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Adams Photograph Collection (1840-1946) | Special Collections & University Archives

Name: Adams Photograph Collection (1840-1946)

Historical Note:

The first "photograph" was a paper-based photogenic drawing process invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839.  In 1841, Talbot introduced the calotype, or salted paper print, which became the first two-step photographic process involving the use of a negative. Albumen prints and cyanotypes were also popular mid-nineteenth century paper support processes. Other paper prints include platinotypes, carbon prints, gum bichromate prints, collodion prints, gelatin silver prints, and more. 

Paper prints, which consist of a paper support or base, could either be mounted or unmounted.  In general, most mounted prints were studio portraits that the photographer mounted on embossed board.  These portraits often came in standard sizes, such as the carte de visite and cabinet card.  These cards were traded among family and friends, and collected as a Victorian hobby.  Some photographers even produced cards of well-known politicians and other figures for popular consumption. Carte de visites were invented in the 1850s and remained popular until the 1870s when they were superseded by cabinet cards.  Most carte de visites are albumen prints and measured 2½ × 4 inches.  Cabinet cards, on the other hand, are slightly larger, measuring 4¼ by 6½ inches.  In addition, the advertisements on carte de visites and cabinet cards provide information about nineteenth century advertising and the growth of photography.  Many advertisements often juxtapose artist tools with photographic equipment in order to promote photography as a form of art. 

Gradually, the popularity of mounted studio prints waned as the desire for more candid photographs increased.  With the invention and commercialization of more affordable film and photograph equipment, the general public no longer had to rely on professional photographers and studios for photographs.  Thus, unmounted candid photographs became popular. 

Besides paper prints, metal and glass plate support processes were extremely popular for portraiture during the mid-nineteenth century.  These processes include daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tin types, and primarily consist of positive images transferred onto these supports using collodion, silver, or mercury.  These metal and glass plates were almost exclusively used for small portraiture.  Daguerreotypes, which first became popular in the 1840s, have a mirror effect from highly polished silver on a copper base.  When looking at a daguerreotype in different light, the image can appear as a positive or negative image.  Ambrotypes, on the other hand, were invented in the early 1850s, and consist of a negative image on a glass base with either black varnish or black fabric placed behind the plate to create a positive image.  Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes came in decorative, velvet-lined cases.  For daguerreotypes, the case protects the copper plate from tarnish, while the case for ambrotypes protects the varnish or fabric backing on the glass plate from deterioration.  The tintype, in contrast, often came in paper mats.  This process used a laquered iron plate as a support for the image material, which consisted of silver and collodion.  The tintype was invented in the mid-1850s, and remained in use until the early twentieth century. 

In contrast, glass plate negatives were a popular negative process throughout the nineteenth century.  These plates preceded the invention of modern flexible film, and were in many ways more stable than their successors.  The glass negative process used silver salts on a glass plate to create a negative image. The negative image was then transferred to a paper support, where it became a positive image photograph.  Although flexible film eventually superseded glass plate negatives in the early twentieth century, the process remained in use until the 1980s.

Over the years, the John and Jane Adams, former San Diego State professors, collected many photographic prints, tintypes, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, glass plate negatives, and photo albums. The Adams assembled the photograph collection from photographs purchased from dealers, auctions, estate sales, and antique stores.

Sources: Reilly, James M.  Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints.  Rochester: Image Permanence Institute, 1986.
Note Author: Amanda Lanthorne

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