Anatomy of an Ambrotype

James N.

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#1
Ambrotype Display.JPG


Prior to the Civil War there were three different types of what are now known as cased images, or as a lady I bought one of these from called them, "little pictures in boxes": Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, and Ferrotypes. Daguerreotypes were the first practical photographs, developed by Frenchman Louis Daguerre in 1839, considered to be the "Birth of Photography". Daguerreotypes soon came to America, but by the time of the Civil War were outmoded and were largely replaced in the early 1850's by a newer process, ambrotypes, which remained popular through the 1860's. Ferrotypes, or as they are more commonly known, tintypes, date from around 1857 or so and by 1870 had replaced ambrotypes in popularity, lasting until the early 1900's. Though often confused, they are each totally different processes, alike mainly in often being sold in the small wooden or molded cases, hence the term "cased images".

Daguerreotypes and the later tintypes are photographs on metal plates of varying sizes, sold according to the size or design of the case the customer wanted to pay for. Ambrotypes on the other hand, were photographed on panes of glass, making them very fragile outside their cases. All three types suffered from the fact the chemical emulsion that "captured" the image could relatively easily be scraped off or damaged; daguerreotypes were especially delicate, one reason they quickly fell out of favor. Looking at the above attachment, you can see there are several parts to one of these small packages: the glass plate with the photograph on one side; a separate clear glass covering it; a stamped brass mat, with a usually oval or rectangular opening; a brass molding called a "preserver" to hold them all together; and a case with a dark inside or backing. Since the photo is essentially a negative, the dark backing is necessary to see the picture; in fact they can be used as regular negatives to make copy prints.
Ambrotype.jpg


This is a scan of the above photo; note the pink-tinted cheeks, common on cased images made in a studio. Jewelry, buckles, buttons, etc. was often gilded as well, and sometimes a thin tinted wash was also applied to dresses, uniforms, drapery, etc. The scan below of a probable North Carolina Confederate officer shows both tinted cheeks and possibly also his pants. Notice how the glass has been roughly cut out; too small for its case, it has slipped up and down causing the photographic emulsion to be scraped by contact with the brass mat.

Civil War Ambrotype.jpg
 

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James N.

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#3
Civil War Confederate Ambrotype.jpg


The name "Ambrotype" is itself a play-on-words, indicating a "likeness" has been "captured" IN ( really, ON ) glass in the same way prehistoric insects have been likewise captured in amber, or tree sap. As shown they required a dark backing for the image to be visible at all. There were several ways to achieve this: the inside of the case might be lined with black paper, a piece of black velvet or other material, or simply painted black. Another option was to paint black or coat with a substance called gum spirits the side of the glass opposite the photographic emulsion. If this was done, the resulting photo could NOT be used as a negative to make prints. Here is an ambrotype that supposedly surfaced in Galveston, Texas, likely showing a young Confederate soldier, sailor, or marine. The back has been coated with gum spirits in a way that has a very creepy look minus the backing or when scanned from the back:

Civil War Confederate Ambrotype 001.jpg


When seen from the back showing the coating, the imprint of the cloth backing can be seen, made on the then-still-damp gum when the package was put in place; why the face wasn't coated is a mystery - perhaps the photographer thought the resolution would be better this way:

Civil War Confederate Ambrotype 002.jpg
 

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#4

James N.

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#6
Thanks, I am going through all the photography posts and learning some things. :smile:
I do like ambrotypes. A lot of times I find the clarity of ambros to be amazing.
That was an early criticism of tintypes vs. the earlier and well-established Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes - they lacked the depth and clarity of the others. That's also one reason tintypes were cased like their predecessors: to "fool" the public into thinking they were getting the same "product". Tintypes overtook the popularity of ambrotypes during the war when it was discovered they were much more durable, even surviving trips through the mail, and therefore actually cheaper to produce since there wasn't as much wasteage. Of course, CDV's and postwar cabinet cards were even cheaper and soon became the most popular type of photograph.
 

James N.

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#8
Btw is that a turkey feather sticking out of "Uncle Willie's" hat?
He doesn't appear to be very "regulation" in any way, so it certainly wouldn't surprise me if it was!

Uncle Willie scan.jpg


( This view is from the back as seen through the emulsion. )
 

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