John Carbutt was born in Sheffield, England on December 2, 1832, and emigrated to the United States in 1853, settling in Chicago. His career in photography began when he photographed Canada's Grand Trunk Railway from 1853 to 1859. He is believed to be the first Chicago-based photographer to take portraits for cartes-de-visite or small visiting cards that first gained popularity in Europe during the mid-nineteenth century. Mr. Carbutt's interest in dry plates commenced during the early 1860s, and he began using magnesium light for flash photography in 1865.
His experimentation with dry-plate photography intensified, and in 1868, he replaced the traditional collodion albumen dry plate mixture with gelatine. He perfected the gelatine intaglio printing method, better known as the Woodburytype process, and in 1871, Mr. Carbutt relocated to Philadelphia to open the Keystone Dry Plate Works. Eight years' later, he received a lucrative contract from Scovill Manufacturing Company to distribute their dry plates, and competed successfully with Gustav "Papa" Cramer and Hermann Norden, whose company was the sole distributor of dry plates in St. Louis. In fact, a competition between Carbutt, Cramer & Norden, and George Eastman proved beneficial for all. There were enough profits to go around, and consumers could purchase quality dry plates in several U.S. locations. The Carbutt plates for lantern slides particularly distinguished themselves for their excellent quality.
John Carbutt's company became synonymous with the distribution of superior dry plate innovations, including the first gelatine-bromide dry plates (1879), the first orthochromatic dry plates (1886), and the first celluloid dry plates (1888). He explained the celluloid process in a September 1889 issue of Wilson's Photographic Magazine. According to Mr. Carbutt, celluloid is made from bleached tissue paper that is nitrogenized and then ground up with camphor before being pressed out into a slab. Following some evaporation, thin slices are shaved, placed onto frames, then stretched down and fed into a forced-air press. It will then cur for approximately six weeks, before entering the finishing process, after which the celluloid is manufactured with a fine mat surface that prevents halation or the spreading of light.
After introducing the first X-ray plates for commercial use in 1896, John Carbutt spent his later years experimenting with color photography and developed color screens for process engraving. He also indulged in his lifelong love of landscape photography. In addition, Mr. Carbutt served as a consultant to several organizations, most notably the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Photographic Society, that frequently sought his technical expertise. In the early twentieth century, Mr. Carbutt's health began to fail, and he died in Philadelphia after a brief illness on July 26, 1905. While the name John Carbutt may be largely forgotten today, his important contributions to dry plate and color photography are not.
1889 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. XXVI, No. 352 (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 529-532.
1905 The Camera and Darkroom, Vol. VIII (New York: The American Photographic Publishing Co.), p. 266.
1905 Journal of the Franklin Institute, Vol. CLX, No. 1 (Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute), pp. 461-463.
1905 The Photo-Miniature, Vol. VI (New York: Tennant & Ward), pp. 666-667.
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