Wet-plate Collodion: Changing Attitudes to Death During
the American Civil War

Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862. Thure de Thulstrup (1846-1930); published 1887

Battle of Antietam [PD ART]

Approximately 700,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the American Civil War (1861-1864) and some 300,000 others were injured. That's more than a million people in total. Although spiritualism was already popular prior to 1861, the fact that so many families were touched by death during this period is clearly the reason why the number of spiritualist followers grew. So this month I'll be looking at one of the lesser contributing factors instead: how the use of a new technology not only changed the way that everybody perceived war, but, for the first time in human history, offered those who'd lost relatives a way to remember their loved ones in perpetuity. They say that history is written by the victors. They forget to add that, since the dawn of civilization, history has been drawn, painted, carved and cast in bronze by them too. For millennia artists have strived to immortalize great, heroic battles on paper, metal, stone and canvas. Above you will see such a painting, The Battle of Antietam by Thure de Thulstrup, typical of how war was depicted in the mid-nineteenth century. Take a good look at it, because from the mid-1850's on, prints made by using a photographic process called wet-plate collodion radically altered how we saw war.

The wet-plate collodion process, which was first introduced in 1851, was the brainchild of a man named Frederick Scott Archer. It had some distinct advantages over its two major competitors. Unlike daguerreotypes, which were one-off originals, collodion plates were negatives that could be printed countless times; unlike calotypes (also known as Talbotypes) whose negatives were made of paper, the glass plates of the collodion process gave sharp prints with an extraordinary tonal range that were rivalled only by daguerreotypes. But it also had one major disadvantage. The plates had to be coated in an emulsion and sensitized in a darkroom, exposed in a camera, then developed in the darkroom before the jellied emulsion dried—all in a matter of ten minutes. While this might seem to make it a strange choice for the documenting of wars, the truth is it was the only choice: daguerreotypes could not be printed, and calotypes were only capable of producing flat, sketch-like images.

Photograph by Roger Fenton (1819–1869), 1855; digital ID cph.3g09240 from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

The artist's van [PD]

Even so, it required a great deal of ingenuity, dedication and money to go and work on the battlefield, as each photographer needed a travelling darkroom in which to prepare and develop their plates. The one you see here dates from 1855. It belonged to the English photographer Roger Fenton, who used it in the Crimean War. The man seated in the driver's seat is Marcus Sparling, Fenton's assistant. Although from its inception the wet-plate process was used to record a number of wars, it wasn't until 1861 that it was used in a thoroughly planned and organized way. Mathew Brady, a New York photographer of some standing (it is his portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln in the previous post), came up with the idea of founding a company dedicated to documenting the American Civil War. He received Lincoln's blessing in 1861 on the proviso that he finance the project himself.

Confederate dead at the Battle of Spotsylvania, May 18 1864. Photographer unknown

Confederate dead at the Battle of Spotsylvania [PD]

Brady employed 23 men, each of whom he equipped at enormous expense with a travelling darkroom. He spent approximately $100,000 on making some 10,000 plates, all of them bearing his name though few were actually taken by the man himself. His first collection of prints, entitled "The Dead of Antietam", was exhibited at his New York gallery in the October of 1862. The effect on the American public could not have been more startling. Where Roger Fenton had deliberately shied away from photographing dead bodies, Brady's employees did not. The dead, in fact, made excellent subjects, as exposure times for this period were upwards of several seconds, which ruled out the possibility of capturing live combat. The grim realities of death that were barely touched upon in painted scenes such as the one that heads this post could no longer be ignored.

Christian A. Fleetwood in uniform, 1884 Carte-de-visite, photographer unknown; Library of Congress

Christian A. Fleetwood, 1884 [PD]

While this caused a massive shift in the public's consciousness and understanding of war, it is probably the carte-de-visite photograph, the wet-plate's smaller, humbler cousin, that contributed more to the spurring on of spiritualism during this period. Cartes-de-visite were made on the same glass plates, but with a special camera that had eight separate lenses, each of which could be uncovered singly to give the sitter eight different poses, or uncovered collectively to give eight practically identical versions of the same pose. Once printed, the photos were cut up and pasted on to sturdy backing-cards, to be sent home to sweethearts, family and friends. As unimaginable as it may seem, this is the first war where ordinary enlisted soldiers were able do such a thing. Prior to this, having a likeness made before going off to die in battle (and remember, as photography was in its infancy, we're talking about drawings or paintings) was beyond the pocket of most.

When the war ended in 1864, the U.S. government declined to buy Brady's extensive collection of photographs, as he had hoped they would. The public, who had had their fill of death, had grown weary of his images. He was forced to sell his New York City studio and go into bankruptcy. Although Congress granted him $25,000 in 1875, for the rest of his life he remained in debt and died penniless in the charity ward of a New York hospital in 1896.

Next chapter: Exporting spiritualism abroad