  officers, dashing men in uniform, and heart-breaking images of very young men headed off to war. In looking at these images, we feel tantalizingly close to the battlefield and to the figures taking part in military history. Notes tucked behind case liners, such as “taken at Newbern, No. Carolina 1863 WLW Private C. E. 44th Mass,” bring us in even closer.

Another focus of the collection is photography of children being children in ways we aren’t used to seeing in 19th century photographs. One highlight is an image of a class of thirty children attending “Petersham School in Miss Laura’s Day.” We must credit the photographer for keeping the kids still during the exposure, though perhaps more of the credit is due to Miss Laura herself.

Rod found a pair of photographs showing a sweet-faced boy and a girl, probably twins, seated in the same stencil-decorated chair. He has an image of a girl holding a chalkware cat, and another of a boy with his paint-decorated drum – both subjects hold their cherished possessions close.

Daguerreotypes

Lot 23: Two Sixth Plate Daguerreotype Portraits of A Boy and a Girl, probably twins, Est. $300-500

Rod made an effort to collect images of leisure activity, too, giving us even more opportunity to peer through a window into the 19th century. There’s an image of two men playing checkers housed in a Union case appropriately called “The Chess Players.” An ambrotype of four men, one wearing a military cap, holding mugs of beer, allows us to view a moment of revelry. A half-plate daguerreotype of hunters posing with game and their hunting dog represents the type of artistic composition that daguerrians often practiced. In another, a gentleman hunter with a stovepipe hat and a frock coat poses with his long gun against a painted backdrop representing a rural landscape, all housed in a case called “The Hunter.”

Ambrotype

Lot 137: Half Plate Ambrotype Depicting a Whitehall, New York, Street Parade with Band, Est. $800-1,200

City- and townscapes, another category in the collection, are represented by some rare early photographs of mid-19th century houses including a gothic cottage, a Greek revival farmhouse, and a three-story Federal mansion. Perhaps rarest of that group is an image showing a street parade in Whitehall, New York.

Many of these sometimes haunting photographs are housed in rare thermoplastic or “Union” cases, each collectible in their own right for their unique designs. To create these cases, a specific mix of shellac, pulverized wood fibers and dyes would be heated to create a thick plastic liquid. That semi-solid was rolled out into a sheet, then individually pressed into any one of dozens of patterns which hardened when cooled. Half-plate examples of these thermoplastic cases in the collection are titled “Washington Monument, Richmond, Virginia,” “American Country Life – Summer Evening,” and “The Wedding Procession.” Others show firefighters, military trophies, and more.

In all of Skinner’s years in the business, we’ve crossed paths with and offered hundreds of early photographs. Rarely have those images equaled the quality and beauty of the pictures Rod found, or given us such insight into the people they show.

Daguerreotypes Part I: Haunting, Beautiful, and Storied Pictures in the Early Photography Collection of Rod MacKenzie

daguerreotype hunters

Lot 113: Half Plate Daguerreotype Portrait of Two Hunters with Game and Sleeping Dog, Est. $1,500-2,500

Daguerreotypes are a reminder of a time when photography was very different from the “point-and-shoot” instant pictures of today. Now, you carry a camera in the cell phone in your back pocket everywhere you go. Then, as now, photographers were purveyors of state-of-the-art technology.

In fact, the 19th century photographers who made these long-exposure images were referred to as daguerrean artists, and quickly supplanted the portrait painters of the day. The artists’ “images,” particularly daguerreotypes, were valued for their clarity and honesty in representation.

Other than the careful arrangement of a composition, the daguerrean photographer almost never altered an image in any way, except for portraits with pink-tinted cheeks, or gold-highlighted jewelry and buttons.

ambrotype lot 103

Lot 103: Ninth Plate Ambrotype Portrait of Man Pouring a Milk Can, Est. $100-150

Daguerrean artists did, however, use interesting means to achieve compositional effects that would otherwise be limited by long exposure times. In the ambrotype pictured here, depicting a man pouring milk from a pitcher, the “milk” is actually a white cloth.

The long exposure times needed for daguerreotypes and other forms of early photography also cause families, soldiers, children, and laborers to look out from stiff, unsmiling poses. It could be a long and strenuous task to sit for one of these images.  Yet, if you look closely, the lives and loves of the subjects become clear, and the 19th century doesn’t feel quite so distant.

On October 30, 2011, the American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction will open with 150 lots of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes from the Early Photography collection of Rod MacKenzie.

As a collector, Rod MacKenzie has a sophisticated taste for images that speak to him – and now to us – emotionally, historically, and artistically. He understands well the limitations of early photography, and carefully collects images which, though mainly portraits, show us more than just what the sitter looked like.

ambrotype

Lot 17: Sixth Plate Ambrotype of a Boy with His Drum, Est. $600-800

There are signs of life throughout the images in his collection – children holding toys close, workmen demonstrating tools of their trade, and soldiers exuding confidence and swagger.

In addition to the portraits, MacKenzie collects images that tell stories. Among the best of these is a set of so-called “occupationals.” There are dozens of images that convey a strong sense of narrative: portraits of beautiful, elegantly dressed women give us a window into the day’s style; prosperous young couples exude airs of optimism; and men show their skill at their daily occupations. This group includes some of the rarest examples  MacKenzie  gathered: an architect seen in his office at a desk with his drafting tools and elevation drawings of Italianate houses on the walls behind him, a blacksmith at his anvil, a mailman, farmers, a banjo player, a string quartet, a bugle player, carpenters, buggy drivers, and firemen.

In Part II of this series, we’ll take a look at some of the highlights of this truly astounding collection. Every time I turn a page in the catalogue, I seem to find something new in one of these images that I hadn’t seen before. Which images speak most strongly to you?

Occupationals