Is the Photo an 1850s Copy?

Photos on glass did not exist until the early 1850s so if it does depict the Bronte sisters then it can only be a copy of an 1840s daguerreotype. Is there any evidence that this is a copy?

Daguerreotypes were one-off photographs with no negative to make copies. In the early days the only way of having a copy was to photograph the original. This was a service offered by many photographers, even in the 1840s; for an example of a daguerreotype copy click here (external website). Copies became more common from the early 1850s when collodions (photos on glass) were introduced which greatly reduced prices.

Copying daguerreotypes which had a mirror-like reflective surface wasn't easy but was possible. One method was to photograph the daguerreotype at an angle; a later method used a black-lined box with the daguerreotype at one end, camera at the other, and light entering at the sides.

The methods used to copy daguerreotypes in the 1850s were exactly the same as those employed a century later. They were successfully copied and evidence of this is that many were reproduced as carte de visite photos in the 1860s, and in books from the 1880s onwards.

Example of a Daguerreotype & an 1850s Collodion Copy (photo on glass).

An 1840s daguerreotype (left) and an 1850s collodion copy (right). The marks around the edges of the original daguerreotype were made by a metal frame which has reacted with the silver surface of the photo. When the photographer copied it he photographed the centre, so as to avoid the edges though the curve can be partly seen at the top. Photographs from the 1840s-50s era are usually reversed images. In copying the photo it reversed the image again, making the orientation correct.

The image on the right is an example of a collodion photograph on glass. If it were taken to an expert they would probably date it to the 1850s-60s because the earliest photos on glass date from the early 1850s. Occasionally though, the images are earlier because some are copies of daguerreotypes from the 1840s.

It is difficult to know whether a photo is a copy unless the original exists but sometimes there are clues. Within the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' there are several clues which suggest that it could be a copy of a daguerreotype.

Comparing the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' with other collodion photos from the 1850s-60s. 

When the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' is compared with other collodions it is larger than most, there is an overall greyish cast and a lack of contrast. The hand-cut metal mat is unusual; one edge is straight, the opposite edge is slightly concave, and the other two are uneven, as with the photo of the Parsonage (c1857) at the Bronte Parsonage Museum (see Bronte Connection).

1. The Greyish Cast

This is an example of a Daguerreotype (left) and a copy (right). As with the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' there is a greyish cast and a lack of contrast. This is common in copied photographs.

In later years, when photos were printed on paper from a negative, the contrast could be increased to improve the image.

2. The photo is not level.

When taking a photo in the 1850s one of the first things the photographer did was to ensure that the camera was level. The glass plate in the camera would become the final photo and it couldn't be altered afterwards.

If this is simply a photo of three women then it should have been easy for the photographer as there's a brick wall in the background but the photo is on a slant.

If this is copy of a photograph then the slant may be due to the fact that it is not easy to keep the camera level, especially if the surface of the photo is reflective. With the mirrored surface of a daguerreotype it necessitates moving and tilting the camera to find the best angle.

The photo is shown here with contrast increased and tilted to the correct level on a horizontal black background.

3. Circular black mark

Along the base of the image is a distinct black ring and this doesn't appear to be damage to the photo. If this is simply a photograph of the ladies it shouldn't be there. If it were a copy of a photo then it could be a mark on the original left by the mat and frame which would have been removed to copy it.

4. Distortions

To the top right-hand corner there are distortions which are consistent with photographing a reflective surface. Along the top right-hand side there are swirls - distortions which can happen when photographing a reflective surface at an angle.

Copied daguerreotypes sometimes show reflections from the mirrored surface.


5. Orientation

If it is a copy of a daguerreotype then the orientation should be correct and it is correct for the slight asymmetry of Charlotte Bronte's mouth.

6. Detail

The 'Bronte Sisters Photo' contains a fair amount of detail but less perhaps than might be expected given the size of the glass plate. When photos were copied some detail was always lost.

7. Blemishes

Most of the images taken from the photo and displayed on this website have been edited to remove various blemishes, some black and some white. If at some stage in the future the photo is analysed then it should be possible to determine whether all these various marks are simply dust, dirt or damage on the glass plate. If this is a copy then some marks may be dust, dirt or damage on the original photo.