On the beginnings of photography technique

In the history of photography technique, there are many solutions enabling an improvement to photographic techniques.
The first methods of obtaining photographic negatives (from the 1850s) required the use of glass plates coated with a layer of collodion, which, at the time of shooting, was still wet. After the plate had been covered with a layer of collodion and sensitized in a proper bath, the photographer had only a few minutes to slide it into a cassette placed on the back of the camera and expose it. Then, the material, which was still wet, had to be developed and fixed in the darkroom. If the photographer was too sluggish, the photo was unsuccessful.
When, in the mid-1870s “dry” gelatine-silver plates entered the market, the technique of taking pictures became much easier. Negatives on glass plates were bought ready-made in stores; in the darkroom, they were loaded into a cassette, and a picture could be taken with a camera without any haste. Exposed images were processed in the darkroom even a few weeks after exposure.
Throughout the above-described period, large and heavy atelier cameras, also called gazebo cameras, were in use, as well as slightly lighter travel cameras, which were used in the open air, and their main advantage was the possibility of folding them for transport. In both cases, special wooden cassettes were used, which were loaded in darkrooms (often called “pitch-dark rooms”). Before each photo was taken, the cassette had to be placed in the camera in the proper manner, by pulling out the protective board, called a slide gate, and only then could one expose the photo simply by removing the lid from the lens. The number of cassettes loaded limited the photographer's possibilities, and the fact that they were changed every single time increased the time it took to take a photo.
It was not until the 1880s that a new category of cameras emerged, in which the necessity to use single cassettes containing dry plates was eliminated. These were cameras named after the English detective camera. The name itself was supposed to draw the buyer’s attention to the special properties of the camera. In the Polish press of the time, descriptions of the new construction were full of superlatives. It was supposed to enable a dozen or so photos to be taken, without changing the cassettes. Such a camera had to be “loaded” in the darkroom, by inserting twelve glass plates into special metal holders, which were placed, one after the other, inside the camera. Then, after the photo had been exposed, it had to be “reloaded” by grabbing the exposed plate by hand, with the use of a special photosensitive leather bag, which was placed aside, and putting it at the end of the row. In this way, all the plates were exposed one after another. Negatives, at the turn of the 1880s and 1890s, were very photosensitive. That is why, in detective cameras, there were already very simple metal shutter shutters built-in, which, at the press of a button, effectively measured the exposure time amounting to fractions of seconds.
Detective cameras did not play a significant role in the history of photography technique, because, in the 1890s, they were almost entirely replaced by coil film cameras, invented by George Eastman. In 1888, he launched the Kodak No 1 camera, which was factory-loaded with a paper ribbon, allowing as many as a hundred pictures to be taken.
Today, these cameras are a somewhat forgotten episode in the history of photography, being an example of the extraordinary ingenuity of their 19th-century constructors.


Elaborated by Marek Maszczak (Museum of Photography in Kraków), © all rights reserved