Dover’s History Trip- Part II

By David Vestal Back to


This is the second installment of a series in which David Vestal gives insight into historic photographs selected from Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression, published by Dover Publications and used with their permission.

Skip to the 1860s. Photography had changed. The daguerreotype had largely given way to the ambrotype, in which the silver of a very thin negative on glass was seen as light tones against black velvet. Like the daguerreotype, it was a one-of-a-kind photo delivered in a little frame. Dover didn’t identify the methods used for its photographs, but I saw no ambrotypes among the ones I printed.

The tintype used the same principle as the ambrotype: a thin silver image on black-enameled iron. Tintypes were small, cheap and quickly made. Many tintypes of Civil War soldiers survive and are prized by collectors. Tintypes were made until about 1950, when itinerant street photographers switched to Polaroid.

The main photographic medium from the 1860s through the 1880s was the wet collodion process. A glass plate coated on one side with collodion was sensitized in a silver bromide bath, then placed in a light-tight holder with a removable dark slide and a draining groove, then placed in the back of an aimed and focused camera and exposed at an aperture and time guessed at by the photographer. The exposed plate had to be developed, fixed and washed before the collodion could dry and become waterproof. Every exposure was also an exposure test, so photographers tended to become good guessers. They also coated their own printing paper with its sensitive emulsion, and their contact prints were the same size as their negatives. Photographers could be recognized by their stained hands and clothes.The plates were still sensitive only to blue light and ultraviolet. No one knew about the electromagnetic spectrum. When the photographers guessed right, wet- collodion photos could have superb photographic quality.

Now back to the pictures. And here’s a curiosity. In Dover’s 2007 book and CD-ROM of Civil War photographs, another photo of the same scene, in Petersburg, VA, 1865, taken from a different camera position, shows changed details. In the Civil War book’s photo, the square box near the corpse is gone, and three rifles, not in this picture, were either placed artistically in the trench for that photo, or removed before taking this one. I’d bet on artistic placement. There is no drama to the box, and the rifles are placed just so, to make a nice picture. So at least one photographer was rearranging war photos in 1865, and the truthfulness of photography was already in some doubt. I believe in this photo and I doubt that one. To be exact, I believe in the corpse and the cheveaux-de-frise and the seemingly unimportant box, but not in the photo with the rifles. That one, more dramatic, shows me that although it is just a little white lie, it’s still a lie.

In general it seems best not to lie, not even a little: if we’re caught, the truth can be denied and we can be called liars. This happened with an FSA photo in the 1930s: Arthur Rothstein moved a cow skull a few feet to make his point more clearly, and that was found out. Big uproar! Some congressperson called his photo fraudulent and tried to shut the whole project down. It survived, but barely. You ask, what’s an FSA? Well, that’s another story. Meanwhile, Dover 037 is a very good war photo, but I don’t think the other one is quite as good−not that I’d know it if I hadn’t seen both.

061. Charles Baudelaire, 1878, Étienne Carjat

061. Charles Baudelaire, portrait by Étienne Carjat, 1878. That’s funny, because the ICP Encyclopedia of Photography and Peter Pollack’s Picture History of Photography date this photo to 1863, Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography dates it to 1863, and Helmut Gernsheim’s Concise History of Photography says it’s 1862. Newhall’s excellent repro- duction of the photo is from a Woodburytype print dated 1870. I think 1878 isn’t accurate for the picture, but only for a publication it appeared in, Galerie Contemporaine. Charles Baudelaire was a−perhaps the−hero poet of French decadence and the author of a famous work, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). The little I’ve read of his work has been in English translation and, therefore, dubious. He loved French words, and that doesn’t translate easily. This is a wet-collodion photo, and a beauty.

Carjat was a satirical cartoonist longer than he was a photographer, and his great rival in the celebrity photo portrait field was Nadar (Gaspard–Félix Tournachon), who also built and flew balloons. Both were very good indeed, and I can’t say that either one was better. Carjat was noted for the plainness of his portraits−no fancy furniture or backgrounds. As for Baudelaire, he faced the camera boldly, not trying to look good, but apparently just being himself. In front of a big camera, that is rare. This is a very fine photograph. Carjat is known for it, and so, to some extent, is Baudelaire.

062. Brooklyn Bridge Under Construction, 1878, Unknown

062. Brooklyn Bridge Under Construction, Unknown, 1878. Medium uncertain: either late wet-collodion or very early dry-plate photography. Wet-collodion seems likely. In the late 1870s there was a good deal of trouble with the first dry plates, and photographers were slow to adopt them. Here’s another essentially modern photograph. The way space is defined by a complex of diagonal forms was unusual then. The sign in front of the men in hats standing on the bridge cable reads:

Safe For Only 25 Men At One Time. Do Not Walk Close Together, Nor Run, Jump or Trot. Break Step!

— W.A. Roebling Eng’r in Chief

In their situation, would you be tempted to run, jump or trot? Nor would I. Note that time makes things funny. To see men dressed like that on a major construction site may have been perfectly normal then; somehow it’s comical now. It’s still a great bridge, and I can get it for you at a good price.

065. Four Young Blacksmiths, 1881, Heinrich Tönnies

065. Four Young Blacksmiths, by Heinrich Tönnies, 1881. Medium unknown. It could be wet-collodion, or it could be a dry plate, which would have needed less exposure. I know nothing about Tönnies beyond what this photo shows me. From the name, maybe German. Wait, there’s a note: “Tonnies [sic], Johan Goerg [sic] Heinrich Ludwig, German, 1825-1903, porcelain painter, glass grinder, photographer, topographical studies” in Appendix 1 of the ICP Encyclopedia of Photography. Very likely our man: varied skills and interests, and a cultivated touch. Let’s look at the picture.

Tönnies, or someone, rounded up these young workmen and had them stand together dressed in their work clothes and holding their tools. Why would they do that, except to help make the picture? The light from the left is strong but diffuse, from a big window or open door. It’s the kind of light we see in 17th-century Dutch paintings. There is also some soft light from the front, probably another window or door, unless it comes from a magnesium flare. The gray wall behind the men seems to be part of their work place.

What gets my attention, besides the technical mastery of this photo, is that each man is shown as a distinct person, quite different from the other three. Each one gets due respect. This picture also reminds us that some little-known photographers perform as well as famous ones.

Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression presents “139 Royalty- Free Designs” in jpeg format in a “CD-ROM & Book” as part of its large series, “Dover Electronic Clip Art for Macintosh® and Windows ®.” System requirements: Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, XP, Vista OR Macintosh, all versions; CD-ROM drive. The price of the book and CD-ROM is $16.95. To use more than ten of these photos in one project requires special permission from Dover.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.