Ethereal Veneer: Imagery Made on Glass

“And if they seem jealous guardians of their secrets, it may only be because their art is as much a matter of physical proficiency as of technical knowledge, of things felt as much as seen, of knowledge that canon be written down.” -Lyle Rexer


There is an inherent mystery of people depicted in antique photographs that draws collectors and viewers to gaze curiously at these ghostly images. The clothing, the stoic confrontation, the elaborate backgrounds, the post-mortem are all clues in decoding what life was like in centuries past.  Why do they look expressionless?  Why was it socially acceptable to photograph the dead?  Why do the subjects appear as apparitions floating on the surface of an unreality?  Largely, the photographic technology has added to the 19th century aesthetic.  From the first photographic image made permanent on an asphalt-like surface in 1826 and images made on copper with mercurial baths in 1839, photography on glass plates possess their own unique characteristics of ethereality. 

The wet plate collodion process and the gelatin dry plate process are both early photographic processes that utilize light sensitive emulsions on a glass surfaces.  Although, they were both solutions to inconveniences of earlier processes such as with the dry plate providing the solution for the inconvenience involved in working with the wet processes, each hold important footing in the technical and aesthetic history of photography.  Today there is a revival of these 19h century photographic processes.  Photographers such as Sally Mann (Figure 5), Jody Ake (Figure 1), Mark Osterman, and Kerik Kouklis embrace these labor-intensive methods of creating a photographic image to set their work apart from those who choose the modern means of creating photographs.  This essay will address the development of the wet plate collodion process and how the gelatin dry plate was the bridge from the 19th century into the 20th century development and practice of photography.


The wet plate collodion process was developed after the Daguerreotype and Calotype.  Both of these processes came to light in the 1830’s and were the jumping off point for photography becoming a viable technological development and artistic medium.  The Daguerreotype, a revolutionary development that provided the public means of having a likeness of themselves and was a solution for the long hours sitting for a painted portrait.   This process involved a coating of silver a top a piece of copper plating that was sensitized in iodine vapors and subsequently an image was brought to the surface by mercury vapor.  The Daguerreotype produced a mirror-like image with extreme clarity.  Unfortunately the early development of the process had exposure times anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour, not being conducive to photographing a human subject [2].  It wasn’t until 1840 with the developments of faster lenses that portraiture became a possibility [3].

The Calotype was a process produced by using paper and was not as popular in comparison of the Daguerreotype but had it’s own unique aesthetic.  Because the image was created using paper, the images rendered using this process tend to have a very soft and unfocused feel due to the emulsion being absorbed into the porous surface of the paper. Calotypes were also subject to fading.  Just like the Daguerreotype, the Calotype also required long exposure times, but was also overcome in 1840 when the inventor William Henry Fox Talbot discovered how to produce a “latent” image that provided the possibility of shortened exposure times [4].

The Daguerreotype remained a popular process until British sculptor Frederick Scott Archer in 1848-1851 invented a means of producing images on glass [5].  Collodion, cotton fibers mixed with sulfuric and nitric acids which were chemistry typically used to treat wounds from explosives was discovered that it also could be used as a binder for holding light-sensitive solutions to glass plates.  At this time Gustave Le Gray had proposed this idea but by 1851 Archer had taken the use of collodion further by using potassium iodide with diluted collodion submerged in silver nitrate and then  spread onto a glass surface.  The plate was then developed in a bath of pyrogallic acid and fixed in sodium thiosulfate [6].  The glass negative provided an image that was more sensitive to light, created a photograph high in detail, could be printed faster than paper negatives, as well as being able to be reproduced more easily.  Another added benefit was that it was cheaper to use than the Daguerreotype and provided more predictable results than the Calotype [7].  Once photographers realized that photography on a transparent surface provided them with a reproducible image with maintained quality the Daguerreotype and Calotype slowly faded as processes of the past.

Due to the popularity of the wet plate collodion process and its timely arrival as a viable process it became a staple in commercial photographic endeavors.  More portrait studios opened up around the world and photographers such as Andre Adolphe Disderi discovered a way to produce many frames on one plate using a camera with several lenses creating what is known as a Carte-de-Visite (Figure 3).  Writer Lewis Carol was also very passionate about photography and even wrote a poem called, “Hiawatha’s Photography” (Figure 4).  Although there was a surge in photography as a commercial venture, the use of wet plate collodion was most widely known as the photographic process that documented the American Civil War (Figure 2). Matthew Brady a photographer who had been operating a commercial photography studio and employed photographers such as Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan began documenting the battlefields and camps during the time of America’s most gruesome war. This was not an easy task because of the collodion process itself.The procedure was complicated and required the photographer to not only carry large view-cameras for each size photograph he wished to produce, but also an on-site darkroom was required to develop the sensitized plate immediately after exposure. The wet plate collodion process must have all the steps of the process done while the medium was still wet.  This was a cumbersome medium to work with outside of the studio.  Not to mention that the glass plates were obviously fragile and susceptible to damage. Another issue as that the collodion plates were more sensitive to the color blue.  Photographs with blue skies would be rendered without detail [8].  Regardless of these disadvantages photographers still had taken this process out into the fields to document not only the landscape but also events of social concerns.  After the Civil War Gardner, O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson (who also documented the war) went on using the wet plate collodion process on geological expeditions. Although the collodion process had enough benefits to be a viable mean of creating photographic imagery in spite of its drawbacks, eventually something had to happen to make photography in the field less laborious.  Experiments in “dry plate” photography began as early as the 1860s, with variations of the wet plate collodion process, but they were unsuccessful as they extended exposure times.  In 1871, a doctor who had an avid interest in photography began using a transparent jelly-like substance known as gelatin.  Charles Bennett using the experiments and findings of Dr. Richard Leach Maddox discovered that prolonged heating of the gelatin-silver bromide would increase the new emulsions sensitivity to light and allowed for fraction of a second exposures [9]. The gelatin dry plate (Figure 5) not only allowed for faster exposures but it was a more convenient process because the emulsion could be applied to the glass plate and dried ahead of time before exposures were made and the photographer could process it at their own leisure.  This process made it easier to produce images while abroad and made the landscape photographer’s load less cumbersome.  This solved the issue of needing a darkroom wherever the photographer happened to be photographing because the plates could be pre-coated and stored for an extended amount of time before being shot, the gelatin dry plate process led to the modernization of photography by being the first photographic process that could be factory produced [10].  Eastman, became a photographic household name because the Eastman Dry Plate Company was one of the first to industrialize the dry plate process.  George Eastman, an avid traveler and photographer desired to create photographs.  Investing in the wet plate collodion process, he was soon was put off by the difficulties of producing an image.

After reading about the dry plate processes in an English photographic almanac [11] and three years of experiments was able to have by 1880 his first formula and a patented machine that produced large quantities of gelatin dry plates in a quick manner. Once his success became apparent, he realized that because of the success of the Eastman Dry Plate Company, George Eastman quit his job as a bank clerk and devoted the rest of his career to his business [12]. The innovations of the Eastman Dry Plate Company soon brought the emergence of Kodak that replaced the breakable glass surfaces for gelatin on a flexible surface which to followed was the direction of modern photography.

 “First a piece of glass he coated With Collodion, and plunged it in a Bath of Lunar Caustic” -Lewis Carol (FIG 4)

SPLENDOR IN THE GLASS Both the wet plate collodion process and the gelatin dry plate were processes that carried an image on top of a glass surface.  Both had exquisite clarity and detail.  Although there were some hassle involved in using these glass surfaces and certain emulsions even today there are a small group of modern day alchemist photographers who choose these antiquated process over the current digital photographic methods as a vessel for their artistic intent.  The best known of these photographers is Sally Mann (Figure 7) who says that using collodion is a play between clarity and dreaminess [13].  In the wet plate collodion process, the imperfections of pouring the emulsion onto the glass add to murkiness and depth to these images.  The subject matter appears as ghosts floating on the surface with areas of intense sharpness and drastic fall off of focus and light.  Mark Scholer Pedersen, another modern users the early photographic processes prefers the use of the gelatin dry plate process because while the wet plate collodion process has been resurrected due to more interest in Civil War era photography, the dry plate process has not received as much attention in its modern usage [14].

Frances Scully and Mark Osterman are also known for their revival of the wet plate collodion photography as well as experimenting with other alternative photographic processes.  They also teach the public how to produce images using these processes in their workshops.  Mark Osterman in an interview stated that the collodion negative was the matrix from which every single historic printing process originates, he goes on to express, “When we came on the collodion 'scene', the others who were using it were very upset with the fact that we were teaching it. They thought it was a secret process, a hard-earned thing” [15].  Photographers like Mann and Osterman take an interest in producing images on glass and other historic processes not only for the historical aspect, but because the imperfections that were found to be draw backs of the time are now finding that those same imperfections are the right vehicle for their artistic vision and intent.  There is something compelling about looking at an image where virtually every step is created by hand and that the result is unpredictable.

Because of the enthusiasm of the photographic forerunners of the 19th century seeking a method for clarity, stability, accessibility, simplicity, and rendering a likeness permanent on a surface drove the photographic medium to the path that it has evolved into today.  The collodion process improved upon the Daguerreotype’s long exposures.  And was the development that retain clarity unlike the Calotype.  Collodion also brought photography as a more affordable photographic medium to the general public not only by who made the photographs but could have an image made of themselves.  Whereas, the gelatin dry plate expanded on the concept of images produced on glass by enabling the ease to creating a photographic image that led into the modernization of photography.



  1. Rexer, Lyle. Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde; The New Wave in Old Processes. Harry N. Abrams Inc. 2002. P. 72.

  2. Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Abbeville Press. 1984.      P. 17

  3. Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Abbeville Press. 1984.      P. 41

  4. Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Abbeville Press. 1984.      P. 29

  5. Mora, Gilles. PhotoSpeak. Abbeville Press. 1998. P. 70

  6. James, Christopher. The Book of Alternative Processes. Delmar Thomson Learning. 2002. P. 304-305

  7. Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light; A History of Photography. McGraw Hill. 2000. P. 72

  8. Mora, Gilles. PhotoSpeak. Abbeville Press. 1998. P. 71

  9. Simkin, David. Part 6: ‘Dry Plate’ Photography. 2002. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from

  10. "photography, history of." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from

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  12. History of Kodak, George Eastman. About Kodak. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from

  13. Rexer, Lyle. Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde; The New Wave in Old Processes. Harry N. Abrams Inc. 2002. P. 80.

  14. Pedersen, Mark Scholer. The Silver Gelatin Dry Plate Process. Alternative Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from

  15. Heatwole, Joanna. With Mark Osterman. 2004. Web. Retrieved March 18, 2011 from