Having first come to public attention in 1839, photography was still a relatively new medium in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Art and science combined, it demanded a rare mix of skills and many looked on it as a form of alchemy. It was introduced in France with the Daguerreotype, developed by Louis Daguerre (1789–1851) together with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833) and in England with the photogenic drawing process of William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877).  By 1841 Talbot had improved his process, inventing the calotype negative (from the Greek kalos meaning beautiful), which shortened exposure times and allowed multiple prints to be made from one negative. Striving for ever-faster exposure times and a finer quality of detail in the images, Frederick Scott Archer (1813–1857) invented the wet collodion process in 1851.  It involved using glass plates that had to be coated, exposed and developed while the collodion was still wet to produce a negative image.  As some of these steps had to be done in the dark, photographers had to use a wagon or take a dark tent into the field with them as well as the chemicals, equipment and glass plates that would be required.  Photographers then made same-sized prints from these plates by placing them in contact with paper (coated with albumen and sensitized with salts) and exposing this sandwich to sunlight.  By carefully manipulating the chemicals in the processing of the prints, different tones could be achieved ranging from reddish browns to a deep purple/black.  Ambrotypes and carte-de-visite photographs followed, based on the same wet collodion process, the former named after their populariser, James Ambrose Cutting (1814–1867).[i]


Albumen prints were a good match for these early glass negatives, their smooth surface retaining a high quality of detail in the finished print.  By the mid 1850s, this combination of wet collodion negative and albumen print had become the standard and dominated the photographic scene for the next thirty years.

[i] Gordon Baldwin, Looking at Photographs, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum and London: The British Museum Press 1991.