History Project

                                                   Glass Plate Photography

Although several photographic techniques were utilized prior to 1850, the collodion or wet plate process was introduced in 1851 and marked “a watershed in photography.”  The process used a binder of collodion , a viscous liquid made of  “guncotton dissolved in ether and alcohol,” to prepare a glass plate  to bond the light sensitive medium.  The new wet plate technique required a shorter exposure time and became the preferred method until the dry plate process was invented. 

The wet-plate collodion process was initiated in England in 1851 by Scott Archer and found its way to America and the enterprising thirty-four-year-old Mathew Brady, who embraced the new technique.  It would be Brady and the other photographers, that he supervised, who would bring pictures of the American Civil War full-blown to the population of the United States.  Mathew Brady’s thousands of images of politicians, military leaders, and the horrors of battle would earn Brady the distinction of becoming one of the first photojournalists. 

The wet plate process was tedious in a studio, but in field conditions required wagons to haul the heavy glass plates and equipment, makeshift darkrooms and adequate nearby water sources to develop the images.  The collodion mixture was also flammable and if not handled carefully, was explosive. Brady hoped to profit from his wartime photography, but lost most of his fortune supporting his staff of photographers documenting the Civil War.  He would take credit for all the photographs, although he actually took only a percentage of them.

By the 1870s, the dry plate process would come into wider use and the era of the collodion wet plate would diminish.  The new dry plates were abled to be stored indefinitely and would revolutionize photography with more sensitivity and exposure times under a second. Glass plates would continue to be the choice of many professional photographers until the 1950s, when 35mm film was perfected, just as film stock would give way to the digital platform by the twenty-first century.