6 : 'Dry Plate' Photography
The collodion wet plate process produced excellent results,but
had major drawbacks. The photographer had to coat the glass plate
evenly with the sticky collodion solution immediately before use
and each stage of the process - sensitizing, exposing and developing
- had to be done while the plate was still wet. "Wet plate"
photography was difficult enough in the studio and darkroom but
outdoor photography was particularly troublesome. A photographer
who wanted to operate away from his studio would have to carry
with him a large amount of heavy equipment, including glass plates,
a tripod, bottles of chemicals and some sort of portable darkroom,
as well as the bulky camera itself.
Attempts were made in the 1860s to produce 'dry plates'
for photography. Glass plates were either coated with alternate
layers of albumen and collodion or an emulsion of silver bromide
in collodion. The "wet plate" process had to be carried
out in the 10 to 20 minutes it took for the collodion to dry.In
contrast, these pre-coated 'dry plates' could be stored, used
in the camera when required and processed when convenient. However,
these early "dry plates", were not very light sensitive
and required exposure times of up to fifteen minutes.
The search continued for a substance that could bind light sensitive
materials to the glass plates, but allowed fast exposure times.
In 1871, Richard Leach Maddox (1816-1902) a doctor with
a strong interest in photography, proposed the employment of gelatin,
the transparent substance which is used to make jellies. Dr Maddox's
idea was taken up by other experimenters, including Charles
Bennett, who discovered that prolonged heating of the gelatin-silver
bromide emulsion would increase its sensitivity to light. Applying
this method, Bennett was able to produce dry plates with
exposure times of a fraction of a second.
Photography outside of the studio before the introduction
of photographic "dry plates". This engraving,
which dates from the 1870s, shows the photographer with
his camera on a tripod, his young assistant holding the
"wet collodion plate" in a slide frame, and behind
him a darkroom tent containing a chest of chemicals and
other photographic materials. All this equipment had to
be transported to the location by a photographer using the
"wet collodion " process.
pack of Bennett's Instantaneous Gelatine Photographic Plates.
These "dry plates" were manufactured by Charles
Bennett,who perfected the "dry plate" process
in the late 1870s.
the end of the decade 'gelatine dry plates' were being manufactured
on a large scale. Samuel Fry, a professional photographer
who had been active in Brighton between 1858 and 1860, established
a factory to produce 'ready made' dry plates in the late 1870s.
By 1879, there were more than 14 firms manufacturing "dry
plates". Manufactured gelatin dry plates were evenly coated
by machine and were consistent in quality and could be stored
for weeks or months before exposure and development.
In the 1860s, Edward Fox junior, Brighton's leading landscape
photographer, was offering to take "Instantaneous Portraits
of Animals, Groups etc." in Brighton and the surrounding
area. We do not have details of the special apparatus or techniques
that Fox employed to take instantaneous photographs in the 1860s,
but it was not until the introduction of the highly sensitive
gelatin dry plates in the late 1870s, that other Brighton photographers
started to use the term "instantaneous".
The greater sensitivity of manufactured dry plates reduced the
length of exposure times to a fraction fof a second,. Although
the use of gelatin-bromide dry plates did not have a great impact
on the work of the photographer producing single portraits in
the studio, it did enable professional photographers to extend
their photographic repertoire.
Photographing children and family groups
To hold a pose for a number of seconds proved difficult for restless
and fidgety children and uncomfortable for elderly or disabled
sitters. In 1879, Henry Spink, who had a studio in Western
Road, Brighton and another at Goldstone Villas in Cliftonville,
was advertising "an instantaneous process for invalids
and children. Satisfaction guaranteed. First rate photographs
taken in any weather at any hour of the day."
In the early 1850s, when exposure times were lengthy, making portraits
of children or a group of several figures were regarded as difficult
operations. In 1853, Robert Farmer of 59 North Street,
Brighton advertised that the time of a sitting was ten seconds.
To make a good portrait of a child or a large family group necessitated
skill and patience and Robert Farmer introduced a scale of charges
that reflected the additional effort required. Farmer charged
1s 6d (71/2p) for a single portrait of a man or woman, but a portrait
of a child under 10 years would cost 2s 6d (121/2p), a group of
three children, 7s 6d (371/2p) and the price of a portrait of
a family group made up of five people was fixed at 10s 6d (521/2p)
In 1864, when carte de visite portraits were the norm, a set of
12 cdv portraits of a single figure would cost £1. 1s (£1.05p)
at Mayall's new photographic portrait studio in Brighton's Kings
Road. J J E Mayall charged extra for more than one sitter.
A cdv portrait of a couple would be priced at £1.11s 6d
(£1.571/2p) for a set of 12, while a dozen copies of a portrait
of three people would cost £2.2s (£2.10p).
In 1878, the firm of C Hawkins of Preston Street, Brighton
were offering to photograph large groups on "moderate terms".
An advertisement for Hawkins' studio in January 1881, when the
larger cabinet format and instantaneous photography were making
family portraits more popular, does not mention additional charges
for groups of sitters.A cabinet size portrait of a family would
cost 2s 6d (12 1/2 p ) at Hawkins' studio in 1881.
Capturing the Moving Figure
When Louis Jacques-Mande Daguerre made his daguerreotype
of the Boulevard du Temple in 1838, the exposure time was so long
(probably between 10 and 20 minutes) he was unable to capture
the hurrying figures and the moving traffic in this busy Paris
Street. Only a man who had to remain still while his shoes were
polished by a boot-black, was completely captured on Daguerre's
silvered copper plate. Although, as a contemporary noted at the
time, the boulevard in question was "constantly filled
with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages", the
street in Daguerre's early photograph appeared to be completely
deserted "except for an individual who was having his
boots brushed." In fact, the shoeshine man himself must
also be included as one of the first human figures to be depicted
in photography. But as a German magazine of 1839 observed, the
man "having his boots polished . . . must have held himself
extrenely still for he can be very clearly seen, in contrast the
shoeshine man, whose ceaseless movement causes him to appear completely
blurred and imprecise."
By the 1860s, photographic exposure times had been reduced to
a few seconds, but this still meant that a person who moved suddenly
while the photograph was being taken would become blurred and
indistinct and a figure who passed rapidly in front of the camera
would become almost invisible, leaving only a feint ghostly shape
on the negative.
Specially prepared gelatin dry plates were so sensitive that out
of doors and in bright sunlight exposure times could be as brief
as one twenty fifth of a second.
Dry plate photography
encouraged the professional photographer to leave his studio and
journey to the homes of his customers. No longer weighed down
by heavy wooden chests filled with bottled chemicals nor encumbered
by a darkroom tent, professional photographers were ready to travel
longer distances in order to secure commissions. Early in 1881,
Messrs Lombardi & Co a firm of photographers with a
town studio at 113 Kings Road, Brighton placed advertisements
in the local press "to inform the Gentry and Clergy of
Sussex that they are now prepared to Visit the different Estates
in this and other Counties to Photograph Buildings, Horses, Groups
etc. etc . . Schools attended either in town or country."
As early as 1867, Messrs W. & A.H. Fry artists &
photographers of 68 East Street, Brighton had specialised in taking
photographs of groups out-of-doors. An advertisement in the Brighton
Guardian of 14th August 1867 announced they had "Special
Apparatus for taking Out Door Pictures of School Groups, Cricket
Elevens, Croquet Parties, Archery Meetings, Rifle Corps and Country
Seats." Having already established a reputation for outdoor
group photography, Walter Fry and his younger brother,
Allen Hastings Fry, were keen to take advantage of the
mobility afforded by dry plate photography. In an article
published in 'The Professional Photographer' in June 1916,
Allen Hastings Fry looked back over his long photographic
career. The magazine observed that Mr Fry appeared to be "a
portait photographer glad to get away from the confinement of
his studio." In the interview, A.H.Fry revealed that
he had "photographed two hundred Public School Cadet and
Officers' Training Corps", adding the observation that
he had "travelled over 9,000 miles during the year I was
taking the photographs."