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Ambrotypes Photography

Ambrotypes, also known as collodion positives, are glass plate negatives placed against a dark background to create the illusion of a positive image. The glass plate negative was made using the wet-plate collodion method, where a plate with a liquid chemical emulsion was exposed inside the camera. The advantage of the process was an extremely short exposure time and a finely detailed negative.

However, the wet plate process involved a great deal of equipment and chemicals, and the plate had to be exposed while wet to be effective. Despite these drawbacks, ambrotypes were popular for approximately 15 years in the 19th century in the U.K. and in the U.S. as a cheaper alternative to the daguerreotype.

Ambrotypes would be cased in a similar manner to daguerreotypes, and used almost exclusively for portraiture. They did not have the glossy, reflective surface that made daguerreotypes difficult to view under certain light conditions, though this was considered fashionable in the 19th century.

Quick Facts

  • As the negative is used as a positive image, ambrotypes are unique and can only be reproduced by re-photographing them. The plates were far sturdier than daguerreotypes, and artists often hand tinted the ambrotype, adding color to lips, cheeks, and eyes of their sitter
  • Contemporary photographs have revived many 19th century photography techniques in recent years, particularly the wet-plate process as it creates a unique image. Photographer Sally Mann has experimented widely with different techniques, favoring the cracks and imperfections in the plate
  • Matthew Brady had a successful photography studio in New York, and claimed to have been the first photographer to make ambrotypes in the city. He invented a case that allowed the image to be viewed from the back and the front, as both a negative and a positive image

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