Richard Leach Maddox revolutionized Photography

Richard Leach Maddox

Richard Leach Maddox

On August 4, 1816, English photographer and physician Richard Leach Maddox was born. Maddox is best known for his invention lightweight gelatin negative plates for photography in 1871, which enabled photographers to use commercial dry plates off the shelf instead of having to prepare their own emulsions in a mobile darkroom. Also, for the first time, cameras could be made small enough to be hand-held.

Richard Lech Maddox first became known for his photomicrography method. This was the photography of minute organisms under the microscope. Famous contemporary photographer Lionel S. Beale included as a frontispiece images made by Maddox in his manual ‘How to work with the Microscope’.

In 1851, Scott Archer invented the Collodion process. This famous process required only two to three seconds of light exposure to produce an image, but plates had to be sensitized at the time of exposure, exposed while the emulsion was still wet, and processed immediately after exposure in the camera. However, Richard Maddox noticed that his health was affected by the collodion’s ether vapor and he began searching for a substitute. In 1871, he suggested a ew method. In the British Journal of Photography he published an article on ‘An Experiment with Gelatino-Bromide’. In it, he described that sensitizing the chemicals cadmium bromide and silver nitrate should be coated on a glass plate in gelatin, a transparent substance used for making candies. Charles Harper Bennett then created the first first gelatin dry plates for sale. This was before the emulsion could be coated on celluloid roll film.

Richard Maddox also experimented with different bases. For example, he combined silver bromide with “vegetable gummy matters” like quince or linseed and “starchy substances” like rice, tapioca and sago. Eventually, he tried out gelatin from a packet of Nelson’s Gelatine Granuals. Maddox prepared a number of plates, exposing by contact-printing them from other negatives, and putting each through a different exposure trial. “The resulting prints were very delicate in detail, of a colour varying between a bistre and olive tint, and after washing dried to a brilliant surface”.

The impact of the dry plate on photography at the time was critical. Photographers were then able to use commercial dry plates off the shelf instead of having to prepare their own emulsions in a mobile darkroom. Negatives did not have to be developed immediately. Also, for the first time, cameras could be made small enough to be hand-held. After further research much faster exposure times could be achieved which led to the snapshot photography, which played an important role in the development of cinematography.

References and Further Reading:

Dry Plate Photography
Richard Maddox at Southampton Victorian Photographers
An Experiment with Gelato-Bromide by Richard Leach Maddox

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