Wet-Plate Camera

Frederick Scott Archer

Although an advancement from the expensive tin-plate portraiture daguerreotype method, the wet-plate process is characterized as the infancy of photography (Gidley 2011). Wet-plate cameras were large and heavy, but relatively portable thanks to darkrooms mounted on a carriage chassis and dubbed “What-is-it” wagons by soldiers (Manning and Wyatt 2011; Bolloch 2004). This innovation allowed photographers such as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner to create photographic records of the American Civil War (Fig. 2). 

The wet-plate process was a long and involved process performed exclusively by professional photographers. In the darkroom, a photographer would clean a glass or tin plate and pour collodion, a thick solution of nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol, onto the plate. Once the collodion covered the plate uniformly, the photographer had to wait for the solution to become tacky. The plate was then dipped in silver nitrate, allowing the emulsion to become light sensitive. The plate was secured in a sealed container, placed inside the camera, and exposed by removing the camera’s lens cap for a number of seconds.  This exposure imprinted the image on the plate, which had to then be immediately taken back to the darkroom in the lightproof container. The imprinted image was then developed in pyrogallic acid, the plate was cleaned, and varnish was applied to protect the plate. The creation of this glass negative (25 x 36 cm) took nearly ten minutes and could later be printed on paper (Snyder 2014; “Photography and the Civil War”; Bolloch 2004).

Because the process was so lengthy, expensive, and required such meticulous attention, photographers had to make sure the end result was a good photograph. Due to the long exposure period, photographers instructed live subjects to remain statuesquely still in pursuance of a focused image. Any slight movement could create blurs in the image. Wet-plate photographs were “heavily posed” or of static scenes. In the case of the Civil War, the limits of the wet-plate process allowed for images of the dead, landscapes, buildings, monuments, and posed humans but no battle action (Snyder 2014; Manning and Wyatt 2011).


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Snyder, Jonathan. “The “Make-Believe” War: Necessary Fictionalization in Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War.” War, Literature & the Arts. 26 (2014): 1-23.

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