[Reproduced from the booklet produced to mark our centenary in 1960]
THE PHOTOGRAPHIC BACKGROUND
Although photography was first practised in 1839, the early processes (Daguerreotype and Calotype) were for various reasons so restricted in scope that amateur photography was very rare. But the invention of the "wet collodion" process (Scott-Archer, March 1851) increased enormously the field of work and soon text books and periodicals appeared and photographic societies formed. At the formation of our Society there were thirty-two other societies in existence throughout the world. Twenty of these were British but it appears that very few have continued without a break, these include Leeds (1852), London-now the Royal Photographic Society (1853) and Manchester (1855).
"Wet-collodion" had its merits-so great that it has only recently been superseded in the sphere of process-engraving. It gave negatives of excellent quality, prints were made-by daylight-on "albumen paper" which in handling and appearance resembled the "P O P" which all old photographers remember. Many examples have survived, some are shown in the exhibition. But there were great disadvantages, too. The photographer had to make his own plates. He coated glass with collodion (a solution of gun-cotton in alcohol and ether) containing soluble bromides and iodides. After evaporation of the solvent the plate could be stored. Just before use it was soaked in silver nitrate solution, exposed wet, and developed at once. If it dried out or the silver nitrate crystallized, the plate was ruined. This meant that for outdoor work it was necessary to carry, as well as the camera, a portable dark room or tent and all necessary chemical solutions. As enlarging was impracticable the plate had to be as large as the final print-in Bradford 10 x 8 inches was the popular size. For this the total weight to carry for a day's work would be fully 50 Ibs. It was essential to get a friend to help with the load-the lure was the promise to teach him photography and to give him prints. It is not surprising that a member in January 1861 thought landscape work "too laborious to be entirely pleasurable".
There was constant endeavour to reduce the load-mostly by adding deliquescent substances to keep the plate moist. Zinc chloride, sugar, treacle, beer, and scores of other substances were seriously advocated.
Much better were the complicated tannin and albumen treatments which made the so-called "dry" plates figuring in the first year's syllabus but which had only one-sixth of the speed of the wet plate. Another popular way was to use the smaller stereoscopic camera taking 6½ x 3¼ inch plates. It seems that away from home most of the first members used these cameras and "dry" plates thereby reducing the load to 14 lbs or so. If however work was within two or three minutes of their own or a friend's dark-room a larger camera with large wet plates could be used.
Cameras were rather clumsy versions of the present "stand camera". A firm stand was required on every occasion, shutters were unknown and although the wet plate was ten times as fast as earlier processes, exposures were rarely, if ever, less than half a minute-thus a lens cap moved by hand was quite adequate for exposing. The "dark tent" for developing was light enough to work in for it had a large window of yellow fabric. The "changing bag" for loading "dry" plates could safely be made entirely of this fabric.