Early Pioneers of Photography

Self-educated chemist ANGELO SALA (1576 – 1637) discovered that when paper contained powdered silver nitrate it would react with sunlight, causing it to darken. These pioneering experiments with silver salts were a crucial step towards the later invention of photography. He published his findings in a pamphlet in 1614. Sala’s conclusion on the subject was in contrast to Robert Boyle’s incorrect theory that the paper darkened due to contact with air.

JOHANN HEINRICH SCHULZE (1687 – 1744) was a German professor at the University of Altdorf. He was the first person to produce Photograms, which were created by using paper masks in direct contact with a jar containing a mixture of silver nitrate powder and chalk. Schulze proved that the darkening of silver nitrate was caused by light and ruled out the possibility of the change being caused by temperature, by observing no tonal change to silver nitrate when heated in an oven.

Englishman THOMAS WEDGWOOD (1771 – 1805), son of famous potter Josiah Wedgwood, made good ground creating Photograms and recording images from his Camera Obscura (or pinhole camera, as we would now call it). He worked along side his friend, assistant and one of English history’s most important chemists, SIR HUMPHREY DAVY (1778 – 1829). However, they were never to overcome the problem of “fixing” the image and therefore the prints produced had to be viewed for very short periods of time in a darkened environment.

The French inventor JOSEPH NICEPHORE NIEPCE (1765 – 1833) was the first man to produce a permanent photographic image. In 1826 he was to pull all his research into the process he called “Heliography”. This consisted of capturing the light in his Camera Obscurer on a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea. After the day-long exposure, the parts of the plate that were exposed to light had hardened. The latent image (of the view from his workroom window) was then revealed by washing the plate with a mixture of white petroleum and lavender oil, to rinse away the soluble, unexposed areas of the plate.
The Heliogram took a very long time to produce, especially in comparison to modern film or digital photography. We should consider ourselves very lucky today, as we learn that Niepce’ first photograph required eight hours of exposure. This long exposure time made portrait photography impossible due to the length of time the subject would have to be still.

Frenchman, LOUIS JACQUES MANDE DAGUERRE (1787 – 1851) was a successful commercial theatre artist who used the Camera Obscura as a tool to help his painting. In 1826 he became aware of the Niepce experiments on the subject of photography, and by 1829 had gone into partnership with him. They researched and collaborated together, and when Niepce died in 1833 Daguerre continued their work until completion in 1839 when he could finally announce the “Daguerreotype”.
Like the Heliogram, the Daguerreotype method consisted of a polished metal plate (in this case silver), coated with light sensitive particles. It too was a direct positive process, which allowed no duplication of the captured image. The main improvement of the Daguerreotype however, was that silver halide particles were applied by iodine, bromine or chlorine vapours, which allowed for relatively short exposure times. This reduction in exposure time, from many hours to just a few minutes, allowed for portraits to be captured for the first time.
The French government acquired the patent to the Daguerreotype in July 1839, and in turn the details were made public to the world on the 19th August of the same year.
This made Daguerre very famous, and very rich.

English, multi-talented scientist SIR JOHN FREDERICK WILLIAM HERSCHEL (1792 – 1871) played a major part in developing the science of photography we understand today. Specifically, he invented the “Cyanotype” process and discovered the principal of fixing photographic imagery (using Hyposulphate of Soda, or “Hypo”) before all others (in 1819), subsequently passing on the information to Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot. Perhaps more relevant today, he is accredited with coining the term “photography”, and he was the first to use the terms “negative” and “positive” in relation to photography. It seems that Hershel had what it would have taken to invent photography all by himself, had that been what he wanted. However, it is felt that his deep interest in other scientific areas in the 1820s/30s, particularly astronomy, prevented him from winning the race to the invention of photography.

Englishman WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT (1800 – 1877) invented the “Calotype” process, a negative/positive process which allowed multiple positive prints to be made from one original (paper) negative, by the method of contact printing. His submission to the Royal Society of London, entitled “Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by which Natural Objects may be made to Delineate Themselves without the aid of an Artist’s Pencil” is dated 31st January 1839 and precedes Daguerre’s paper. The quality of the first Calotypes was inferior to that of the sharp and striking daguerreotypes. However, with a few improvements by Talbot, 1840 saw the release of his photographically illustrated book entitled “The Pencil of Nature”. In 1841 Talbot acquired a patent on his Calotype process and despite much criticism he went on to sell individual patent licences. Professional photographers were reportedly charged up to 300 per year by Talbot and in addition he would sell them photographic equipment and materials.

English botanist ANNA ATKINS (1799- 1871) is considered to be the first female photographer. She learned photography through her communication with William Henry Fox Talbot. Specialising in the Cyanotype printing method (which she learned from Sir John Herschal, a friend of the family), she utilised this technique to record botanical specimens for use in her 1843 scientific reference book, “British Algae : Cyanotype Impressions”.