Photography - Britain's Momentous Contribution

Momentous Britain attended the opening of the new V&A Photography Centre in October 2018. Frankly, we disagreed with the transfer of this collection from Bradford. There are already too many museums in London and not enough in the provinces. Moving the Photography Museum is unhelpful. But it is as it is. Our interest is in photography innovations and innovators. The exhibition clearly shows that Britain made a momentous contribution to the early development of photography.

Not everyone agrees. The French take the view that photography was invented by Nicéphore Niépce, Daguerre, Ducos du Hauron and the Lumière brothers. They are right, in a trilobite way. The earliest photographic technologies were indeed invented in France, but they quickly died out. Modern analogue photography derives mostly from inventions made in Britain.

Our children take the view that the entire analogue photography industry is an industrial trilobite, soon be lost without trace. They have a point. Hardly any analogue photography technologies survive in digital cameras or photographic prints. The only vestiges still in widespread use are the shutters and lenses, and they are vastly outnumbered by shutterless mobile phones with their miniature fixed lenses.

The best defence we can muster is that some analogue photographs are works of art and that others are the only record of important 19th and 20th century scenes, events, heroes, villains and daily lives. Humanity is richer for this record. We think the images do have a lasting impact, albeit modest and slowly waning.

The key components of analogue photography are the photosensitive image carrier (typically photographic paper and/or film), the exposure mechanism (typically a camera), and the development technique. A list of the milestones is readily available on Wiki and elsewhere. We are interested in momentousness, which in this case means the chain of innovations and discoveries that led to the materials and equipment that was used to take these momentous images. The most recent of them are C41, E6 and B&W film, chromogenic paper and SLR/point-and-shoot film cameras.

The easy part is that there was no significant British involvement in the evolution of cameras, lenses, colour film or colour photographs. We won't mention them here. This does not undermine the British contribution to photography in general, because they derived from and lagged B&W photography and B&W prints until the 1940s.

Figure 1: Camera obscura

Our task here is to bridge the gap between modern B&W photography technologies and the device from which it all began: the ‘camera obscura’. ‘Obscura’ is Latin for ‘dark’, ‘camera’ is Latin for ‘room’. Originally, as the name suggests, they were dark rooms, only special in having a small hole in one vertical external wall. Sunlight would reflect off objects outside the room, pass through the hole to a vertical display surface inside the room. They were novelties that amused children because the image was displayed upside down and back to front. They could also be used as drawing aids. If the image was projected onto paper, the entire scene could be painted or the outlines could be traced, thereby making an exact scale sketch of the scene outside.

Figure 2: Portable camera obscura

Dark room camera obscuras were known to the ancient Chinese and Greeks more than 2,000 years ago. Leonardo da Vinci drew diagrams of how they worked in the 15th century. In the 17th century the incorporation of lenses and prisms allowed them to be crammed into a portable box, through which any well-lit object could be projected onto a horizontal glass plate where the image could be traced. In some cases these sketches were used as painting guides. A portable camera obscura belonging to the English portrait painter Joshua Reynolds is on display at London’s Science Museum. Canaletto, Vermeer and others are known to have used them too.

Most people could not afford to get Vermeer to fill in the details of a camera obscura sketch. Thomas Wedgewood, son of the English pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgewood, realised that the artist could be cut out if the camera obscura image were  projected onto light-sensitive paper, thereby making a permanent record; i.e. he invented the concept of the photograph. The rest of this blog is about him and his successors. We filled in some of the details from an excellent book about the early years of photography named "Capturing the light" by Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport.

Wedgewood started his experiments at the end of the 18th century with paper soaked in a solution of light-sensitive silver nitrate. After testing the technique with stencils, he moved on to exposing camera obscura images. Wedgewood referred to his captured image as a ‘photogram’. The results were not great. The image was weak, blurred and not ‘fixed’. In other words, if a photogram was viewed in daylight, the unexposed part of the image would darken and the entire photogram would turn black. Moreover, the exposure took hours. Further experimentation reduced the exposure time by using a leather substrate in place of paper, but it did not address the other issues. Alas, Wedgewood never got a chance to resolve any of them because his health deteriorated and he died in 1805 aged just 34.

The major themes linking Wedgewood’s experiments to modern 35mm film and photographic paper are: 1) Improve image resolution, stability, dynamic range and exposure time; 2) Split the process into image capture and photographic print, so that multiple and/or different sized prints can be made of an image; 3) Capture images on something with a smooth surface, so that paper grain does not distort the image; 4) Make the process easy, convenient and inexpensive, so that it was affordable and useable by everyone. We are mainly talking about static images here. Movie technology milestones were similar but distorted by the need for expensive complicated projection equipment. We might return to them in another blog.

In the mid-1820s, Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce experimented with a technique similar to Wedgewood’s, using paper coated in silver chloride. The results were sharper – although perhaps only because he used smaller sheets of paper – but he too was unable to ‘fix’ the image. He used his knowledge of lithography to create a hyprid technology. Lithograph etchings were created by scratching an image into a wax ground that has been laid onto a copper sheet. The sheet was then immersed in acid to permanently incise the image where the wax has been removed. The intaglio image was then covered in ink and stamped to make a print. Niépce replaced the wax ground by asphaltum (also known as Bitumen of Judea), which is photo-sensitive. When exposed to light, it becomes less soluble. The unexposed areas could be removed with a solvent. The plate was then bathed in acid, to create an intaglio image, which was printed just like an etching. Niépce referred to his technique as ‘heliography’. It is the first photographic process that created a permanent image. The oldest surviving heliographs date to the mid-1820s.

Figure 3: Heliograph of Niépce’s “Le Christ portant sa croix”; c1827; Image © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Wiki says that Niépce is usually credited as the “inventor of photography”. Not by us. Heliographs are not what we think of as photographs. His innovation was a way of fixing an exposed image via an etching. His heliographs are printed like a newspaper. What he really invented was photogravure.

In 1833 William Henry Fox Talbot was relaxing on his honeymoon at Lake Como, sketching the glorious scenery using a 'camera lucida'. This was a prism arrangement that reflected a scene onto a piece of paper where it could be copied. He had previously tried something similar with a camera obscura. Upon returning to Lacock Abbey he lamented his lack of artistic ability and mused: “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper”.

Talbot, who already knew that silver halides would darken when exposed to light, immediately set about making photograms of leaves and twigs by leaving them in daylight between a sheet of glass and a sheet of paper that had been soaked in silver chloride. It created a silhouette on the paper. This is pretty much the same process used previously by Wedgewood and Niépce. Talbot's first innovation was to fix the image by soaking the photogram in a solution of table salt. He referred to his process as 'photogenic drawing'. In later years he sent dozens of these primative photographs to naturalists around Europe. Many survive, perhaps most notably in the 'Pezzo di merletto', which is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Figure 4: Henry Talbot photogram of plant; original image taken 1835

In the brilliant summer of 1835, Talbot moved on to capturing scenic images by placing his sheets of silver chloride soaked paper in a box with a tiny hole; a primitive lensless pinhole camera. The first image captured in this way was of the Oriel Window in Talbot's home at Lacock Abbey. The Abbey is now a museum, so the windows can still be seen.

Figure 4: Reproduction of Henry Talbot's first photogram of the Oriel Window, Lacock Abbey; original image taken 1835

Talbot's technique was less than ideal. The exposure took hours and the images were not completely fixed. He chose to delay publishing his findings and moved onto other projects. Meanwhile Niépce had died in 1833. His associate Louis Daguerre picked up his work, experimenting with other photoresists and substrates. Daguerre's work culminated in 1839 with the ‘daguerreotype’; faint images captured onto photosensitive silver-plated copper sheets, then developed-out (i.e. made visible) using mercury fumes and fixed by washing in a solution of table salt. They were the first photograph-quality permanent images: high contrast, pin-sharp, easy to capture and light-fast. Thousands of them survive. Sadly, all of those on show at the V&A are miniatures, so it is difficult to get a feel for what a large deguerroptype looks like.

The French government purchased the deguerroptype technology off Daguerre and gifted it patent-free to the world (ex-Britain). It became the standard way to record permanent images in most of the world for the next 20 years.

Figure 5: Daguerrotype of St Pauls; c1840; Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Britain was excluded from France's deguerroptype gift. We needed our own photographic equivalent. In 1839 Talbot started experimenting with a new technique that he referred to as 'calotype'. It involved capturing a faint image into silver iodide coated paper, which was developed-out using silver nitrate and gallic acid, then fixed with sodium thiosulfate (hypo). He announced the details in 1841. It is the same two-step negative-positive developed-out hypo-fixed process that is still used today, and therefore one of the most important advances in the history of analogue photography.

Figure 5: Calotype negative of the Ashmolean in Oxford; 1839; Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

As far as we know, Talbot never acknowledged any external influences on his calotype process. Perhaps he was worried it might undermine his patent application because we are pretty sure that what he really did was to join three existing techniques into a workable process.

First, the image exposure onto photosensitive paper had been discovered thirty years previously by Wedgewood and improved by Niepce. He had been using it himself in his earlier experiments, It seems likely that he heard about it originally from Sir Humphry Davy's report on Wedgewood's work which was published by in 1802. It was reviewed by David Brewster. Brewster became a close friend of Talbot. If Talbot did not learn of Wedgewood's work through chemistry books - which is possible because they included this information after 1803 - he would surely have learned of it through Brewster.

Second, the developing-out of latent images. This technique was invented by Daguerre as part of his process for creating daguerrotypes. He described it in 1839. As far as anyone knows, this was before Talbot used it. The timing suggests to us that Talbot took the technique from Daguerre rather than that he discovered it independently.

Third, the fixing of images with sodium thiosulfate (hypo). John Herschel had discovered that hypo would dissolve silver halides as early as the 1810s. When he heard about daguerreotypes and photogenic drawings in 1839, he realised that hypo could be used to fix them. He told both Talbot and Daguerre. Again, the timing suggests that they learned from Herschel rather than discovered it independently.

Talbot had to be in the right place at the right time. He had to have his wits about him. But we are pretty sure that the calotype process, which became the basis for modern analogue photography, depended on discoveries made by Herschel, Daguerre and Wedgewood. Thus, all four of them are on our momentousness chain of photography discoveries. Not so for daguerreotypes themselves. Even through they were technically superior to Calotypes in some ways, they proved to be an evolutionary dead end. Production ended completely in the 1860s.

Figure 6: Collodion wet plate negative of the Crystal Palace; 1854; Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Calotypes were affordable, easy to handle, durable and could produce many positives from one negative, but they were never as popular as daguerreotypes outside Britain because they were slower to expose, less contrasty and less sharp. Much of the problem was due to paper grain. In 1847 Frenchman Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor, cousin of Nicéphore Niépce, resolved the issue by replacing paper with glass plate. Light-sensitivity was added by a coating of silver bromide that was adhered to the plate by mixing it with albumen. In 1851 Frederick Archer further improved the technique by replacing albumen with cellulose nitrate. He referred to his process as “collodion wet plate”. By the end of the 1860s, this had become the standard photographic process, completely replacing both daguerreotypes and calotypes.

Figure 7: Mobile collodion darkroom in Ireland; c1865; from Wikipedia

Collodion wet plates were tricky to work with, requiring the plate to be coated, exposed and developed within 15 minutes. In practice this meant using a studio or a mobile darkroom. In 1871 Richard Maddox improved the technology by replacing cellulose nitrate with gelatine. His technique was known as gelatine dry plates. These could be developed days later in a permanent darkroom, but they were notoriously sensitive to pressure and contamination.

In 1873 Charles Bennett discovered that gelatine dry plates could be made more robust by heating. Then in 1878 he discovered that prolonged heating also made the plate much more light sensitive, thereby hugely reducing the required exposure time. His technique was known as Collotype. The negatives were stable, sharp, contrasty, and relatively easy to use. They dominated the image capture market through the 1870s and 1880s.

Collotypes were amazingly fast. Eadweard Muybridge’s famous animation of a galloping horse – the oldest surviving ‘movie’ - was taken by a dozen cameras with gelatine dry plates triggered by tripwires. Each used a 1/500th of a second exposure, which would be fast even by modern standards.

Figure 8: Animation of child and mother by Eadweard Muybridge; 1889; Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Gelatine dry plates were far from pefect. They were large, cumbersome, slow to load, and too expensive for the man-in-the-street to use. John Carbutt, an Englishman working in Chicago, solved the problem in 1879 by inventing celluloid film coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. He produced samples of this film in 35mm widths, thereby setting the standard still used for static and movie film today. American George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Company that became mighty Eastman Kodak, patented the first photographic film roll in 1884. He then licensed and bought a way for it to be loaded into a camera from Peter Houston of Wisconsin. Eastman introduced the first commercial nitrate celluloid film stock in 1889. Notwithstanding incremental improvements, mostly to do with safety, handling ease and durability, B&W film has not changed significantly since.

Calotypes, collodion wet plates, collotypes and film all produced negatives. Henry Talbot created a technique for producing a positive from a negative when he invented the calotype. He referred to it as a ‘salt print’. The idea was simply to coat paper with light sensitive silver chloride, then to attach the negative and leave it out in the sun. These days it would be referred to as a 'contact print'. The results were inconsistent, not least because of paper grain. The technique was improved by Frenchman Louis Blanquart-Evrard who first coated the paper in a solution of albumen and table salt, which created a smooth surface, before adding a light-sensitive silver bromide top-coat. This too was contact printed. These so-called ‘albumen silver prints’ were the most common way to get positives from negatives between 1850 and 1890. In the 1870s Richard Maddox replaced albumen with gelatine, using a similar process to his collotype negatives. Maddox’s technique became the standard way to create B&W prints and remains popular to modern times.

As we always say, every technological advance, invention and scientific discovery that can be made, will be made eventually. Momentousness boils down to the brought forward benefits; i.e. what would be lost if that discovery or invention had to wait for someone else to make it. In this case, there was hot competition. We doubt that any of the discoveries made above would have waited more than a few years, had they not been made when they were.

Perhaps Talbot is an exception. True, he was lucky. Not only was he in the right place at the right time, but he might have given up if the daguerrotype had been made freely available in the UK as it was in every other country. Still, it may well have been ten years or more before anyone else came up with something like the 'calotype'. And he did also invent the salt print and refine the photogravure process into the technique still used today. We intend to write a blog about him as soon as we can get down to Lacock. 

Wedgewood, Herschel, Talbot, Archer, Maddox, Bennett and Carbutt all made crucial contributions to the chain of discoveries that led to modern analogue photography. The only foreigners that made critical discoveries in the pre-colour era were Daguerre, Saint-Victor, Blanquart-Evrard and George Eastman. If analogue photography were still as widely used as it was in the 1990s, the six Britons would collectively deserve four momentousness medals. As it is, their surviving contribution is limited to the images captured on analogue photographs. The lasting impact is widespread but lightweight; mainly cultural and social history. On our scale, this sort of niche impact can receive no more than two momentousness medals.

If he had lived longer, would have liked to write a blog about Tom Wedgewood. As it is, we have written virtually everything known about him above. It is true that Schultze exposed a light sensitive material behind a stencil nearly a century before Wedgewood, but this was to test chemical properties with no intention of permanently capturing a real-life image. In our opinion, it was therefore not an earlier attempt at photography. Niépce and Talbot used adaptations of Wedgewood’s technique. It was not a coincidence. Talbot was told about Wedgewood's experiments by Brewster. We presume that Niépce found out about them from French translations of Sir Humphry Davy’s paper. In our opinion, the chains of discovery all lead back to Wedgewood. If it were up to us, we would award him the “Father of Photography” soubriquet.