Restoring and Preserving Ambrotypes
Let’s talk about ambrotypes.
An ambrotype is a photograph whose technique dates to the 1850s. It is the antique equivalent to the modern day slide. Created through a wet process, an ambrotype is a glass negative that appears to be a positive. It is painted black on one side and is often hand tinted. Most ambrotypes are in an ornate case called a casket, coffin, union case, etc. They’re the type of photo most people dig out of a long forgotten box, but they are a special piece of photography history.
Recently, a client who recognized how special her ambrotype is reached out to us about preserving it and putting it on display in her home. The photo was of an ancestor that fought in the Civil War. It was a gorgeous ambrotype, hand embellished with gold. His portrait came with the provenance, but it also came with a bit of damage from someone opened his original casket and damaged the glass plate.
Our client had two goals for this ambrotype: preservation and sharing. We needed to professionally clean and mend the original as well as duplicate the piece. Our client wanted to add historically accurate color to the restored copies. Mary Lou researched the colors that were specific to his regimen and hand colored this photo.
When the restoration was complete, we worked with our client to choose the perfect frame to house the original ambrotype. They chose a finished corner frame – a hand crafted frame that has finished corners that do not show a join. This frame was created with extra depth to elevate the casket. We took the provenance text and created a plaque for the art. The original text is on the preserved on the back. The original piece was mended and framed with a conservation seal to protect the ambrotype from further deterioration from humidity, change in atmosphere, potential UV issues with exposure while on display and handling.
It was a privilege to work on this project. When Mary Lou first saw the piece, she a step away from jumping up and down with excitement and enthusiasm, and it wasn’t solely because of the piece. The client’s passion over her piece was infectious, and it yielded a fantastic framed ambrotype.
If you have an ambrotype, there are a few things that you should know:
- Do not open the casket. Leave the copper seal alone. It will be tempting to try and remove it, but you run the risk of damaging it. Ambrotypes are fragile and the case is meant to protect them.
- If it is open, do not scan it. Professionals will know how to correctly reproduce your fragile ambrotype without exposing it to elements that will cause your piece to begin oxidizing. Taking a photo of it with your cell phone will not hurt it, but the best results will be yielded by a professional.
- Wear gloves. The case alone is valuable. Wear soft cotton gloves to handle the piece, and do not be tempted to use a glass cleaner on the surface.
- Certain ambrotypes have collectors value to photography fans and more. However, do not underestimate how much ancestral value these pieces have to family members.
To learn more about the different types of photography, visit our photo restoration page.