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Stained fingers and deadly vapors, photography at the start of the Civil War

Ned Jilton II • Jul 1, 2020 at 9:30 PM

The process of photography advanced considerably between 1830 and the start of the Civil War. The Daguerreotype, the first publicly available photographic process, led the way.

To make a daguerreotype, early photographers used a polished copper plate coated to make its surface light-sensitive. After exposing it in the camera, they would develop the image using mercury vapors and then fix it using a chemical agent to neutralize what remained of the light sensitive coating.

The process was quite dangerous to the photographer, who would suffer the ill effects of breathing mercury vapor. Their fingers would also turn permanently black as a result of constant contact with the light-sensitive chemicals.

It wasn’t long before the daguerreotype began to give way to the ambrotype. In this process glass replaced copper, making it much more cost effective. But the ambrotype was a glass negative while the daguerreotype was a metal positive. In order to give the ambrotype a positive finish a dark background was placed on the back of the glass plate after processing.

These processes brought about the birth of commercial photography in the U.S. Hundreds of studios sprang-up all across the country. But it was the next innovation that brought about a boom in the industry, the carte-de-visite and its bigger relative the cabinet card.

The carte-de-visite took the ambrotype to the next level, using the glass negative to make an albumen print.

To make an albumen print, a piece of paper made from cotton is coated with egg white and salt and allowed to dry. The paper is then sensitized to light using silver nitrate. The glass negative is then placed on top of the paper and exposed to light to produce the positive. The paper is then fixed to stop the process and toned to prevent fading.

It was the beginning of the photo-printing business, and it came at the start of the Civil War.

In more than 1,000 studios across the country families gathered for photographs as the men marched off to war. Now the photographer could make one plate but two prints. One for the family to put on the mantle and another for the soldier to carry into war.

If six friends wanted to get one last picture before saying farewell, the photographer no longer had to make six photos with six glass plates. One plate made all the photos needed.

The carte-de-visite also had the advantage of being paper. It easy for the soldier to carry. There was no glass plate to get broken or copper plate to scratch. If the print was destroyed, the photographer could be contacted to make another print.

As the soldiers went off to war so did the photographers.

Men like Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan packed up their cameras, plates and chemicals in wagons — called “what’s it” wagons by the troops — and followed behind the armies producing photos of the generals, the camps, the soldiers and, starting with the Battle of Antietam, horrific photos of the dead which altered everyone perspective of the war.

But you don’t see any photos of the battles in progress.

On March 15, 1851, the editor of the American Journal of Photography wrote, “A battle scene is a fine subject for an artist — painter, historian or photographer. We hope to see a photograph of the next battle… . There will be little danger in the active duties, for the photographer must be beyond the smell of gunpowder or his chemicals will not work.”

Although he was being sarcastic, he was not far from wrong.

The process to make a glass negative during the Civil War was called the wet plate process. This simply means the plates have to be wet to work.

Picture, if you will, a photographer of the day attempting to photograph an actual battle during the Civil War.

Our intrepid photographer arrives at the battle and drives his “what’s it” wagon onto the field and is immediately a target. Any team of horses or a wagon on the field is a prime target if you want to stop the mobility of artillery or the resupplying of troops.

Now under fire, the photographer gets out and begins to setup his camera. Because of its size and the very slow shutter speed to be used, the camera must be placed on a large tripod. That done, he ducks under the dark cloth at the back of the camera to compose and focus the image.

Now he heads back to the dark room on his “what’s it” wagon (hopefully there are no holes letting light in at this point) and sensitize the glass plate with a solution of silver nitrate. Placing the plate in a light-tight holder, he hustles back to the camera and inserts the holder into the back of the camera.

He now pulls out the dark slide from the plate holder, reaches around to the front of the camera and removes the lens cap to begin his exposure. He counts the seconds with the bullets flying around him. The dryer the plate the longer the exposure has to be. If the plate is completely dry it won’t work. This is why the wagon has to be so close.

Ending the exposure by replacing the lens cap, our brave photographer reinserts the dark slide, removes the plates holder and hustles back to the “what’s it” wagon (if it’s still there) and proceeds to develop the plate in an iron solution. He then stops the process by washing the plate in a bucket of water.

It could take our photographer fifteen to twenty minutes, standing under fire, to take a single image. Anything that moved during the long exposure would be blurred or not even show up in the photo. If a nearby cannon went off, or a shell from a cannon hit nearby, the shaking ground would blur the whole image making it a wasted effort.

There are a few photos that claim to have been made during battle but I have only seen two that come close. They are photos of ironclads firing at a fort on Morris Island in South Carolina. The photographer was on the beach with the fort and ironclads a long way away. But at least you can see the smoke coming from the ship’s cannons.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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