Frederick Scott Archer
( B. 1813; D. 2 May 1857 )
Archer’s development of the wet collodion process changed the face of photography, enabling the making of finely detailed negatives.
Until then the two processes in existence were the daguerreotype and the calotype, both of which had limitations:
• Daguerreotypes, though they had very clear images, required lengthy exposures and it was a “once-only” process; it was also expensive.
• Calotypes, though capable of unlimited reproduction, were not as sharp, as one had to print through paper.
Something that combined the best of both processes was needed. There were several attempts to find a medium that combined the advantages but eliminated their drawbacks. Some experimenters used albumen (egg white), others used wax, but none of these methods proved successful. Archer had a variety of jobs (silver-smith’s apprentice, coin valuer, sculptor) before he turned to photography. He too experimented with albumen.
In March 1851 the “Chemist” printed an article entitled “On the use of Collodion in photography.” Three years earlier Archer had come across this substance, which produced a transparent waterproof film, and which was being used to dress wounds. Archer’s procedure was to mix collodion with potassium iodide, and then immerse this in a solution of silver nitrate. Both the exposure and the development had to be made in the camera whilst the plate was still wet.
This new process was an important one, not only for its clarity (using glass as a base) but also because it reduced the exposure times to a matter of seconds. Writing to Llewellyn on 31 May 1852 Fox Talbot said:
“Pray accept the enclosed specimen which was taken the other day in 3 seconds by Henneman or his assistant. He sometimes succeeds in one second.”
Up till this time more transient events, such as rippling water, smoke, blown clouds, would have failed to register. Llewellyn tried to tackle photographs of waves, and actually succeeded. In a review of an exhibition in London in 1854, and enthusiastic review wrote:
“Mr. Llewellyn…has sent four instantaneous pictures, in one of which the seashore has been taken, with carts and persons moving upon it. Waves are caught with foam on them….and the faintest (sic) trace of indecision in some walking figures shows that could scarcely have completed one footstep before the picture was complete. Another picture represents the sea beating itself into foam against a rock, with flying clouds. Another represents a steamboat at a pier, and has fixed instantaneously the floating smoke and steam.”
Within a very short period the collodion process had replaced the calotype.
Together with Peter Fry, Archer also devised the Ambrotype process.
Unlike Fox Talbot, who was involved in a number of law-suits in order to protect his patent, Scott Archer did not seek to make money out of his discovery. Talbot even went as far as to claim that the Collodion process was covered by his Calotype patent; in December 1854 he began a lawsuit against Martin Laroche on this very issue, but he lost. Consequently the Collodion process became free to the world. In the wake of this court ruling Talbot did not renew his calotype patent, given that the collodion process, which was better in any case, was free.
Had Scott Archer patented his Wet Collodion process, he could undoubtedly have made a fortune, and though he lived just a few years to see others making a huge fortune from it, he died at just 44 years, in penury, never receiving during his lifetime the appreciation due to someone who had made such an advance in photography. After his death, a fund for the benefit of his widow and children was opened, raising £747, and a small civil list pension was obtained for the three children who by this time had been left orphans.
The RPS has some thirty or so albumen pictures, including an album of views of Kenilworth Castle.
Archer’s process, though a considerable step forward, had one particular disadvantage. Collodion dries quickly. It hardens, and this the processing solutions can not penetrate. It follows, therefore, that at this period a photographer had to carry his darkroom on his travels. The next major step would be the invention, in 1871, by Richard Maddox.