James Anson Cutting was born to Abijah and Permelia Ingalls Cutting in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1814. Despite the family’s distinction of being one of New England’s earliest settlers, the farming clan lived in relative poverty. The young Cutting apprenticed as a mechanic, but his true passion was science, particularly natural history and chemistry. Little is known about his early life, but due to his family’s financial hardship, it is believed Mr. Cutting was completely self-taught and received no formal scientific instruction. He began patenting his inventions, which included an innovative type of beehive, and financed his move to Boston with the sale of these patents.
After the failure of Mr. Cutting’s beehive business in the mid-1850s, he turned his attentions to photography, educating himself on the relatively new medium, the daguerreotype. Of particular interest to him was the wet-collodion technique that was originally developed (and patented) by British photographers Frederick Archer and Peter Wickens Fry. To cash in on the process in America, Mr. Cutting applied for three patents that offered only slight variations in the original Archer and Fry process. In the first patent, he added camphor to the collodion method, which did not notably improve the process; in the second patent, his modifications were Canada balsam as a sealant and adding a second glass sheet to reflect light that he dubbed ‘ambrotype.’ To ensure he received recognition for this ‘invention,’ he legally changed his middle name to Ambrose so that people would think he named the positive collodion variation after himself. The third patent, which was the addition of potassium bromide to the process, should have never been issued because bromine had been used in collodion plates practically since the invention of the daguerreotype.
These three patents gave Mr. Cutting an unfair advantage over other photographers, who had to purchase licenses from him in order to make their own ‘ambrotypes.’ Eventually, several angry photographers banded together and formed the National Photographic Association of the United States, which sued Mr. Cutting for patent infringement. By the time the patent had been reversed, the ambrotype was already practically obsolete, being replaced by dry collodion on albumen paper. He later concentrated his efforts on the creation of sun pictures, which he also patented and later sold for $40,000. Due perhaps in part to his unpopularity within the industry, Mr. Cutting abandoned photography and pursued other commercial ventures. However, his grand aquarium in Boston, which later expanded and became known as the Aquarial Gardens, proved to be a money pit for Mr. Cutting, and after a rapid succession of owners was purchased by showman P.T. Barnum.
Despite his great ambition and ruthless business tactics, James Ambrose Cutting spent his final years languishing in the poverty from which he had spent a lifetime escaping. Sadly, he died in a Worcester, Massachusetts insane asylum in August of 1867. It is believed the nearly quarter-century of experimenting with toxic photographic chemicals contributed to his demise. While his legacy remains mired in controversy, Mr. Cutting will forever be associated with the development of the ambrotype in the United States. His questionable business practices also led to greater industry protection of photographic patents.
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2010 Crime Scene Photography by Edward M. Robinson (Burlington, MA: Elsevier/Academic Press), p. 6.
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2007 The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography edited by Michael R. Peres (Burlington, MA: Elsevier/Academic Press), pp. 40-41, 66.
1879 The History of Newport, New Hampshire: From 1766 to 1878 by Edmund Wheeler (Concord, NH: The Republican Press Association), p. 358.
2019 James Anson Cutting (URL: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/2025/james-anson-cutting-american-1814-1867-active-1854).
1867 The New-York Times (New York, NY: Raymond, Jones & Company), p. 3.
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2009 What's Who?: A Dictionary of Things Named After People and the People They are Named After by Roger Jones (Leicester, UK: Matador), p. 5.
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