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A selection of early Australian ambrotypes

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In 1851 a young man named Frederick Scott Archer announced his discovery of a new photographic process that could adhere to glass. This was a major breakthrough for the process allowed photographers to produce clear highly detailed negatives from which multiple copies could be made. For the commercial and amateur photographer this was a great step forward as the daguerreotype had been a one-off process and the calotype produced fuzzy prints from its paper negatives.

Archer, perhaps not realising how important the discovery was, neglected to take out a patent on the process and this was a great help in establishing it as the most popular photographic medium by the 1860s. But the daguerreotype was not instantly replaced. The general public had become used to their portraits being displayed in a small glass fronted case and for this reason a special kind of collodion process, known as the ambrotype was introduced.

Peter Fry and Archer together developed this new process which was essentially the same as other collodion negatives except that once the exposure had been taken the emulsion on the glass was bleached to whiten it. When this bleached negative was placed in a case against a black background it formed a positive image which bore a remarkable resemblance to the daguerreotype except it had the added advantage of not being highly reflective. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 the process was so new that only one collodion photo was exhibited; an ambrotype taken by Archer with the assistance of Fry.

The ambrotype, like the daguerreotype, was a one off process which was housed in leather covered cases. The main difference between them visually being that the ambrotype does not have a highly reflective surface. Being cheaper to produce ambrotypes quickly displaced the daguerreotype as the favoured means of portraits, although they in turn were displaced by the carte-de-visite in the early 1860s.

William Henry Fox Talbot the inventor of the earlier calotype (Talbotype) process attempted to claim copyright over the collodion process, issuing warnings to commercial studios that he would prosecute them if they used it. One of those who challenged Talbot was Silvester Larouche who went to court over the matter in 1853 and when this case was eventually settled in 1854 the collodion process was made free of patent restrictions.

Australia followed rather than set photographic trends but in the 1850s, the massive boom caused by the discovery of gold ensured it was very quick to take up new processes like the ambrotype. The first ambrotypes were advertised by J. S. Scarlett of Melbourne and James Freeman of Sydney in 1854 and over the course of the 1850s the ambrotype essentially replaced the daguerreotype. However even in the early 1860s some photographic studios continued to produce daguerreotypes for more conservative customers. In an unfortunate footnote the inventor Archer died penniless in 1857 unable to profit from the collodion process which had made so many others wealthy. His wife and three children were supported by an appeal fund set up through the Photographic Society in England.

Geoff Barker, Curatorial, September 2009

J. Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Third Edition, Institute of Australian Photography, Hong Kong, 1979
Michel Frizot, A New History of Photography, Amilcare Pizzi, Milan, 1998
Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, A Concise History of Photography, Thames and Hudson, Germany, 1965
Davies and P. Stanbury, 1985, The Mechanical Eye in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne