Charleston, South Carolina
AMBROTYPE: One side of a clean glass plate is coated with a thin layer of iodized collodion, then dipped in a silver nitratesolution. The plate is exposed in the camera while still wet, the exposure times varying from five to sixty seconds or more (depending on the brightness of the lighting and the speed of the camera lens). The plate is then developed and fixed. The resulting negative, when viewed by reflected light against a black background, appears to be a positive image: the clear areas look black, and the exposed, opaque areas appear relatively light. This effect is integrated by backing the plate with black velvet; by taking the picture on a plate made of dark reddish-colored glass (the result is called a ruby ambrotype); or by coating one side of the plate with black varnish. Either the emulsion side or the bare side can be coated: if the bare side is blackened, the thickness of the glass adds a sense of depth to the image. In either case, another plate of glass is put over the fragile emulsion side to protect it, and the whole is mounted in a metal frame and kept in a protective case. In some instances the protective glass is cemented directly to the emulsion, generally with a balsam resin. This protects the image well but tends to darken it. Ambrotypes are sometimes hand-tinted; untinted ambrotypes are monochrome, gray or tan in their lightest areas.
The ambrotype was based on the wet plate collodion process invented by Frederick Scott Archer. Ambrotypes were deliberately underexposed negatives made by that process and optimized for viewing as positives instead. In the US, ambrotypes first came into use in the early 1850s. In 1854, James Ambrose Cutting of Boston took out several patents relating to the process. He may be responsible for coining the term "ambrotype". Ambrotypes were much less expensive to produce than daguerreotypes, the medium that predominated when they were introduced, and did not have the bright mirror-like metallic surface that could make daguerreotypes troublesome to view and which some people disliked. An ambrotype, however, appeared dull and drab when compared with the brilliance of a well-made and properly viewed daguerreotype. By the late 1850s, the ambrotype was overtaking the daguerreotype in popularity. By the mid-1860s, the ambrotype itself was being replaced by the tintype, a similar image on a sturdy black-lacquered thin iron sheet, as well as by photographic albumen paper prints made from glass plate collodion negatives.
Bill Steber has documented blues culture in Mississippi for the last 20 years, chronicling the state’s blues musicians, juke joints, churches, river baptisms, hoodoo practitioners, traditional farming methods, folk traditions and other significant traditions that gave birth to or influenced the blues. The work is gathered in his exhibit “Stones in my Pathway” as well as in the pages of Living Blues magazine and other publications.
Steber, a native of Centerville, TN, was a staff photojournalist for the Tennessean in Nashville from 1989-2004, winning dozens of regional and national awards while shooting everything from national politics to New York runway fashion and the Super Bowl.
His latest passion is exploring 21st-century American culture through the use of 19th century wet plate photography, including tintypes, ambrotypes and glass negatives.
In addition to his photography, Steber makes music with The Jake Leg Stompers, the Hoodoo Men, The Jericho Road Show and The Worried Minds.