We don’t think much of snapping a photo today (usually on our cell phones), capturing a moment instantly forever. Unless we deem it unworthy of storage space and delete it into the digital waste abyss. Perhaps it is too easy to take photos today, reducing the extraordinary thing that it is to a simple touch of a fake button on a screen. But, it wasn’t always that way.
As with everything else in our modern technological society, the photograph has its beginnings; it’s moment of discovery and subsequent evolution. Early successful photography began around 1840 with the daguerreotype in which a negative image was printed on a silver coated copper plate. In most cases, it was actually a laterally reversed image, unless a prism or mirror was used during the shoot to obtain correct orientation (not often used because of the complexity). Subjects had to remain absolutely still for 20 minutes or so (that’s why they didn’t smile!). The daguerreotype has a mirror-like, highly reflective surface and must be tilted back and forth to see the image clearly. The image was encased behind glass and sealed (to keep out moisture) in a decorative and protective hinged case. The case was originally made of wood covered with embossed leather and lined with silk or velvet. Later, a resin-based plastic-like material was used in what was called a “union case.” The most common size of the daguerreotype was 2 ¾” x 3 ¼”.
Ambrotypes came on the scene around 1855, but did not remain popular long…only about 10 years. Instead of the expensive silver coated plate needed for daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, also known as collodion positives, used a light-sensitive emulsion coating on glass with a black backing. The dark backing gave the negative the illusion of being a ‘positive’. It was much cheaper to produce and therefore more available and affordable to the general public. Another advantage was that it did not tarnish like the daguerreotype. However, the image was not as brilliant, appearing more dull and drab. Ambrotypes do not have the mirror-like shimmer of daguerreotypes. They are developed directly onto glass; whereas the daguerreotype was developed onto a copper plate. This is difficult to discern if the image is encased, as was often the ‘case’ with both types of photographs.
The tintype developed (pun intended) from the desire for an even cheaper product with faster processing time. It is, in fact, a misnomer, as tintypes were not made using tin, but rather very thin sheets of iron. Ferrotype is another, perhaps more accurate term. Similar to the ambrotypes, this process used an emulsion layer of collodion and silver and was produced on a black lacquered sheet of iron – not glass as before. The resulting product was less fragile and did not require sealing and encasing. The processing required no drying time and could therefore be delivered to a customer within minutes. As a result, street photographers set up shop in booths and at fairs and carnivals. This type of photograph became a popular souvenir memento for many. It also documented the days of the Civil War and the individual soldiers who fought in it. Tintypes were popular well into the turn of the century.
The first photographs on paper were patented in Paris by Andrè Disdèri in 1854 and were called Cartes de Visite (CdV’s). These albumin prints on pressed paper were lightweight, sturdy and relatively inexpensive. And perhaps the best part was that one could finally obtain multiple copies of the same print! Eight negatives could be processed on one full sized plate. Each print was mounted on a thicker paper card, measuring 4 x 2.5” overall. They became “calling cards” given to friends and family and left for hosts while visiting. They were also popular with soldiers and officers during the Civil War, easily sent and received and collected.
By the early 1870’s, the CdV’s were replaced by the larger cabinet cards, often mounted on cardboard backs. In February of 1900, Kodak introduced their Brownie camera and home snapshot photography was born.
Among today’s collectors, daguerreotypes are considered the most desirable and attractive of the early photographs. Depending on the condition and subject, one can obtain a daguerreotype at auction for $25-$100 on average. Some early dageurreotypes of famous people have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, although these are rare finds. Provenance is very important here. If you have the name or any history of the subject, value will exponentially increase. Original seal and case indicates good original condition and higher value. If you have an early photograph and are not sure of its value, you may want to have an expert appraisal done. As mentioned, there are many variables that affect value including the subject desirability, type of medium, condition, and even the photographer in some cases. Never throw away old family snapshots or World War II albums (particularly black and white photos). These do sell at auction and you might just have something of real value on your hands. A 2010 find in California may prove to be a very significant one. A tintype photograph purchased along with a few cabinet cards for $2 is thought to be of a croquet-playing Billy the Kid in 1878 (only the second known photo of the Kid in existence so far). Although still up for debate, it has been insured and valued at $5 million by Kagin’s Auction House of San Francisco. Time will tell if this artifact will prove itself, but it goes to show you the value of identification and expert authentication. You never know!
In the age of digital photography, the printed photograph is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Many collect daguerreotypes and tintypes from 150 years ago….these treasures that give us a glimpse of life long ago. Will there be images to collect from today in 150 years? Or, will they be lost in that cyberspace abyss? Remember, and don’t forget, to print out your special memories. Make the photo book, or put the photos in albums for your great grandchildren to touch and feel. After all, pictures do tell the story….our story. Now, smile and say cheese!
Alderfer Auction of Hatfield, PA frequently sells early photographs and featured several in their recent Fine Arts Sale. For more information, contact them at (215)-393-3000. If you have photographs you would like appraised for insurance or other purposes, contact National Appraisal Consultants, LLC at (800) 323-5996.