The Thorn Tree, Prestonpans. Attributed to 1854

Dating early photographs

There are several tricks to dating early photographs – and there are many websites that provide hints and pointers. Our interest is East Lothian where, despite being close to Edinburgh and the innovation underway in the capital, things were a little slower to get off the ground.

Photography in Scotland began in the early 1840s. Famously, the partnership of Hill and Adamson embarked on photographic portraiture to overcome the hurdle of ensuring true likenesses in a painting commissioned to mark the Disruption of the Church of Scotland. What they made were calotypes – paper prints made from a paper negative. To the expert eye these are immediately distinguishable from later paper prints made from glass negatives. The technology meant that the textures of the paper negative remained in any positive image printed from it!

Calotypes faced competition from a rival technology, the daguerreotype, a system developed in France. Daguerreotypes were each unique – the exposed light sensitive plate – usually copper – was treated to reveal a positive image. The result was fragile and so was sealed in a glass-fronted case. If you have one, it is really not a good idea to take it out for a better look! You risk losing the image – said to be as fragile as the scales of a butterfly wing!

Framed ambrotype: Miss Dods of Nunraw

Framed ambrotype: Miss Dods of Nunraw, c1860

The two processes operated in tandem until the development of the wet-collodion process – the start of glass negative photography. This first manifested in the 1850s in a form known as ambrotypes. At first sight similar to a daguerreotype, the ambrotype too comes in a glass fronted case. Close inspection should reveal that the image is a negative image. The eye is tricked into viewing it as a positive by the backing – a matt black (sometimes paint, sometimes velvet). As the original photographic plate is used in the finished ambrotypes, they too are each unique.

The final ‘cased’ technology was the tintype. Tintypes were the first ‘cheap and quick’ photographs to be made and quickly superseded daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, remaining popular well into the 1870s and beyond. Their utility meant that the customer could take away the finished images after just a few minutes. Tintypes (no tin involved – they’re on iron plates!) were unique (at first), like their precursors. The underexposed negative image appears positive against the dark background but careful inspection will reveal the true nature. As the technology evolved, multi-lense cameras were developed that could take up to a dozen (identical) exposures on the same plate. These were then cut out and mounted individually. Varnishing the exposed plate stabilised the image so card and album mounted images were possible as the technology evolved.

Summary so far:

Paper Calotypes:              1840s – c1860s

Daguerreotypes:              1840s – c1860s

Ambrotypes:                     c1855 – c1860s

Tintypes:                             c1860s – c1870s and beyond

All earlier photographic formats were superseded by the wet collodion process. Invented in the 1850s (it has its roots in the ambrotype), the technology was mature in the 1860s and quickly became dominant. A glass plate with a wet, sensitised layer was exposed in the camera and fixed as a stable negative. The next step was to transfer a positive image to a sheet of photo-sensitised paper and similarly ‘fix’ that as a stable positive print (at first, albumen prints,with their characteristic, warm, sepia tones).  As the technology evolved new methods of preparing the negative plates (with a collodion emulsion) were developed. This made it much more robust and useful.

Albumen prints are common in old family photograph albums. They were often pasted onto card and, where the early multi-lensed cameras were adapted, a batch of portrait ‘cartes-de-visite’ could be had for a few pennies – and passed around friends and relatives. ‘Cardomania’ had begun! Cartes evolved over time. Details of the decoration, associated printed details and even the edges and corners help to date images – but remember, rural and small-town photographers were seldom innovators and older forms continued in use. If dating a portrait then estimating the age of a subject, noting their dress, their hairstyles and their setting can all aid dating. Whole books and websites are devoted to this art.

In the 1870s ‘cabinet cards’ were in vogue – a larger style of carte. A great number of these survive in albums and the same processes outlined above can be applied to come closer to an accurate date.

Albumen prints were eventually supplanted by other technologies in the 1880s-1900s: the tones change with truer ‘black and white’ prints appearing.  Cartes and cabinets were still being produced into the 20th century but the invention of the Box Brownie in 1900 and the advent of mass photography in the early years of the 20th century opened a whole new chapter in photographic dating: but that will be another page.

The Thorn Tree, Prestonpans. Attributed to 1854

The Thorn Tree, Prestonpans. Attributed to 1854

Examples of all these technologies appear in an East Lothian context – but the earlier forms are scarce. New discoveries are still being made: some of these images appear to be from the mid-1850s. Our collections provide several means of dating old photographs of East Lothian. We can track down photographers and when their studios operated: they were assiduous advertisers in the local press. We can compare their work in our collections with examples owned by our visitors – often a mutually beneficial process. So please, contact us if you have a problem with an East Lothian picture from the past!

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