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Civil War Photographs


What might have been the first successful photograph on a polished pewter plate was produced in 1826 by Joseph Niepce. The exposure time for that print was 8 hours. By 1839 Louis Deguerre had developed his "deguerreotype" process to capture images in less that one half hour. The following year, Samuel Morris (of telegraph fame) and John Draper began experiments that would further reduce that time to half a minute. This process allowed photographic studios to grow my leaps and bounds and by 1860 there were 3,154 of them throughout the U.S. There were many different types of photographs being taken at this time, the deguerreotype, the tin type, carte de visite and stereo views just to name a few.

The most notable one use by photographers in the field was the glass plate. This process was very time consuming and tedious work. To begin with they would need to have a large supply of glass plates. These would vary in size but there were usually about 8 by 10 inches for a "regular" photograph or 4 by 10 inches for a stereo view. They would have to be carried in a dust proof box and when ready to use they would have to be coated with a solution of gun cotton, sulphuric ether and 95 proof alcohol. These being in equal parts. Bromide and iodine of potassium or ammonia were then added to sensitize the surface of the plate. After letting the ether and alcohol evaporate to the tight texture, the plate was immersed for three to five minutes in a solution of silver nitrate. This had to be done in absolute darkness or at least a dull amber light. The sensitized plate then would be placed into ta holder for insertion into the camera that would have already been aimed and focused. Uncapping the lens would permit an exposure of five to thirty seconds depending on sunlight. After the cap was replaced the photographer would only have a few short minutes to remove the plate from the camera and return it to the darkroom wagon to develop it in a solution of sulfate of iron and acetic acid. After this process was done the plate would have to be washed to remove the surplus silver with a solution of cyanide of potassium and finally it would be washed again then dried and varnished.

Despite all of this work when America went to war, so did the camera. Below are some links to take you to see some of their work.

Click here to see the National Archives Civil War photographs

Click here to see the Library of Congress

Click here to see the Library of Congress Selected Civil War Photographs

Click here to return to Austin Blair home page.