Chem 200 Visits the Addison Art Gallery to Learn About the Chemical History of Photography
Guest Post by Sofie Brown ’18
Our Chem 200 class was a little bit surprised when Mr. Robinson told us that we would be taking a class field trip to campus’ Addison Gallery of American Art. Chemistry is usually not something associated with art museums but Chem 200 was there to take the sometimes abstract and hard to understand equations and formulas and apply them to photography.
Before the trip, the class divided up into pairs to research the different types and chemical processes involved the history of the creation of photographs. We researched the Daguerreotype, Tin type, Ambrotype, Albumen Prints, and Gelatin Silver Prints. All of these photograph types uses a different chemical process to create the image and by looking at the chemical processes involved in the creation we could trace the history of photographs.
By looking at rare old photographs and sharing our research we discussed how chemical advances have made photography more accessible which has significantly altered the country’s memory and way of looking at history. Photography made memory visual and became the most democratic way of capturing the stories of all people, not just those who could afford to have their portraits painted. Chemical advances took photography from using large equipment in many steps with many poisonous chemicals to print a fragile easily faded photo to a small two step process on paper that is durable and cheap. Photographers would take large wagons of equipment and glass around with them to Civil War battlefields in order to photograph soldiers and the fields of dead when photography first came to prominence. Soldiers also often had Daguerreotypes taken (the classic framed black and white head shot). Gradually, Daguerreotypes evolved to be printed on tin and cheaper and more durable and then eventually became a two step process and printed on paper.
The digital photographs we have today would not be possible without the chemical advances in photography over many, many years. Learning about the chemistry of photographs offered our class real world applications and implications of the molecules and elements we struggle to fit into formulas and categories in the classroom.