Photography or ‘drawing with light’ is a uniquely nineteenth century combination of art and science. The process was born out of a synthesis of physics and chemistry and presented to the art world, which received it with considerable misgivings. Photography attracted an extraordinary mixture of chemists and painters, sharp businessmen and dreamy romantics -colourful characters from all ranks of Victorian life. This article traces the early history of photography from the first permanent camera images of the 1820s until the turn of the century. It shows the steady technical improvements and the way these affected the aesthetic and social uses of the new medium. Wherever possible the actual original photographs are reproduced to convey their intrinsic qualities as well as content.
This article is intended for students of 15 years and upwards. It includes topics of interest to groups studying Art, Science, and Social Studies, as well as Photography. It is hoped that these in turn will suggest worthwhile projects, such as exploring aspects of the inter-relationship of art and photography, or Victorian uses of photography and its social impact. The bibliography at the end of these notes includes some of the excellent collections of early photographs now available in book form, as well as photographic histories. Finally, remember that photography is still relatively young. The family albums of existing grand-parents may easily extend back into the era we are discussing. There is probably a wealth of interesting material still lying forgotten in our attics, waiting to be rediscovered.
1. Camera obscura.
This simple device for forming images – the ‘camera obscura’ – has been used by artists for centuries as a sketching aid. Early camera obscuras were just darkened rooms with a small aperture in the window shutter. Later a converging lens was added to make the image brighter and clearer for tracing. It is the forerunner of the photographic camera we use today.
Since the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC) it has been known that a small hole in the wall or window shutter of a darkened room can form an image of a brightly lit scene outside. A dim, upsidedown picture is projected onto the opposite wall or a suitable white screen. (You can make a small camera obscura from a cardboard tube using tracing paper over one end and kitchen foil with a pinhole at the other.)
Later, in the sixteenth century, this camera obscura or pinhole camera novelty was improved by fitting a convex lens over the enlarged aperture. The image appeared brighter and clearer, provided it was properly focused. Portable camera obscuras – large like this one, or small hand models – were used by artists to make accurate tracings of scenes. Painters such as Canaletto and Guardi certainly used the device as an aid to perspective drawing.
But it was not until the nineteenth century that attempts were made to record the camera’s image directly, by the action of light on chemicals.
2. Niepce Château, photographed by Nicéphore Niepce, 1826.
Kodak Museum, Harrow.
Until the nineteenth century it was not possible to record the camera’s image chemically. This is probably the world’s first photograph, taken by the Frenchman Nicéphore Niepce in 1826. He used white bitumen spread on a sheet of pewter. The exposure needed, in bright sunlight, was eight hours!
In 1826 the French amateur scientist Nicéphore Niepce succeeded in ‘capturing’ the image formed by a camera obscura. This view, showing a stable block and part of his Chateau at Gras, was taken from his workroom window. It is probably the world’s first photograph (or ‘light drawing’) from nature. Niepce recorded the image on a sheet of polished pewter coated with white bitumen. Allowing this to expose for about eight hours in the camera, he then bathed the metal in lavender oil and petroleum to wash away bitumen in the areas unhardened by light. The result is this crude positive image.
Niepce was really interested in lithography and was hoping to form a plate from which he could print pictures in ink, but the metal proved too soft and the bitumen much too insensitive to light. It did, however, prove that light-sensitive chemicals could be combined with the image-forming properties of the camera obscura. Photography was just possible.
3. Talbot, photographed by Claudet, 1844. Daguerreotype.
Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock, Wiltshire
Daguarre, photographed by Mayall, 1848. Daguerreotype.
Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas.
These people invented the first practical processes of photography. William Henry Fox Talbot (on the left) was the English inventor of a system using negatives and positives. His French rival, Louis Daguerre, used a system giving a direct result on metal.
During the late 1830s and early ‘40s two people were working independently, in Britain and France, to perfect a practical photographic process. English landowner and scientist William Henry Fox Talbot (the one in the stovepipe hat) was experimenting with light-sensitive paper in the camera obscura. Unknown to him, in France the French artist and stage designer Louis Daguerre was devising an entirely different process to record the image. Talbot’s “Calotype” and Daguerre’s “Daguerreotype” processes were to rival each other for years. The Daguerreotype process was to be published first in 1839. As we shall see, it gave excellent quality direct positive pictures and became extremely popular; both these portraits are Daguerreotypes. However, Fox Talbot’s process, hastily patented in 1841, made use of negatives and positives. In this sense it leads more directly to the photographic materials we use today.
4. Paris boulevard, 1838-9. Daguerreotype. International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York.
Daguerre used a small silvered plate, made sensitive to light with iodine. Pictures like this one needed at least ten minutes’ exposure, and you then developed the metal plate to get a positive image. The Daguerreotype process was publicly disclosed in 1839 and created a sensation.
Daguerre had long used the camera obscura to draw accurate perspective and detail for his stage designs. He learnt of Niepce’s experiments with pewter plates and went into partnership with him to improve this process. But by 1837, four years after Niepce’s death, Daguerre had devised a better quality image-recording method of his own. He used a small silver-coated plate of copper which was first exposed, in darkness, to the fumes of iodine. This formed creamy light-sensitive silver iodine on the plate surface. The daguerreotype plate needed an exposure of ten to thirty minutes in the camera. Its still invisible image was then intensified or ‘developed’ in the fumes of warmed mercury and the resulting positive picture made permanent in salt solution.
This copy of an 1839 daguerreotype of a Paris boulevard shows the amazing detail which could be produced. Of course, the long exposure had failed to record the bustling carriages and pedestrians – except by chance the man on the street corner having his boots brushed. This unknown man is the first human being to be photographed directly with the ‘camera’.
In August 1839 Daguerre publicly disclosed his process. There was consternation among established painters. From the time of Van Eyck the ability to accurately represent the everyday world had been greatly respected. Now this appeared possible by direct action of light, without need of an artist. Paul Delaroche exclaimed on seeing the daguerreotype, “From today, painting is dead.”
5. Daguerreotype camera, 1839, and daguerreotype portrait.
Science Museum, London.
Technical improvements soon reduced exposure times to forty-five seconds or so. Portraits like this could be made if the sitter had a neck rest and the arms were supported too. The detailed accuracy of these ‘drawings by the action of light itself’ seemed miraculous.
At first the time exposures needed for daguerreotypes were far too long to take portraits, but people were content to make ‘light drawings’ of buildings and landscapes. Within a short time of its announcement improvements to daguerreotype camera lenses and to the process itself greatly reduced exposure times Provided the camera used was fairly small and the sunlight very bright, pictures could be given as little as forty-five seconds. Of course, sitters for portraits had to be seated, with arms rested and the head held by a neck support hidden behind the body. Often their blurred, watery eyes failed to record and had to be scratched in afterwards.
Professional portrait studios were soon set up in France, Britain and America, using glasshouses on the roofs of buildings. Sitters were posed against painterly, ‘classical’ backdrops, often with a book or vase to suggest their good taste and affluence. The result, mounted behind glass, was sold in a little pinchbeck case suitably padded and decorated. As can be seen, daguerreotype portraits could even be hand-tinted. You can imagine the popularity of these images in an age before pictures in newspapers or books, television etc., and when only the rich could afford to have their portraits painted. The daguerreotypist was in most direct competition with the painter of miniatures. Many such artists were forced out of business, or turned to the new process themselves.
This daguerreotype camera of about 1842 has its lens fitted just inside the camera, behind the adjustable metal aperture. The smaller apertures would be chosen for landscapes, to improve sharpness – the extra exposure time needed being unimportant.
6. Beard’s daguerreotype studio, by Crulkshank. Woodcut, 1842.
Humanities Research Center, Austin,Texas
Professional daguerreotype studios opened in glasshouses built on the roofs of buildings. Customers had to sit motionless in the hot sun, but it was quicker and cheaper than posing for a painting.
Daguerre allowed his process to be used freely in France, and in return received a pension from the French government. But in Britain the process was patented and could only be practised upon payment of a licence fee. This 1842 cartoon depicts Richard Beard’s daguerreotype studio on the roof of 309 Regent Street, London. The assistant, bottom right, is buffing a silvered plate before sensitising it in the darkroom behind. Cameras are fixed to a shelf above the door, where the exposure is timed by another assistant. The sitter is enthroned just below the glass roof, a sheet of blue material above him helping to reduce the heat and glare, without much affecting the exposure. Note the head support.
Beard made a vast fortune from what eventually became a chain of daguerreotype studios. Mostly the portraits were bought by sitters to for their loved ones. Every daguerreotype was unique and could not be printed from, so a separate exposure was required for each picture, although sometimes two cameras would be exposed together.
7. Fox Talbot’s Lacock window negative and camera, 1835.
Science Museum, London.
Fox Talbot meanwhile had been trying to take photographs using this small camera and writing paper treated with silver nitrate. In 1835 he managed to record this size image of a window from inside his house.
To return to 1835, while Louis Daguerre worked secretly on his process in France, William Henry Fox Talbot was devising his own method of recording the camera’s image. At his country house, Lacock Abbey, near Chippenham in Wiltshire, Talbot experimented with silver salts which he knew darkened under the action of light. Using writing paper soaked in silver nitrate solution in this tiny camera made by the village carpenter he succeeded in producing a ‘negative’ of one of the windows of the abbey. The picture shown here is an exact size copy of the original. Exposure was several hours, and the image was then treated with salt solution to make it permanent.
Talbot could make any number of ‘positives’ from his paper negative by placing it in face contact with another sheet of sensitised paper, pressing them together under glass and leaving them in sunlight to print.
8. Window of Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire. Near Chippenham, Wiltshire.
This is the actual window Talbot photographed, as it appears today in Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire.
The window is in the south gallery at Lacock Abbey. On Talbot’s original negative each one of these diamond panes could be counted with the aid of a magnifying glass. As soon a Fox-Talbot heard a preliminary announcement of Daguerre’s researches he took steps to publicise his own ‘photogenic drawing’ fearing that both were working on the same process. He hurriedly presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1839 and showed some of the pictures he had produced at Lacock.
9. Calotype, negative and positive, by D.O. Hill. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
Talbot’s calotype process was sufficiently improved to rival the daguerreotype for portraits and views. Exposure in the camera gave a negative image in which light parts of the subject appeared dark. This needed contact printing onto similar paper to give a positive result. Numbers of prints could be run off but the fibres of the paper negative diffused fine image detail.
In the event the daguerreotype and the Fox-Talbot’s photogenic drawings proved very dissimilar. This was mainly through Talbot’s use of a chemical which blackened under the action of light and so gave negative tomes, and Daguerre’s use of a substance which produced a white image. Other notable British scientists such as Sir John Herschel suggested improvements to Talbot’s process, and by 1840 he had discovered that an invisible image later formed into a negative by a developer (or ‘exciting solution’).
Having now a workable process, which he named the Calotype, Talbot took out patents in England. It was difficult to find photographers prepared to buy licences to practise the calotype process as it gave much less fine detail than the rival daguerreotype. This was because of the paper texture particularly in Scotland where the process remained unpatented and so free for anyone to use.
The greatest exponents of calotypes at this time were the painter David Octavius Hill working in Edinburgh with chemist Robert Adamson. This portrait was one of over 1,500 pictures they took using the process, between 1843 and ’48. Exposure times would be about two minutes.
Talbot himself was an excellent photographer and in 1844 even published a book to promote his process. It was called The Pencil of Nature and was illustrated with actual calotype prints, bulk printed and pasted onto the pages.
10. Glass collodion negative. Science Museum, London.
By mid-century it was discovered that silver salts could be attached to glass using collodion. Collodion negatives gave excellent paper prints with the detail of the daguerreotype. But you had to prepare and coat each plate just before exposure.
The daguerreotype and calotype processes both had serious practical disadvantages. Everyone wanted pictures with the detail of the daguerreotype plus the ability to print off copies like the calotype. If only the light-sensitive salts could be could be coated onto clear glass, and so give a texture-free negative – but the chemicals would not then adhere, particularly during processing.
Various binders were tried, including white-of-egg (albumen). In 1851 London sculptor Frederick Scott Archer suggested the use of collodion – a clear sticky liquid – for attaching silver salts to glass. This improvement was quickly seized upon by photographers and, since the collodion process was never patented, photography became free for the use of all.
Of course, you needed skill to coat glass with an even mixture of collodion and silver salts. Plates also had to be exposed in the camera whilst still wet or they would not work. But excellent detail could be recorded and the new ‘wet’ plates were more sensitive to light than the old processes. In fact exposures now ranged from ninety seconds down to about ten seconds. Within a few years both the daguerreotype and calotype methods of photography had gone out of use.
Collodion is a mixture of gun-cotton, alcohol and ether, and was used medically for dressing wounds in the Crimean War. A similar mixture can still be bought today for painting over cuts – for example ‘Newskin’. Collodion rapidly dries, forming an extremely clear membrane which is impervious to liquids.
11. Portraiture studio in use. Engraving. Kodak Museum, Harrow.
Collodion ‘wet plate’ photography quickly replaced both earlier processes. Fashionable glasshouse studios offered a range of backgrounds and settings. Lighting could be controlled by blinds and reflector boards.
The collodion process was a major turning point in the history of photography, because far more people began practising the new art. Of course, it was still too complicated for the ordinary man in the street to use, but now the possibilities of photography were explored by a whole range of artists and scientists (plus a few money-grubbing charlatans). This engraving shows a fashionable studio of the period, where it was possible to have a ‘whole plate’ , 21.5 cm x 16.5 cm (8 ½ ins x 6 ½ ins) size portrait produced for about L.3. The collodion negative was contact printed onto albumenised paper.
Studios were of course still lit by daylight only, but the increasing sensitivity of materials allowed some choice of lighting. Hence diffusers and blinds were fitted to some of the windows to restrict and control light, and pivoting white boards used to reflect illumination into shadow areas.
12. Cartes-de-visite. Science Museum, London.
Most studios offered a service of small visiting card size portraits. You could also buy these carte-de-visite prints of famous people. Millions of cartes were sold in the 1860s and people collected them in elaborate albums.
A market existed for small size pictures which could be printed cheaply in quantity. Cameras were devised to take several small portraits on one plate; often they used four or six lenses. These gave contact prints each about 7.6 cm (3ins) high, about the size of the visiting cards so often used by Society of the time.
A Parisian photographer, Andre Disderi, first introduced carte-de-visite prints, and they soon became immensely popular. People not only sent pictures of themselves to family and friends, but bought carte-de-visite of the famous, which they collected and displayed in albums. The cards shown here are typical of pictures at the height of the craze in the 1860s, when three to four million carted were sold annually in Britain alone. Notice some of the extremely popular pictures of Queen Victoria, Albert, and the Prince of Wales. Photographers vied amongst each other for the rights to portray well-known people, and celebrities would earn large royalties from sales of their pictures.
13. Family portrait. Kodak Museum, Harrow
Being photographed was still rather an awesome experience, particularly for children who hated keeping still – and babies who just didn’t understand. Lewis Carroll described it in a poem which begins:
From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together…
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs…
This he perched upon a tripod,
And the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures.
Mystic, awful was the process.
By 1869 the craze for carte-de-visite had died out. People preferred larger, cabinet size photographs like this one, for displaying on the family piano or sideboard. Despite the improved process, however, most portraiture turned out the same – stiffly-posed figures given soft overall lighting and shown in the type of setting favoured by respectable Victorian painters. Family groups were particularly popular and much play was made of the fact that the photographer, unlike the painter, could portray ‘whole groups for the price of one’. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and himself an enthusiastic collodion photographer, described the whole process in a poem Hiawatha’s Photography he wrote in 1863. It continues like this:
First, a piece of glass he coated
With Collodion, and plunged it
In a bath of Lunar Caustic
Carefully dissolved in water;
There he left it certain minutes.
Secondly, my Hiawatha
Made with cunning hand a mixture
Of the acid Pyro-gallic,
And the Glacial Acetic,
And of Alcohol and water:
This developed all the picture
Finally, he fixed each picture
With a saturate solution
Of a certain salt of Soda…
…First the Governor, the Father:
He suggested velvet curtains
Looped about a massy pillar;
And the corner of a table,
Of a rosewood dining-table.
He would hold a scroll of something,
Hold it firmly in his left-hand;
He would keep his right-hand buried
(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;
He would contemplate the distance
With a look of pensive meaning…
14. Ambrotype, half of backing removes. Kodak Museum, Harrow.
Another cheaper variation was the ‘Ambrotype’ portrait – a small under-exposed collodion negative pressed against black velvet. The velvet here has been half removed, so you can see how it changed the image from negative to positive.
The Ambrotype process was yet another method of cutting the cost of portraits. Really this was just a small, underexposed (pale) collodion glass negative, backed up with black velvet, cardboard or painted metal to five a positive effect. (You can achieve a similar result today by observing a weak negative against a dark background,) In this example the backing velvet is half replaced by white cardboard, revealing the true negative image. Ambrotypes tended to be used by the cheaper studios, where they could be turned out quickly and cheaply. They also required less exposure time than collodion negatives.
15. William Morris, 1857. Ambrotype. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
There are thousands of ambrotypes still in existence, including some interesting portraits of well-known people. This is the painter William Morris when a twenty-three year old student.
In the hands of a good photographer the process gave excellent likenesses. Ambrotypes have superficial resemblance to daguerreotypes and were often presented in similar cases. You can usually detect the difference, however, because the daguerreotype has a more reflective surface, making it fairly difficult to view properly. Daguerreotypes are much rarer and more valuable than ambrotypes.
In America a variation of the ambrotype – known as the tintype or ferro-type – was the most popular cheap process in the 1860s. The collodion image was produced direct onto dark enamelled pieces of metal, giving a positive appearance. Tintypes always show the image reversed left to right.
16. Cheapjack at work. Engraving. Punch, May 1857.
British Library, London.
In the poorer areas of cities ‘cheap jack’ studios flourished, often duping the public with incompetent work. Photography began to be regarded as a second-rate mechanical process – it was ridiculed in cartoons and music hall songs.
The popularity of photographic portraits and the ease with which indifferent ambrotypes, or tintypes, could be produced by the unskilled encouraged backstreet charlatans to dupe the public. Sixpenny and shilling portrait studios were set up by inexperienced operators. The pictures they produced had little resemblance to the sitter and were often blurred or too light or dark. But such was the mystique and attraction of this miraculous new process called photography, people would accept almost anything. The following excerpt from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor
explains some of the differences in prices:
‘I always take the portrait on a shilling size; and after they are done, I show them what they can have for a shilling – the full size, with the knees; and the table and a vase on it – and let them understand that for sixpence they have all the background and legs cut off; so as many take the shilling portraits as the penny ones.’
So although the patent-free collodion process allowed most people to afford photography of a kind, the pictures were often totally unimaginative. This led to the belief that photography was a second-rate mechanical art, requiring little artistic skill – an opinion cheerfully encouraged by most painters.
17. Fading Away, photographed by H.P. Robinson, 1858.
Royal Photographic Society, London.
Serious amateurs produced art-photographs like this one, dramatically entitled ‘Fading Away’. It was constructed from five separate negatives, printed onto one sheet of paper.
Meanwhile groups and societies had been established by people seriously interested in photography as a new art. Inevitably these photographers were deeply influenced by academy painting of the period. In Britain, as in Europe, popular Victorian art had a strong literary bias – it was full of sentimental, idealised storytelling or allegorical themes. Pundits advised would-be ‘High Art’ photographers to ‘avoid the mean and ugly’ and ‘correct the unpicturesque’. Beauty was more important than truth and the artificial atmosphere of the studio was to be preferred to the real world outside. Photographs were constructed with the aim of ‘instructing, purifying, and ennobling’. They were given sentimental titles such as The Soldier’s Dream, Two Ways of Life or, for this picture by Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away.
Like many ‘high art’ photographers of his time Robinson photographed each figure or group of figures separately. Unwanted parts of each collodion negative were then blocked out with pigment and the negatives painstakingly printed one by one in the appropriate positions on one large sheet of albumen paper. Fading Away was constructed from five retouched negatives, and as a finishing touch the print mount carried a verse by Shelley. This proved the most popular picture in the Photographic Society Exhibition of 1858 and was purchased by queen Victoria. Robinson became extremely influential through his photography and writings on pictorialism.
18. Apple Blossoms, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1856. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Cheshire.
Such use of photography seems ridiculous now, but photographers felt they should follow academic painting of the time, like this 1856 composition by Millais.
Today most of us would regard High Art photography as unacceptably artificial – a misuse of the medium. But many nineteenth century artists produced paintings with similar themes and ‘cut-out’ looking figures. This one by Millais, exhibited as Spring in 1859, tonally severs the figures from the background, which appears as a flat backdrop. Often paintings of this kind were based on daguerreotypes or collodion reference photographs taken by, or for, the artist. So a situation arose in which the painter used photography for its accuracy and detail – information which he could build into his painting. (In some cases these preliminary studies were more impressive than the final work.)
On the other hand, the pictorialist photographer, with some sense of inferiority, tried to disguise his medium’s immediacy and ability to show real life. He aimed to make photographs look as much like paintings as possible.
19. Still life, photographed by Dr Hugh Diamond, 1855. International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York.
Still lifes were also popular subjects for art photography. They were set up and arranged in exactly the same manner as paintings. Photographs of real people and situations were often taken for painters’ references, but not really considered suitable subjects for photographic exhibitions.
The arranged still life was a fairly popular and acceptable subject in salon exhibitions of photography. The objects selected were typical of the nineteenth century love of rich detail and decoration. You can imagine Dr Diamond, the amateur collodion photographer who took this picture in the mid-1850s, gathering together various household objects and setting them up, probably in his conservatory. Picture structure and arrangement closely, followed the style of contemporary painting, but at least this sort of subject challenged the photographer’s ability to compose shapes and forms. It also made straightforward use of the process.
20. Sir John Herschel, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. Royal Photographic Society, London.
Gioachino Antonio Rossini, photographed by Etienne Carjet, 1865. Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.
Few portrait photographers were prepared to allow the strength and character of the sitter to come over in a direct, uncontrived way. Julia Margaret Cameron’s close-up of Sir John Herschel and Etienne’s portrait of the composer Rossini are exceptionally bold approaches.
Not all Victorian portrait photography was stereotyped and dull. Here are photographs of scientist Sir John Herschel (left) and the composer Gioachino Rossini which show that it was possible to portray character too. The Herschel picture was taken in 1867 by the gifted British character photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. A strong personality herself she had many famous friends, and managed to intimidate many of them into sitting for her camera. Her control of lighting is very daring at a time when most portraitists were more concerned with quantity (to give shortest possible exposure times) than quality of light. Perhaps only Mrs Cameron could persuade her subjects to sit so long. Nor was she too worried about technique – her negatives often showed processing defects, subject movement and blurred focus. The images are strong, simple (they rely on the sitter, not the setting) and reflect the power and spirit of people she admired.
Etienne Carjet, who took the Rossini portrait in 1865, was a magazine editor who ran a Parisian studio as a hobby and photographed many distinguished people who were his friends. His pictures are lively and make good use of shapes, again managing to communicate characteristics of the individual sitter. Other photographers such as Nadar were making similar use of the new medium, but such an approach was exceptional. Even Mrs Cameron would dress up relatives and contrive allegorical pictures with titles such as Faith, Hope and Charity. These usually received greater praise than her portraits.
21. Tent darkroom, 1850s. Science Museum, London.
Collodion ‘wet plate’ photography was much more difficult away from the studio. You needed a darkroom tent and various chemicals and dishes, as well as the camera. Plates had to be coated no more than about ten minutes before exposing and processing.
Next to portraiture, travel pictures were the most important application of photography. In a way this seems strange when you recall the technical difficulties of the collodion process. To work on location photographers had to take with them bottles of chemicals, dishes, and a complete darkroom tent in order to coat plates immediately before exposure. (Notice the red window ‘safelight’. Collodion plates were insensitive to red.) Where possible, photographs were taken near some form of water to avoid carrying this around too. It is hardly surprising that collodion photographers were hounded out of remote villages where the inhabitants thought the stranger was practising black magic.
Despite these difficulties the considerable interest in travel and the romance of far away places provided a good market for prints. Photography showed the Victorian family factual pictures of far away places, safe in the comfort of their parlour. Rather than rely on the hazy memory of artist travellers ( or worse still, ones who had used their imagination rather than their feet ) photographic views accurately revealed the scenic and architectural beauty of countries throughout the world. Some of the costumes, customs and life of other nationalities must have seemed as strange as pictures from outer space today.
22. View in Luxor, photographed by Francis Frith, 1856. Art Institute of Chicago.
Despite these problems collodion photographers travelled the world taking vies for sale as prints or magic lantern slides. Imagine the difficulties coping with the heat, the flies and the sand! British photographer Francis Frith took this picture in Luxor, Egypt, in 1856.
Francis Frith of Britain was one of the most travelled collodion photographers. He travelled 1290 km (800 miles) up the Nile in 1856 taking pictures like this one, showing a temple in Luxor. Imagine coating your own plates in a stuffy tent at a temperature close to the boiling point of collodion, plagued by flies and sand! Between them Frith and other photographers ( including the Bisson brothers of France ) covered the Holy Land, the Swiss Alps and places as diverse as Mexico and China. During the official exploration of the American West, photographers went with most of the expeditions to bring back scenes of the new territory. One pioneering photographer, William Jackson, even had a canyon named after him.
For the most part, travel pictures were used as actual albumen prints stuck into books, or printed onto glass to form ‘magic lantern’ slides, or sold as cards like tourist postcards today. Many thousands of prints were also made for stereoscope viewing.
23. Folding viewer and an ornate stereoscope, 1853. Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas.
Another way of using photographs was to take pictures in pairs, then look at them in a stereo-viewer so they appeared three-dimensional. Most Victorian parlours had a stereoscope, like a TV set today. The viewer on the left here was a cheap, popular folding model. The other one – encrusted with jewels – was a gift from royalty to an Eastern prince. Stereoprints on glass or on cards were sold in millions, and covered almost every subject.
The stereoscope was, in many ways, the Victorian equivalent of television. By taking photographs in pairs using a camera with two lenses, and then peering at the prints in viewers like these, the image appeared convincingly three-dimensional. There were stereo-viewers for all classed of society. Barely a family was without one during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Pictures were used to inform and to entertain. The London Stereoscope Company listed over a hundred thousand stereophotographs in their 1858 catalogue. These were mostly scenic views, plus personality portraits, comic scenes and story sequences.
24. Brunel against ‘Great Eastern’, photographed by Robert Howlet, 1857. International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York.
A few more adventurous portraits taken away from the studio began to appear. This famous collodion photograph of the railway engineer Brunel was taken during the launching of his steamship ‘Great Eastern’. It was an early form of photo reportage.
Although the collodion photographers were adventurous, there was little incentive to take portraits other than in the studio. The sort of reportage/interview pictures we see in newspapers and magazines today could not yet be reproduced – and, of course, it was too costly to stick actual prints into such publications.
This portrait of the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, by Robert Howlet, is a rare exception. It was taken at the launching of his ‘Great Eastern’ steamship in 1857. The scruffy detail and jaunty pose, and the powerful anchor chain background say more about Brunel than any studio study. But such an approach was still considered undignified and ‘inartistic’.
25. Fenton’s photographic cart, 1855. Science Museum, London.
Photographer Roger Fenton built this mobile darkroom and went off to record the Crimean War in 1855. In other countries too, photographers began to realise the value of documenting important events.
` Although reportage photography was severely restricted in application, wars could now be
covered by photography. British photographer Roger Fenton was sent to cover the Crimean War by The Times newspaper. This albumen print shows his darkroom, an adapted wine merchant’s van, with his assistant up front. Notice the water tank on the roof! Somehow Fenton’s photographic buggy contained over seven hundred glass plates, together with all the necessary chemicals and equipment, and still allowed space in which to work. His Crimea pictures were rather tame by today’s standards – mostly posed groupings of soldiers in camp, and scenes of damaged fortifications after the action. This is partly because he was briefed to show the well-being of the troops, following criticism of government handling of the campaign. (Probably the earliest example of politically biased photo-reporting.) Nor could he expect the public to buy pictures which were too gruesome.
26. The harvest of death, photographed by T.H. O’Sullivan, 1863. International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York.
This is one of Tim O’Sullivan’s gruesome pictures of the American Civil War. American photographers had no qualms about showing the cruel realities of warfare.
The collodion photographers who documented the American Civil War were less squeamish. Timothy O’Sullivan (who took this picture on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863) was one of a team of American photographers under Matthew Brady who set out to document the war as it was really fought, as far as the process allowed. Brady believed passionately in the historical importance of photographs, and without financial backing from the Federal Government set out with a team of assistants to record the war from the Northern side. Such photographs were all the more shocking when compared with the still largely romanticised portrayal of war which appeared in the contemporary press.
27. Glorified Hussar image of war. Engraving. The Illustrated London News, September 26,1863. British Library, London.
Such pictures contrasted with romanticised engravings appearing in the press which made wars seem very remote. Photographs could not yet be reproduced in print. This engraving portraying the American Civil War appeared in the Illustrated London News in the same year as O’Sullivan’s photograph, 1863.
For technical reasons only steel engravings or woodcuts could be used for press illustrations. These were drawn by artist engravers, often from verbal description. Even artists on the spot interpreted the events they saw, and they all structured their pictures according to the artistic norms of the day.
Of course photographs were used by newspapers too, but they all had to be copied by hand onto metal or wood. In the process they lost their photographic qualities and were usually changed by the addition of figures, removal of unwanted detail and so on. The result was often a fine piece of imaginative reconstruction, but nobody really believed in its accuracy. The First World War was the first major conflict to be shown by directly reproduced photography.
28. Portrait of Lincoln, by Matthew Brady. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
You can see here how the photograph on the left was altered and embellished when it finally appeared in print. The subject was Abraham Lincoln, photographed in 1860.
An example of the way a photograph was altered by reproduction in the 1860s: on the left Matthew Brady’s collodion portrait of Abraham Lincoln; on the right the final reproduction from a woodcut made from this picture. The engraver has added his own embellishments. As was often the case the image was drawn correct way round onto the printing surface, but when pressed upon the paper produced a mirror image of the original.
29. Horse bus, c. 1890. Birmingham Public Libraries, Birmingham.
Victorian artistic taste generally excluded showing the real world unless it was made picturesque. Nevertheless many collodion photographs of ordinary life were taken like this Birmingham street scene in 1868 . Such detailed pictures are of great value to historian today.
There was little incentive to make documentary photographs. And of course the conspicuous wet-plate camera on its tripod was difficult to use without influencing the subject. Nevertheless many city views like this one were taken from a convenient upper window, often for sale to travellers, or for purposes of publicity or trade. Today they are of great interest for other reasons – showing us clearly how ordinary people in various occupations dressed and travelled and generally lived their lives in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately the taking and preserving of such pictures was mostly quite haphazard and much documentary evidence has been lost. Today museums regularly add to their archives photographs of contemporary life, for the use of future social historians.
30. Working class street, Glasgow, 1868. T. & R. Annan & Sons Ltd, Glasgow.
A few photographers set out to document the life and work of the poorer classed. Photographs were generally regarded as truthful, and brought bad social conditions to the attention of people who would not normally see them for themselves.
Sometimes documentary photographs were turned into illustrations for reports or theses on social reform. In the 1880s Jacob Riis took an important series of photographs to prod the consciousness of New Yorkers in its obligations to the poor, and show the bad living conditions that lead to crime. ON the strength of his pictures many improvements were made. John Thomson produced similar written and illustrated cameos of street life in London. This 1868 picture, by Annan, of a working class street in Glasgow almost certainly has its residents posed, but the accurate recording of the general conditions was unquestionable. Responsible politicians and their electors could not dodge the issue and ignore such powerful visual evidence.
31. Vanser homestead, Washington State, by Darius Kinsey, 1896. Ralph Andrews Collection, Seattle, Washington.
Documentary photography also showed the way people were making new lives for themselves in remote places – like this pioneering family in America, carving out space from a timber forest.
Not all social documentary photography centred on the cities. Records of the exploration of the United States recorded much of the way of life of its early homesteaders.. This mid-90s picture shows a family clearing trees and scrub in Washington State. Many photographers set up in the frontier towns tackling anything from portraiture to scenic views. Others worked for the new railroads, making pictures to encourage people to see the breathtaking beauty of the new America.
32. Eadweard Muybridge horse series, 1878. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
As equipment and materials improved it became just possible to photograph action too fast for the eye to perceive. Eadweard Muybridge was commissioned to set up a special race-track in America to analyse the movements of a galloping horse. These pictures proved that all four hoofs leave the ground only when bunched under the body.
For some time it had been suggested that photography should be able to ‘freeze’ action too fast for the eye to visually analyse. There was for example controversy over the exact leg movements made by a trotting or galloping horse. A rich owner in California commissioned photographer Eadweard Muybridge to show if and when all four of his racehorses’ hoofs were off the ground at the same time. After some trials Muybridge arranged a costly and elaborate set-up using a row of twenty-four small cameras. Each had a shutter giving an exposure of about 1/1000 second, fired by trigger threads across a special race-track. The pictures were underexposed, even in the brilliant Californian sunlight, and showed little more than silhouettes. However, it was no mean achievement, considering the slowness of collodion plates.
His exhaustive picture sequences made between 1872-78 proved without doubt that the only time all a horse’s legs leave the ground are when the feet are bunched together under the belly. Engravings of Muybridge’s work were published extensively and created great interest in artistic circles. It was obvious that many famous painters had been painting horses all wrong.
33. Course de Chevaux à Epsom, by Géricault, 1821. Louvre, Paris.
Muybridge’s photographs showed up errors in the way painters usually drew galloping horses. This spreadeagled position is clearly impossible. The art world took great interest in these and other Muybridge sequences showing animal and human locomotion.
Horses were usually drawn in a ‘rocking horse’ position when at full gallop, a posture which now looked absurd. With help from an American university, Muybridge took thousands of other sequences covering a great variety of moving animals, and human beings engaged in various activities. Most of these were published in 1887 and quickly became standard reference material for artists.
For most of his later work Muybridge used new gelatine ‘dry’ plates recently perfected in England. These utilised a suggestion by amateur photographer, Dr Richard Maddox, that gelatine would be a much better binder for light-sensitive salts than collodion. Not only were the new plates faster, but they no longer needed coating just before use. Photographers could prepare their materials at home or purchase excellent factory produced plates ready for use. Exposure in bright conditions were down to fractions of a second; truly ‘instantaneous’ pictures had arrived and mechanical camera shutters became a necessity.
34. The rehearsal, by Degas, c. 1877. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum.
New, faster gelatine plates had arrived by the 1870s. This meant that materials could be bought ready-for-use, and casual ‘snapshots’ taken with cameras held in the hand. Photographs were less conventionally composed and this in turn interested painters. In this Degas painting, the way the figures are cut by the picture edges and show strong differences in scale was something quite new.
The new dry plates and hand-held cameras generated interesting changes in the approach to picture making. Most serious practitioners of the collodion process were educated people, often with some knowledge of art. This, plus the slowness of using a wet plate camera, led to photographs which were carefully and conventionally composed. But few of the new ‘snapshotting’ amateurs had heard of the rules of composition, and most were indifferent to the needs of the salon exhibitions. Their photographs were altogether more casual, often with the subject cut off by the edge of the picture in ways previously considered unacceptable. And yet the best of these images had a refreshing sense of life and spontaneity.
The new photography with its frozen movement and unconventional compositions interested contemporary artists such as Degas. During the 1870s the then daring device of ‘cutting off’ figures at the edge of the canvas became a constant feature of his work. Notice his use of strong differences in scale, more like a photograph than a painting, and considered rather shocking. Often, too, in his paintings of dancers he would record several subjects, each representing more or less consecutive movements of one figure.
35. Le coup de vent, by Corot. Gallery of Modern Art, Milan.
No artist could afford to ignore photography. Most used it for references of one sort or another. Corot and Impressionists such as Monet introduced blurred movement into painting, based on the sort of images given by the long exposures needed for early photographs.
It is difficult to prove the influence of photographic images on painting in general at this time. There was much antipathy towards the new medium and artists felt they would lose status if they admitted being in its debt. Certainly few could afford not to scrutinise carefully the new images photographers were producing, including their ‘mistakes’/ One innovation of Impressionist painting was its depiction of movement by blur. This late ‘60s work by Corot is an example of a device entirely new in art. Monet too, in some of his cityscapes, paints pedestrians as they would be recorded by a long camera exposure. Many painters also experiments with unusual viewpoints (e.g. views from high buildings) which had obvious links with the new mobile snapshot cameras.
36. Gathering water lilies, photographed by Dr Peter Emerson, 1885. International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York.
The photographic societies were still busy with the contrived themes of High Art. A few people like Dr Peter Emerson, who took this picture, believed in a more naturalistic, ‘straight’ approach. He argued that photography should be independent of painting and concentrate on what it was best at doing – showing people, events and natural forms as they really are.
Within the photographic societies the contrived portrayal of literary themes and other aspects of ‘High Art’ filled the exhibition walls with monotonous regularity. However, several British photographers led by Dr Peter Emerson crusaded against this academic stagnation. An admirer of the naturalistic painting of Corot and Constable, Emerson believed in a ‘straight’ approach to photography. Dressing up studios, elaborate posing, patchwork prints from different negatives and retouching were an abuse. Photographers should observe the world and show life as it really was.
To prove that truth-to-nature was possible Emerson showed his own photographs – mostly featuring life and landscapes on the Norfolk Broads. This one created a sensation in 1886. Today we would hardly regard photographs like Gathering Waterlilies in such terms, but it was fresh, startling material alongside the dull pictures then on show. Emerson’s photographs showed that fine pictures could be made using real people and events, as well as the moods and emotions created by the appearance of light on landscape at different times of the day or year. Emerson was convinced that photography was an important art form, but different and independent from painting.
For the followers of Peach Robinson, Emerson’s views were like a bombshell at a tea party. His books, photographs and pungently expressed convictions encouraged an alternative photography. The High Art movement lived on but these new ideas were to influence the direction of photography in the twentieth century.
37. Enlarger, using sun as source of illumination. Engraving. Monckhoven, Tralté Général de Photograhie, 1873. Masson ,S.A. Paris.
New photographic equipment had appeared. Tis was an early enlarger which used as its light source a hole in the darkroom shutters. At last you could make an exhibition size print without needing a camera the same size.
The enlarger was one of the most important technical innovations of the ‘60s. Previously the only way to get a 38 cm x 30.5 cm ( 15 x 12 inches ) print was to use a 38 x 30.5 cm camera – so enlargers were specially welcomed by location photographers. The apparatus was rather like a slide projector, but since electricity supplies were still rare the illumination was generally daylight. A mirror mounted on the house wall outside directed the sun’s rays through the negative and lens, and so formed an enlarged image on the albumenised photographic paper ( right ).
38. ‘Studio Lighting’ advertisement, 1888. Humanities Research Center, Austin Texas.
By the late ‘80s portrait studios in London were installing electric arc lamps to take photographs in poor weather or after dark. The lamps had to be very powerful and were unpleasantly bright and hot. Until the city was wired for mains electricity studios generated their own supplies.
English portrait studios always had problems during winter time, for the short daylight hours seriously curtailed their working day. As a substitute studio light source magnesium ‘flashpowder’ could be used, but this was smelly, created smoke and gave grave risk of fire indoors. Gradually most towns were wired for electricity supplies, allowing the use of arc lights. In the meantime some of the richer studios found it worthwhile to install their own generators. This advertisement dates from about 1888.
39. Dry plate magazine camera, 1885. Engraving. Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas.
‘Parcel’ detective camera, 1886. Engraving. Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas.
Outdoors ‘snapshotting’ with the new ready-made gelatine coated plates became all the rage. Manufacturers brought out ‘magazine’ cameras allowing several pictures to be taken before reloading. Small so-called ‘detective cameras’ disguised as parcels or hats were also popular for a time.
The convenience of dry plates brought a spate of inventions for hand cameras. People wanted to be able to take several pictures before going home to reload in the darkroom, so ‘magazine’ plate cameras (left ) were devised. Each glass plate was loaded in a holder and dropped into the base of the camera after exposure. Snapshotting also produced a craze for ‘detective cameras’ – photographic apparatus disguised as parcels, cases, even bowler hats and pistols. There novelties mostly gave inferior results, but were the forerunners of modern miniature camera design.
40. No. 1 Kodak, with box of transparent film, 1889. Kodak Museum, Harrow.
The most important new equipment of all was George Eastman’s ‘Kodak’. It was the first camera which required no skill to use, took a hundred pictures at one loading, and was backed up by a processing and printing service.
One of the first American manufacturers of the new dry plates was an ex-Yew York bank clerk, George Eastman, Eastman could see that the vast majority of the population would not use photography because of its technical complexity. People would like to take photographs, but were not prepared to learn how to handle a plate camera, mix chemicals, equip and use a darkroom, and so on. He set up a company ( Eastman Kodak ) to mass produce and market this simplified $25 box camera. All you had to do was point the camera, fire the shutter, and wind the key. Eastman also pioneered rollfilm, allowing a hundred picture at one loading and doing away with clumsy glass plates altogether. The Eastman Kodak Company flourished and its founder became a multi-millionaire.
41. Portrait of George Eastman with camera on steamship, 1890.b
Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas.
This is the sort of picture produced by the first Kodak camera. Provided you kept to the instructions, held the camera steady and took photographs in bright illumination, they all came out well. At last, after more than sixty years, it was possible for anyone to make pictures by the action of light.
This was the circular picture the 1888 Kodak cameras produced. It also shows George Eastman holding one of his cameras during a steamship trip. To back up the sales slogan ‘You press the button, we do the rest’ Eastman provided a developing and printing service – when film was finished you sent the camera back to the factory, and it was returned with the negatives and prints, reloaded and ready for use. For the first time ever, anybody could take photographs.
42. Rollfilm family type ‘snaps’ at about the turn of the century.
Kodak Museum, Harrow.
Mass-produced rollfilm cameras introduced millions of people to photography for the first time. By the end of the century everybody seemed to have a family album and filled it with these sorts of pictures.
Eastman’s invention changed the whole character of amateur photography from a process for the initiated few to ‘snapshotting’ for the millions. The albums once popular for purchased carte-de visites were restructured for people’s own personal snaps. Often the results were technically poor – particularly when pictures were attempted in poor light – but it was a personal magic box and time machine. This is a typical range of the sort of photographs being taken at the end of the century.
43, 44. Diagrams: Summary of exposure time reduction.
43. Looking back at the evolution of photography you can see how improvements to materials and equipment steadily reduced exposure times.
44. Notice the big improvement in sensitivity given by gelatine dry plates and films. But, technicalities apart, remember the strange inter-influence between photography and painting, and the way photography already showed signs of becoming an important means of communication.
Throughout the period of 1826-1900 a strong cause and effect existed between technical improvements in photography and the types of picture produced. The chart shows the steady reduction in exposure times, but this was paralleled by equally important simplification of the process and its consequent widening applications. Bear in mind how some of the photographic ‘defects’ resulting from long exposures, casual framing etc. proved as influential on the art world as its ability to record detail. The photographic process was undoubtedly a nineteenth century invention, but its flowering as the most universal form of illustration was not to occur until this