150 years of photography – a look back at its birth

Knowledge of the history of photography cannot make one a better photographer. Indeed, we take it for granted that many of the world’s great photographs were made completely without though for the persons or events which made this art possible.

Knowledge of the history of photography can, however, make a happier photographer; a modern day practicioner in a great tradition, with a kinship to those who have gone before.

The year 1989 is to be observed by photo-historians and many other as the 150the anniversary of the birth of photography. This art and science owes it existance to the invention of a means for permanently recording the image of a scene as viewed by the camera obscura.

This camera, described by the Arabian scholar Alhazen in 1939, was an image forming device, at first employing a pinhole aperture to form an image on the opposite wall of a darkened enclosure. By the mid-17th Century it had been refined and made portable, fitted with a lens and configured to make it useful to an artist as an aid in sketching. It provided an image of the scene in view on a screen from which it could be traced on transluscent paper to be later expanded upon to colored.

But artists wished for something much better-nothing less than a means for recording the image in such a way as to eliminate the laborious sketching! Although inspiration for an invention many strike some perceptive person as a sudden impulse, it more likely satisfies some long felt and pressing need. More often than not this need is felt by many individuals. The late 1940s and early 1950s, for example, was a period when many investigators were exploring the unusual semiconducting properties of germanium and silicon. Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain solved the puzzle and photography tips ev the transistor was born. Today. in a similar way, hope for success in finding a superconducting alloy prompts an extensive study and research effort by individuals and organizations worldwide.

In a like manner, early in the 19the Century, investigators became interested in image recording. Although scientific disciplines were not clearly defined at the time, the physics of the camera obscura were understood. The question was could a chemical means be found to make the image of this camera permanent?

Back in the 18the Century, the German Physician J. H. Schulze had discovered the light-sensitive characteristics of silver compounds. Later, Priestly in England, Scheele in Sweden, Senebier in Switzerland, Battista in Italy and other conducted experiments to help understand the puzzling action of light on certain chemical compounds.

Thomas Wedgewood, son of the well known English potter, produced images on paper and leather sensitized with silver nitrate or silver chloride. They were images transferred from line drawings or from painting on glass. His work was published in 1802. However, like other workers, he couldn’t “fix” the image; he couldn’t prevent it from continuing to darken. His images had to be kept in the dark and viewed only be feeble light.

The artists’ desires were not to be satisfied in the 18th Century, but early in the next Century, pieces of the puzzle began to fall in place. Joseph-Nicephore Niepce, a retired French army officer, experimented with lithographic techniques, seeking to improve printing methods. He discovered the light sensitive properties of certain bituminous (asphalt-like) materials. His first “heliographs,” as he called them, were made in 1822 by exposing a bituminized plate to light using a drawing on translucent paper to delineate the pattern in contact with the plate.

By 1826 or 1827, he had used the camera obscura as an imaging device to successfully record the view from the window of his house at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. This image, recorded on a pewter plate and requiring a very long exposure to the scene, it is existence today and considered to be the world’s first photograph.

Niepce’s work failed to produce a truly useful photographic process, but news of his work reached another experimenter, Louis Jaques Mande Daguerre. Daguerre was a scenic painter and entrepreneur who was familiar with the camera obscura. Cautiously, Niepce and Daguerre formed a partnership to explore ways of recording and making permanent the camera obscura image. Niepce died before much progress had been made, but his son, Isadore, carrier on in his place.

Daguerre’s work centered on the use of a silver-clad copper surface made light sensitive through treatment with iodine vapor. This light-sensitive material left much to be desired. Like Niepce’s bituminized plates, it required a long exposure to produce an image. Daguerre discovered, quite by accident it is thought, that the vapor of mercury would reveal, or in effect develop., the latent image formed in the silver iodide layer. Daguerre’s image became permanent after treatment in a strong salt solution followed by a water rinse. Its highlights were a milky deposit of mercury amalgum; the shadows, plain polished silver.

This mirror-like image had to be held at the proper angle for its features to be seen, but it provided a beautifully detailed representation of the subject, with a broad range of tones between white and black. Daguerre’s invention was announced to the public January 7, 1839.

Across the channel in England the announcement of Daguerre’s success caught another researcher, William Henry Fox Talbot, by complete surprise. Talbot possessed an unusual combination of talents. He was at once a botanist, artist, orientalist, scientist and mathematician. During 1833 and 1834, he had been a member of the British Parliament.

In 1834, using paper treated with both silver nitrate and sodium chloride to form silver chloride, he had made stencil-like images of leaves and pieces of lace. he called these “photogenic drawings.” By August 1835, he had made permanent images using a modified camera obscura of very small size.

Talbot’s process produced an image of reverse tone; a negative image. By placing the negative in close contact with another sensitized paper and using sunlight to penetrate the transluscent negative he transferred the image to the second sensitized paper, which then appeared in the same tone as the original subject. Talbot had invented the negative-positive process from which evolved the photographic process we know today.

Talbot, as previously mentioned, was a man of many talents and interests. During the years immediately following 1835, other interests occupied his time. Upon learning of Daguerre’s announcement, Talbot took swift action to make known his work in this field. Examples of his photogenic drawings were shown to member of the Royal Institution on January 25, and the Royal Society on January 31. On February 21, 1839, he published a detailed account of his process.

In science, however, the first with an idea and the first to publish information or demonstrate that idea wins the laurels. So it was in 1839. Even though Talbot had begun his work in 1834, Daguerre’s work had predated it by at least six year, and Daguerre’s public announcement came first.

Others, although not as well known today as Daguerre, Niepce and Talbot, laid claim to similar inventions. Hans Thoger, a Norweigan, reported he had successfully recorded images as early as 1826. Hercules Florence, a Frenchman working in Brazil, reported similar results in 1832. Hippolyte Bayard exhibited his work in Paris in July 1839. His work centered upon a direct positive process which produced good results.

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One of the most interesting aspects of this story, with lessons applicable today, is the manner in which the inventions of Daguerre and Talbot were promoted. Daguerre, with Niepce’s son, Isadore, now in the role of junior partner, had financial problems. He asked Francois Arago for help. Arago, a prominent astronomer and French Deputy, with the help of scientist Gay-Lussac, persuaded the French government to acquire the invention. They did so in July 1839, granting an annual pension of 6,000 francs to Daguerre and 4,000 francs to Niepce.

Arago, on August 19, 1839, made the presentation to the French Academies des Sciences and Beaux Arts which described Daguerre’s process in detail. He discussed its evolution, predicted its brilliant future and offered its free use to the world, England excepted. Daguerre had received a patent in England just five days earlier. The art and science of photography was born! The enormous publicity given this even and the generosity of the French government in making the invention widely available launched the Daguerre process in a great burst of interest and enthusiasm.

In England, Talbot resumed work on his process, improving it by increasing the sensitivity of his paper negative materials and introducing the use of a developer. He called his developer gallo-nitrate of silver and his improved process the Calotype, later renamed the Talbotype. In 1841, Talbot patented his process and from then on charged a royalty for its use. by doing so, he attempted to recover the costs incurred as the process evolved. Although he allowed free use to artists, scientist and amateur photographers (yes, amateur photographers existed in 1841), the net effect is thought to have held back progress in photography in England.

Talbot, very much an artist himself, made beautiful photographs, many existing to this day. In 1844, he published the Pencil of Nature, a book describing his photographic work and illustrated with actual Talbotypes.

The Daguerreotype, which gained rapidly in popularity easily surpassing the Talbotype, was not without need for improvement. The length of exposure, five minutes or more, made portraiture difficult. This shortcoming was remedied by John Goddard in England who added a second halide to the sensitive silver iodide layer and by Joseph Petzval in Vienna who designed a lens of greater light-gathering power. A further improvement was made by Hippolyte Fitzeau of France. He introduced a gold chloride treatment which intensified the image.

A comparison of an early Daguerreotype and a Talbotype would show the Daguerreotype to be a far more realistic representation of the original view. The Talbotype positive, an image made from a paper negative, inherently lacked the sharpness, detail and contrast of the Daguerreotype. Talbot’s friend, Sir John Herschel, the distinguished astronomer and photographic chemist, wrote to Talbot from Paris after seeing Daguerreotypes, “It is hardly saying too much to call them miraculous. Certainly they surpass anything I could have conceived as within the bounds of reasonable expectation.”

The Daguerreotype became immensely popular, particularly for portraiture. Mounted in its exquisite| case with fancy frame and velvet lining, to many it was a joy to behold.

In the United States, the Daguerreotype became especially popular, the acknowledged skill and resourcefulness of the practitioners being partly responsible. The term “Daguerreomania” has been used to describe enthusiasm shown for these pictures during the 1840s and 1850s when they were in great demand. An estimate of numbers produced during the life of the process (1839-1855) is all but impossible, but their magnitude worldwide could rival the numbers reported during the earlier years of our fast food chains. Very large numbers of these images are still to be seen in museums, family collections and in the inventory of dealers in photographic art and antiques.

It is now generally agreed that the Talbot process was the “right” one. Our processes of today are directly descended from it. With Daguerre’s process, it was difficult to make duplicate copies, the images themselves were bulky and had to be kept under glass. Compared to competing processes, they were expensive. By 1856, the process was in rapid decline. Improvements in Talbot’s positive-negative process gave it the sensitivity, contrast and sharpness of image it had lacked in the beginning. Improvements are still being made.

In 1989, as we commemorate the anniversary of the birth of photography, we should honor also those determined inventors who brought it into being. They explored an uncharted area of science with inadequate tools and materials they poorly understood. Could they have guessed their work would give rise to an industry of major proportions and to a new and widely practiced art form? Could they have guessed that at its sesquicentennial their work would be remembered for its life changing impact on all of us?