Titian Ramsay Peale: Washington, D.C. in collodion

As an intern in the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History in the summer of 2010, I set out to survey approximately 350 photographs and photography-related objects in the Titian Ramsay Peale II collection. Peale (1799-1885) was a photography enthusiast, among much else, who resided in Washington, D.C. between approximately 1848 and 1873. During that time, but particularly during the 1850s and 1860s, he photographed the topography, architecture, and monuments characteristic of and emerging throughout Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area.

An experimental, amateur photographer, Peale investigated dry and wet collodion methods early in the wake of the process (with various added modifications), and experimented with lens-less photography and early stereographic methods. He explored the formulas of practiced photographers such as Bayard and investigated processes developed by Whipple, How, Sutton, and Taupenot, as annotated in his photographic albums.

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Titian Ramsay Peale, Bird‘s-Eye View of the U. S. Capitol looking East, from panorama of Washington D.C., taken from the central tower of the Smithsonian Institution, c. 1863, albumen (probably) print, overall size: 20.3 cm. x 25.8 cm., catalog number: 66.23.01

A member of the historic Peale family of American artists and painters, T. R. Peale assumed many roles throughout his lifetime and cultivated various skills. His vocations included scientific explorer as part of the Long and Wilkes expeditions (the Long expedition was one of the first to explore the country between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains), botanic and zoological illustrator, museum manager, and patent examiner. His enduring journals, such as the Diary of Titian Ramsay Peale: Oregon to California Overland Journey September and October 1841, suggest his use of optical devices, such as the camera lucida--a three or four-sided prism positioned on top a vertical rod which could then be attached to a drawing board--to facilitate the production and precision of his observational drawings while on expedition. His use of the camera lucida predated his experiments with collodion photographic processes. Later, as patent examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, 1848-1873, where he eventually rose to principle examiner in the Division on Arts, he likely became aware of successive developments in photographic technologies. Peale historian Julie Haifley Link suggests his post in the Patent Office was likely "influential for his awareness and knowledge of literature concerning photography and the technological advances of the medium."

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Titian Ramsay Peale, T R Peale‘s First Attempt at Photography. Pearce‘s Mill. Rock Creek DC., c. 1850 – 1856, albumen (probably) print, image size: 16.2 cm. x 21.1 cm., catalog number: 66.25.01

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Titian Ramsay Peale, Early Experiments from Paradise Window G Street Washington DC, c. 1850 – 1860 (probably) salted paper print, image size: 11.1 cm. x 15.5 cm., catalog number: 66.24.18

Peale corresponded with his nephew Coleman Sellars, inventor of the Kinemateoscope— a hand cranked, rotating device intended for viewing series of stereoscopic images—on a variety of photography-related subjects. These letters covered photographic processes and methods, as well as the contemporaneous work of other national and international amateurs of the time. Subsequently, his membership to the Amateur Photographic Exchange Club, founded in 1861, allowed an avenue for Peale to engage in regular exchange with regards to photography-related topics.

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Etched by O. N. Rood, printed by F. F. Thompson, Amateur Photographic Exchange Club, Daddy Long-Legs and his Memories, April 1, 1863, mount size: 14.9 cm. x 12.7 cm. recto & verso views, catalog number 66.24.26

The museum collection includes six ornate albums containing numerous salted paper and albumen prints which, according to Peale‘s annotations, were largely produced from dry and wet-collodion negatives as well as paper and waxed paper negatives. Some of the photographic prints, fixed into the leaves of the albums alongside Peale‘s marginal notes, detail the condition of variables such as substances and solutions, processes, duration of paper sensitization and condition, date (occasionally remarking on the time of day and weather), and exposure time.

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Titian Ramsay Peale; 10‘ exposure to yellow light just before sunset all the building & street being in shadow, October 14, 1856, salted paper (probably)print, image size: 16.3 cm. x 19.9 cm., catalog number: 66.21.33

Drawing from his notes, we can infer that Peale modified his collodion solutions in order to tune the sensitivity of his plates. Numerous recurring--often near duplicate--compositions, such as views taken from the back of the "Paradise" and other windows of the photographer‘s G and K Street residences, suggest a trial of investigations focusing on developing and printing practices. Developed by Frederick Scott Archer in 1848 and published in 1851, the wet-plate collodion process prevailed largely between 1855-1881. It consisted of a glass plate evenly coated with collodion, which was made from gun cotton, alcohol, ether, and potassium iodide. Following the initial coating, the plate was then dipped into a bath of silver nitrate and later developed after exposure. As saturation of the collodion-coated plate determined its sensitivity, Peale‘s addition of supplementary ingredients like honey, gallic acid, albumen, or sweat suggests that his experimentations targeted drying time. Measures to slow plate drying time would have affected the malleability and light sensitivity of his plates.

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Titian Ramsay Peale; A drop of perspiration on the portico!, July 21, 1856, salted paper (probably) print, image size: 18.9 cm. x 22.3 cm., catalog number: 66.21.23

Among the early amateur photographers to experiment with collodion processes, Peale‘s photographic explorations coincided with innovations in photographic technologies of the time. His experiments in collodion and other processes offer rare glimpses into the nation‘s capital, setting for one enthusiast‘s individual cultivation of the photographic medium.

For more information concerning early photographic materials please visit the Smithsonian Institution‘s Understanding Early Photography website.

Sarah Dansberger is a fellow in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 11:01 am EST