Part II: Chemistry and Light

So now, in Part II of this potted History of Photography, we approach the burgeoning world of Chemistry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, but the histories here are far too complex and beautiful to do justice to in such a small blog so I direct you to the bibliography given at the bottom of the page if you want full versions… But there are several protagonists, and as in Part I, where I mentioned James Burke’s Connections, there isn’t one main event, but a series of interconnected ones. 

But first…


As I noted in Part I, the history of photography contains stories which are visually very interesting – I can see, in the camera obscura of my mind, dust motes swirling in the shafts of light that fall through the aperture in a chamber long ago and far away; I can see close ups of old fingers fettling glass lenses; I can see the soft upside image of a distant vista playing over a pale wall. And later, when the darkened chambers shrank, I can see the drape of black silk cloths, rosewood boxes, brass hinges and vellum screens and... This is why, much to my father’s dismay – he was a chemist – I was never a scientist because I couldn’t stick to the scaffolding of facts: I projected them in a wild cinematography of brilliant visions. Every story I read, every story I heard, got illustrated in my mind with my own personal visual fairy tale versions of the facts. I told my dad I didn’t want to work in an office or do typing or anything scientific: I wanted, I told him, to be creative… So I became a writer, and now I find myself sitting in an office, typing, and, right now, reading about the immense creativity of chemical scientists, for I know now science is a visual space in which huge imaginative leaps are made and tested… And what also strikes me is what polymaths these men were (sadly, no women photography pioneers yet in my researches): when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce wasn’t experimenting with early forms of photographic capture, he was busy inventing the pyreolophore, a sort of internal combustion engine for propelling boats, whilst Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was trained in architecture and an accomplished theatre designer and developer of the Parisian theatrical spectacle the Diorama, as well as inventor of the Daguerreotype.

My dad told us science stories, and my mum showed my siblings and me the colours that bloom out when, say, a small drop of black ink is put onto Chromatography paper and a solvent dripped on it. With Dad, we artfully arranged objects – forks, a pair of scissors, bits of plants – on special shiny paper out in the sun and waited for a short while, then we tipped off the objects and ran up the stairs, taking our papers with us, into the red world of the dark room in the attic where the ghost lived. Here we slipped the papers into a chemical bath of developer and watched crisp white silhouettes slowly appear in the emerging black printed by the sun onto the paper. We fixed them, and I kept some for a while. And then in a mad clear out I threw them all away. 


Johann Heinrich Schulze

Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744). Source:

So, back to the history, and this is where phylogeny does recapitulate ontogeny, for shadowgrams were my first photographs – now lost – and similar experiments with light sensitive chemicals are important events in the development of photography: in 1727, for example, German anatomy professor Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that if he exposed precipitates of silver chloride and chalk to light, as opposed to heat, he could ‘print’ crude stencilled words onto them. Shadowgrams were also part of the early experiments made by William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s except that he called them Photogenic Drawings. In 1839, for example, he placed specimens of English wild vine onto paper prepared with silver salts to capture the ‘light’ shadows they made on the paper when exposed to the sun. But these images were a means to an end, merely stages on the way to finding a fixing process. Ironic then, that despite all the modern photographic methods available to them, artists/photographers such as Harry Nankin and Martha Madigan, should use the shadowgram method to create visually stunning work: Fox Talbot’s experiments into how to capture Nature is for these practitioners an end in itself. When we have lots of complex processes available to us, finding beauty in basic principles can be liberating. This last summer, after so much Photoshop and After Effects, I have enjoyed getting my hands dirty making pictures with sticks of graphite and putty rubbers.

Photographic Developer

When I started this blog, I wasn’t quite sure of the practical project it might accompany. But out of all the connections and the complexities comes a simplicity: all this thinking about the history of photography, which began as a contextual study, makes me want to make images out of it, for the vocabulary is rich: silver chloride, spectrum, salts, papers, lenses, copper, pewter… As if by magic, a picture emerges and the context has become the text. There are visions to be played with here of gentlemen scientists in top hats and frock coats, fob watches and dust motes and glass jars and silver salts. Here is a rich vein of visual potential which, with recent access to old family photographs and the eBay acquisition of a box-load of Victorian photographs, was perhaps lying latent, like images invisible on paper after exposure to the sun, but before the developer has done its work.

So now, they appear, these images. Slowly. But perhaps, like Fox Talbot with his troublesome contraption, the camera lucida (can’t you just imagine the swearing?), I might not be able to transpose them from prism to paper to my satisfaction. Experiments must commence.

(And as for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. I haven’t forgotten him. Or the early women photographers. More in the next post!)

Fox Talbot, W. H., (1844) The Pencil of Nature, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. Available online:
Hacking, J., & D. Company. (2012) Photography: The Whole Story, London: Thames and Hudson
Jeffrey, I., (1981) Photography: A Concise History, London: Thames and Hudson
Mulligen, T., & D. Wooters. (eds.) (2012) A History of Photography, from 1839 to the present day, Los Angeles: Taschen.
Towler, J., (1864) The Silver Sunbeam: A Practical and Theoretical Text-Book on Sun Drawing and Photographic Printing: Comprehending all the Wet and Dry Processes at Present Known, with Collodion, Albumen, Gelatine, Wax, Resin, and Silver; as also Heliographic Engraving, photolithography, Photozincography, Celestial Photography, Photography in Natural Colors, Tinting and Coloring of Photographs Printing in Various Colors; the Carbon Process; the Card-Picture, the Vignette, and Stereography, New York: Joseph H. Ladd
Trachtenberg, A., (1980) Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete’s Island Books
Watson, R., & H. Rappaport. (2013) Capturing the Light, London: Macmillan

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