Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Natal Photographers: Ambrotypes: Archibald Downie

This superb ambrotype is of Archibald Downie b 1835 Scotland. By the time Natal photographers were starting to flourish, other more modern methods were being used to produce an image. So, if you find an ambrotype among your ancestors' memorabilia it is likely to have been made overseas. Not many are found in local collections. This ambrotype dates to about 1855 based on the costume details.

An ambrotype was a wet collodian negative made into a one-off positive, and had the quality of a daguerrotype but was cheaper to produce. The method coincided with rise of the commercial photographer and were made in large numbers though not many in South Africa.

A thin under-exposed glass negative was given a backing of black velvet or shellac. The result when seen from the unmasked side was to turn the clear glass areas black. Against this background the exposed parts of the negative reflected the light. Thus a positive effect was achieved. Though the finished ambrotype did tend to be sombre many show good contrast of light and shade.

In Britain they were originally called collodian positives but they were patented in the US under the name ambrotype. They had largely died out by about 1880. So far I have yet to find an example made in Natal.

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