PART 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.

[ABOVE] 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.

[ABOVE] A 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.

By 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.

Instantaneous Photography

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.

Photography on Location

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."





Website last updated: 23 December, 2002


This website is dedicated to the memory of Arthur T. Gill (1915-1987), Sussex Photohistorian


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