The early days of Photography

From its beginning in the 1840’s, the commercial business of photography had limited
applications and a very steep and sometimes dangerous learning curve. In 1839
Louis Daguerre introduced the first commercially viable photographic process
called the Daguerreotype. The 1839 date is considered to be the start of
photography. The word Photography is attributed to Sir John Herschel. He was a
chemist, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor. He also made many scientific
contributions to photography. Photography is derived from the Greek phōtós
meaning “light” and graphê meaning “writing or drawing” combining to mean
“drawing with light”.

The early photographic processes required a solid base onto which light sensitive
ingredients could be applied. Daguerreotypes used a highly polished piece of
copper. Ambrotypes, which effectively replaced daguerreotypes used a plate of
glass. And thin sheets of iron, not tin were used as the base for tintypes. All
processes had many problems associated with producing a photograph. The
daguerreotypes required the copper base to be highly polished with no scratches
left behind, which took enormous skill. The light-sensitive emulsion then needed
to be applied to the copper plate smoothly and consistently. To sensitize the
emulsion, it was necessary to heat mercury to produce mercury vapor. It is likely
many a photographer’s health was affected by inhaling mercury vapors and other
harsh chemicals! This entire process had to be performed in total darkness, so as
not to start the exposure, usually in a very small cramped space. Ambrotypes used
glass as their base material and were prone to breakage and hard to handle in the
dark environment. Tintypes’ thin iron base easily bent and scratched.

In the early days of photography, there were very few studios. Photographers
needed to travel to the people or events. Traveling photographers used wagons or
tents as their studios and darkrooms. If the weather wasn’t quite right, days could
be lost between shootings. There were many difficulties requiring unique skills;
early photography it was not a hobby for the masses.

Then George Eastman and Kodak changed the world!

Children look at a Kodak Brownie Camera

In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, Kodak introduced box cameras and folding cameras. Now, instead of difficult materials like copper, glass or iron, photographers could use roll
film, which was a pliable cellulose base. No more applying sensitive, toxic chemicals or working in a confined environment. Roll film came on a spool and had a paper wrapper to protect it from premature exposure to light. Almost anyone could load the roll film into a box or folding camera, and many people did. No longer would people have to haul big, heavy cameras and tripod around. Box and folding cameras were easy to carry around and were taken everywhere! Later, Kodak went a step further and added a pocket-size roll film camera.

With the good comes some bad

The new roll film, called celluloid, which was made up of cellulose nitrate
combined with plasticizers for support and flexibility, was a perfect solution for
the old problems associated with the old photo processes. Roll film came with the
light sensitive emulsions already evenly applied and came on a spool with the film
covered in an opaque paper for easy installation into the new smaller cameras.
Messy and dangerous handling of chemicals were no longer a concern for people
who just wanted to record a memory.
However, there were still some problems. Curling of the film base was an early
problem. Most of the cameras were inexpensively made with few moving parts.
The early roll films tended to curl badly causing malfunctions in the cameras.
After 1903 a gelatin layer was added to the back of the film which mostly reduced
or eliminated this problem. The other real problem was that cellulose nitrate was highly combustible and flammable. Though not as problematic as movie film, there are nonetheless stories of old film archives suddenly bursting into flames. In addition, nitrate films are also chemically unstable. They give off gasses that contain harmful corrosive

Nitrate film was still being produced into the early 1950’s; however, in the early 1930’s it was slowly being replaced by cellulose acetate. Companies started marking the edge of films with the word “safety”. Many of the old roll films were cellulose nitrate but not marked as such.

Color film, roll and 35mm film called Kodacolor was introduced in 1942. These
films were cellulose acetate and are considered safety films. During the 1960’s
through the 1970’s cellulose acetate was replaced by polyester film, which is still
being used today.
Care should be taken by anyone who still has old negatives in boxes and envelopes. Many of these old negatives hold wonderful treasures of the past, however, a definite risk of
flammable combustion comes with the old nitrate negatives. Not to mention the risk of
image deterioration caused by the toxic gas releases to any adjoining negatives. I
recommend separating any negatives that do not say “safety” from old unmarked
or “nitrate” marked negatives. When possible, use archival negative sleeves to
keep negatives from touching other negatives. In addition, always store negatives
in a cool environment. To avoid these problems altogether, have these treasures
digitized. Negatives from the 1940’s, which was a great era of picture taking, are
nearly 80 years old! So many memories that have never or rarely seen!

-Bob Walden