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