Writing with Light

Thinking, making, connecting: MA Illustration

Posts from the ‘Chemistry’ category

Daguerre, then and now


Portrait of Louis Daguerre, 1844. Daguerreotype. Photographer: Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot (1801-1881). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) was working in France in parallel with Fox Talbot. His process was further developed in collaboration from 1829 with Joseph Niéphore Niépce who died in 1833, leaving Daguerre to progress the work alone. Daguerre announced his discoveries in 1839, and whilst recognising Niépce’s significant part in them, named the process the daguerreotype, leaving Niépce’s term, heliography, behind. This is a history littered with lost terminology. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the term photography was most likely coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839.


An 1854 two-panel cartoon on the vagaries of early photography, published in the Punch’s Almanack for 1855. Caption to top panel: “Interesting group posed for a Daguerrotype by a friend of the family”. Caption to bottom panel: “Interesting and valuable result” (the family photograph has actually turned out horribly). Source: wikimedia commons

Whatever the term, the announcements on both sides of the Channel caught the imagination of the world, but it was Daguerre’s process from the start that proved more popular. In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe announced the importance of Daguerre’s camera: ‘The instrument itself,’ he wrote, ‘must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science’ (in Trachtenberg, 1980: 37).

The daguerreotype was, however, not without its detractors, as a satitical cartoon from Punch in 1855 demonstrates. At first, exposure for a daguerreptype took hours, and although this was reduced within a year to only minutes, it was still problematic and ‘still placed limitations on the choice of subject’ (Clarke, 1997: 15). A commentator writes in The Spectator in 1841: ‘To render the Daguerreotype applicable to the purpose of portraiture, it was necessary to accelerate the action of light on the plate; for rapid as was the formation of the image, even five minutes was too long for any sitter to remain perfectly still. This has been accomplished by various modifications of the chemical preparation of the plate…’ (The Spectator, London, 4 September 1841: online resource, The Daguerreian Society). There are plenty of articles with advice on how to how daguerreotype children, and a flurry of inventions for holding heads and arms still. In a journal entry dated 24 October 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:


Daguerreotype portrait of Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson as a child. Unknown photographer. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘Were you ever Daguerrotyped, O immortal man? … and in your zeal not to blur the image, did you keep every finger in its place with such energy that your hands became clenched as for fight or despair, & in your resolution to keep your face still, did you feel every muscle becoming every moment more rigid …’ (Emerson, 1841, online resource: The Daguerreian Society). It was also difficult to view since its silvery metal surface reflected light, but despite its drawbacks, Daguerre’s method spread fast and far afield, enjoying considerable success in America, as is evidenced by the hyperbole in the article ‘Heliography in New York’, La Lumiere, 1852, online resource: The Daguerreian Society); and in the comments of Lady Elizabeth Eastlake in 1857 in her essay Photography published in the Quarterly Review: ‘As early as 1842 one individual, of the name Beard, assumed the calling of daguerreotype artist. In 1843 he set up establishments in four different quarters of London’ (Eastlake in Trachtenberg, 1981: 40).

But daguerreotypes were, in the end, a fleeting innovation in the Grand Narrative of the History of Photography, as Damisch and Berger state: ‘the first inventors worked to fix images and simultaneously to develop techniques for their mass distribution, which is why the process perfected by Daguerre was doomed from the very outset, since it could provide nothing but a unique image’ (Trachtenberg, 1981: 290). Whilst the world now reveres the digital image, and film work recedes dangerously close to extinction in the popular conception of what photography is, daguerreotypography is now only used by enthusiasts such as the members of the The Daguerreian Societyand artists such as Chuck Close working with Jerry Spagnoli, and Spring Hurlbut in collaboration with daguerreotypist Mike Robinson.

The early inventors of photography sought mass production, and from the outset, possibly influenced by this desire for mass production, there was debate as to its cultural status: was it a science? Was it a craft? Was it, Heavens forfend, an art? This was a debate which in 1839 was already waiting for Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in which he cites Paul Valéry: ‘Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to minimal efforts, so shall we be supplied with visual or auditory images…’  The flood of these images did not began in 1839 – lithography was already illustrating our lives in newspapers and journals – but Daguerre and Fox Talbot et al certainly opened the floodgates to bring us to the state where today, according to Qmee there are 20 million photo views on Flickr, 104 thousand photos shared on Snapchat, and 3,600 Instagrams every 60 seconds…

M. Daguerre, qu’avez vous faits?

Benjamin, W., ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Walter, B., H. Zohn (trans.) (1968) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schocken Books
Clarke, G., (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History, Oxford Paperbacks.
Trachtenberg, A. (ed.) (1980) Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete’s Island Books
Watson. R., & H. Rappaport. (2013) Capturing the Light, London: Macmillan

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: http://www.ohrekreis.de/index_122.html

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: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33447/33447-pdf.pdf
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