History of Photography

It is helpful in understanding the design of these cameras to describe the unique photographic processes used with them.   Since 1822, the method of processing captured images has continually evolved and improved.  With the development of each new process, the photographic process became easier and more accurate. 

An interesting piece of local history is that one of these processes (Color Carbon Printing) was developed in 1902 in Lexington, Virginia.  Lexington is just 40 miles south of Staunton.


Photographic Process


Photogravure and "Points de Vue" 1822

Joseph Nicephore Niepce

One of the earlier forms of graphic printing (which laid the groundwork for photo processing) was the photogravure process.  In 1822, Joseph Nicephore Niepce expanded this process for making his “points de vue” photographs.

In 1827 after putting a pewter plate (coated with the same thin layer of bitumin that he used in photogravure) into the back of a camera obscura, Niepce made an exposure that lasted a full day. That night the plate was washed with lavender oil. The finished product revealed a hazy image of the view takenfrom his window. Only one of these plates exist today but it is proof that Niepce was on the path to developing a photographic process. Niepce died in 1833.  It’s interesting to note that Niepce had a brief association with Louis Daguerre, who later became known for developing photography in 1839.


Daguerreotype 1839

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre

In 1839 Daguerre announced a process for making what we call photography. Since he had an association with Niepce a few years earlier, one can reasonably assume that he gained information which helped in his pursuit of a permanent photographic process. His images were captured on a copper plate that had been specially coated with silver, dusted with pumice and polished with olive oil. The plate was then cleaned with nitric acid. The plate had to be sensitized with fumes from iodide crystals creating silver iodide. If not used within one hour the plates would loose their sensitivity. At first exposure times in bright sunlight were as long as 10 to 15 minutes yet they were much shorter than the day long process Niepce had worked on.

The images were developed by being exposed to vapor from a warm solution of mercury. It was fixed by immersion in a warm salt solution. Later chlorine and bromide were substituted in the plate making process and sodium thiosulfate for the salt solution. These improvements made the plates more sensitive to light during exposure and longer lasting after being fixed.

The unfortunate side effect of exposure to mercury vapor was mercury poisoning, known as Mad Hatters Disease.


Calotype 1840

William Henry Fox Talbot

Rather than work with a positive plate Talbot discovered the "latent image" which is now used universally in the negative/positive process. Exposure to the original image could be done in just a few seconds. Silver nitrate was used as it is today to react to the light from the subject. The negatives were made with paper. Print exposure times were reduced to less than 3 minutes and soon down to a few seconds. Good quality writing paper was used both for the negative and the print.

Albumen Process 1847

Abel Niece de Saint-Victor

Negatives were made from glass and were covered with a thin coating of beaten egg-white which had been treated with potassium iodide and iodine. Again silver nitrate was used to sensitize the plate to light. Printing was the same process as Albumen Process.


Wet Collodion 1850 "Wet Plate"

Frederick Scott Archer

Collodian is a solution of pyroxyline(gun cotton) in alcohol and either. It is highly flammable. Photographic plates were coated with a solution of Collodian, ammonium iodide and ammonium bromide and then immersed in a silver nitrate solution. The plates had to be used while they were still wet. This process was used for 30 years all over the world. Cartes de Vistes were made from these wet plate photographs.


Ferrotypes or Tintypes 1852

Adolphe Alexandre Martin

Cameras using the tintype process were popular all the way into the 1930s. Tintypes were first used in wet plate cameras but later cameras were made just for them. One interesting thing about the tintypes was that cameras were designed to be used by street photographers. The processing containers were attached to the cameras themselves so that street vendors could deliver finished pictures on the spot. This probably explains their long period of use.


Ambrotypes 1881

This process was a special application of the Wet Process. A wet plate was covered with dark varnish. The negative image on the plate would look like a positive when seen reflected off a dark surface.

Color Carbon Printing 1902

Michael and Henry Mackay Miley

Working with materials purchased in England Michael Miley and his son, Henry, developed a 3 color proccess in Lexington VA, just 40 miles from the camera museum in Staunton. Their imported material was call carbon paper. It could produce images of a single hue from 15 different choices. The Mileys ordered three different colors representing the the 3 primary colors. Taking 3 separate images of the same subject but using color filters to capture one primary color each they could produce color prints by printing the 3 images on the same piece of carbon paper. Unfortunately even though they received a patent #00711875 in 1902 they felt that the process was too difficult to use in commercial application. Therefore they did not attempt to promote the process. Today the process is almost unknown. Of the approximate 500 prints they made many still retain their rich color.

Autochrome Process 1903

Louis and Auguste Lumiere

The first color process to be introduced to the general public. Autochrome was still applied to glass plates. The term grain used to describe the lack of a smooth image comes from this process. Minute grains of potato starch were used to react to different colors and thus record colors separately. The manufacturing process was too complex and precise for amateurs. By 1932 a similar process was employed to make rollfilm.