Frederick Scott Archer’s Wet Plate Collodion process was the first practical photographic process to be both sharp and easily reproducible. It combined the clarity and detail of Daguerre’s unique images on silvered metal plates, with the practical convenience and reproducibility of Fox Talbot’s positive-negative calotype prints on paper. It also enabled photographers to significantly reduce exposure times.
Scott Archer was an English sculptor and trained calotypist who was dissatisfied with how the texture and impurities in the paper negatives affected the prints. In 1848 he found that a preparation of collodion (a recently discovered sticky, viscous liquid that clings to glass) made it possible to use clear glass instead of waxed or oiled paper as the support for the camera negative. Crisp, sharp negatives could finally be made, from which any number of detailed prints on paper could be struck.
The preparation of the collodion, ‘the pour’ onto plates and the processing of the plates after exposure in the camera needed to be carried out on the spot.
The collodion process soon replaced the calotype in commercial use, and by the end of the decade, the daguerreotype was virtually extinct as well. From about 1855 until the early 1880s, the wet plate collodion process was the dominant form of photography.
A gift to the world
Scott Archer published his invention in The Chemist in March 1851, and in 1852 he published A Manual of the Collodion Photographic Process. In publishing his discovery, he did so knowingly without first patenting it, giving it as a gift to the world.
In 1856, the Liverpool Photographic Journal commented: “Mr Archer’s disinterestedness cannot be too highly or substantially complimented… the discovery might have been worth a fortune… In every direction indeed in which we turn, we perceive alike its value and the generosity which bestowed it—free as air, for the public good”.
Scott Archer made other contributions to the development of photography, including a neatly folding collodion camera in 1853. This was in fact a camera, a miniature darkroom and a storage box for chemistry all in one. The camera had two black velvet sleeves through which the photographer could put their hands to sensitise, develop and fix the glass plate inside. An amber window allowed the photographer to see what they were doing. Trays and bottles of chemicals were stored inside the camera. When folded for carrying, the camera was very compact – about the size of a couple of shoeboxes.
Scott Archer took up photography professionally, opening a studio in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum; but he made no money. Plagued by poor health, he died impoverished in 1857 aged 44 leaving a wife and three children penniless. His family were awarded a government pension of £50 per annum ‘in consideration of the scientific discoveries of their father’ and members of the Photographic Society contributed £767 in recognition that he was: “… the true architect of all those princely fortunes which are being acquired by the use of his ideas and inventions”.
Image: Portrait of Frederick Scott Archer by Robert Cade, c.1855, courtesy National Media Museum
Excellent article on Frederick Scott Archer’s life and work – includes some of his own photographs, on the Science Museum’s blog here.
Watch a video made for J Paul Getty Foundation which describes the technique very clearly : The Wet Collodion Process