Mammoth Plates

Scenic Views (circa 1850s-1950s)
Glass Plate Camera
Camera Credit: The Kodak Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford

Mammoth Plates

Photographic techniques and formats were continually improving in mid-nineteenth century America. Among other things, people wanted ever larger photographs. Beginning with smaller cartes-de-visites, photographers increased the size of their photographs by using ever larger glass plates (and cameras) to capture their subjects. These 15 ¾ x 20 ¼ inch wet plates were coated in a chemical bath called collodion.

These major developments took place as the nation continued to expand. The American West’s vast expanses were ideal subjects for mammoth plates. California photography helped to inspire a new tourism industry. In the process, photographers created some of the most remarkable views of the Golden State’s natural wonders. Some mammoth plate photos of Yosemite even helped to convince President Abraham Lincoln and members of Congress to preserve the beautiful valley in 1864 for future generations.

Mammoth Plate of man standing on car outside the CA State Capitol

When creating their mammoth plate views, early photographers like Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) would have traveled with cameras similar in size to this one. While this particular camera can produce 17″ x 17″ images, some of Watkins’ scenic photographs measured 18″ x 22″ – requiring a camera even larger than this example. Though notoriously difficult to transport, large-format cameras promised impressive detail and clarity, perfect for photographing scenic California landscapes.

This camera was formerly used by the California Department of Water Resources. It was manufactured by L.F. Deardorff & Sons, an Illinois company that produced many portrait and field cameras. This model is an Enlarging, Reducing, and Copying Camera – or ERC – that could duplicate existing photographs by taking a picture of a picture. ERCs were usually made-to-order, and surviving examples are rare.

Mammoth Plate of Deardorff Background