On Photography - What is an ambrotype?

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Thursday 4 September 2008
Ron Brownson

Ambrotypes were one of the earliest photographic processes. Called by the British a ‘wet collodion positive on glass’, the ambrotype was developed by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. It was used mostly for small portraits during the 1850s and 1860s.

Technically, it is fascinating process. Firstly, an underexposed collodion negative on glass is bleached of its whitish tone by the application of nitric acid or mercury bichloride. It is then backed with either black lacquer or black paper to present a positive image. Ambrotypes were often mounted in a cased frame with a hinged cover. Each ambrotype, just as with daguerreotypes is a one-off. A unique image from one exposure. As they were easier to tint, ambrotypes are often retouched with gold paint to highlight jewellery and add reddish tones for women’s lips and cheeks. By the late 1860s, ambrotypes were replaced with carte de visites and tintypes.

The names of the sitters for ambrotypes are often lost after the portrait leaves the care of the person and family who first possessed it. However, this ambrotype has an added ink inscription in copperplate handwriting on paper, inserted inside the photograph’s case. This is a portrait of William Leyfield, a Master at the BeethamSchool, Kendal in Westmoreland. He died on June 15 1859, aged 22. William is probably aged about 19 years in this very formal portrait, which makes him look very stern.

The inclusion of a framed painting within an ambrotype is uncommon, especially since it skews the seated position of the young man.