The Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library is home to one of the largest cased image collections in the country, consisting largely of daguerreotype, ambrotype or tintype portraits. Cased images typically include the image plate and a cover glass wrapped together in a brass mat, placed inside a leather or wooden case. The images were placed in protective cases because the photographs were very delicate and susceptible to damage from even the slightest mishandling.
The daguerreotype process, which involved a silver-coated copper plate, hot mercury, salt, and gold chloride (child’s play, really) was first introduced in France in 1839 and was a popular form of portrait photography by the 1850s. Ambrotypes refined the rather laborious process and as such became the preferred medium in the 1860s- ’70s and were very popular in the United States. Ambrotypes are direct positives, made by under-exposing a collodion (nitrocellulose in a mixture of alcohol and ether) negative, bleaching it, and then placing a dark background–typically of black velvet–behind it.
While the actual portraits are of most interest, the elaborately decorated protective cases are also worth noting; they consist of carved wood or shell, and inlaid mother of pearl. One of the most impressive items in the ambrotype series is a framed collection of 80 smaller portraits of Grand Army of the Republic Union veterans, ca. 1865, call phrase PR 12, Box 47, item 1-421. The brown wood frame is roughly 26 x 26 inches, and the individual portraits are 2 x 2.5 inches.
There is almost no information about the men in the portraits, but that doesn’t make them any less intriguing. I particularly like the rosy tint that was added to their cheeks, and the amusing set of the military caps on some of their heads. When you consider how many pictures most people have of themselves nowadays, it’s especially interesting to think that these ambrotypes are likely one of just a few portraits taken of most of these men in their lifetime; one can’t help imagine what their lives were like, both before and after the war.
This post is by Jill Reichenbach, Reference Librarian for the Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections. Special thanks to Glenn Castellano and Eleanor Gillers in our Department of Rights & Reproductions.