Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Photographic Camera - Light Machines on the Threshold of Invention

Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2011  All Rights Reserved
Silver Gelatin Print - Model: Juliana Thompson Alaniz
Can you imagine, today, how the idea of photography could have evolved at the beginning of the nineteenth century - when we consider that only a few minds were even able to understand the basic principle, and even they had no idea of its potential?  In the small enclosed world of scientists and natural philosophers, the most common and popularly understood was that of the machine - the place where energy might be transformed and transmitted.  It was to this concept that the action of light would have to be adapted.  The frenchman Nicéphore Niépce was to be the first to conceive and realize such a "light machine" for producing images.  

Camera Obscura Box
The year was 1839, the French Academy of Sciences announces and makes public the Daguerréotype photography process developed by Louis Daguerre together with Nicéphore Niépce.  This was the first commercially successful photographic process. The image produced is a direct positive made in the camera on a silvered copper plate. The surface of a daguerréotype is like a mirror, with the image made directly on the silvered surface; it is very fragile and can be rubbed off with a finger, and the finished plate has to be angled so as to reflect some dark surface in order to view the image properly. Shortly after that very different techniques followed along with controversy over the exact role of Nicéphore Niépce , who had died in 1833.  

Photography was not invented by one person.  Nor was it the result of a single inspired moment of genius.  Economic, political, and social circumstances counted just as much as scientific criteria, lucky observations, and the intuition of a few clever men.  During a period of two critical years (1839-1840) photography took a decisive path, whose success and survival - which were not achieved straight off - determined its technical future and its fields of application.  At the end of 1840, the general principles of "photography", which would be based on the concept of the "negative", had barely been sketched out.

Three figures dominate the years 1839-1840, contributing with varying years of success, to the perfection of photographic techniques: Louis - Jacques- Mandé Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and in a seminal role, whom played a guiding hand was Nicéphore Niépce.  These three did not all "go into photography" at the same date and with the same stubborn determination for it is certain that these men, of unequal scientific capabilities, did not know exactly what they were seeking.  All they had in common was their goal - the chemical fixing of images produced by the rays of the sun, in particular those formed in the camera obscura (latin for "dark chamber"), an early mechanism for projecting images.  The modern camera evolved from the camera obscura.

It was luminous magic, the inevitable merging of optics (the camera obscura) and chemistry (the light sensitivity of certain substances).  These two aspects coexisted for a century or two without any idea of bringing them together.  There was a certain mystery of the age, the confusion of a period still pervaded with the notion of "natural magic", which paid little heed to physicochemical matters.  Originally the camera obscura was an actual large room, totally enclosed, with a hole in one wall which, by the effect of a diffraction of the light coming through it, produced an image of the scene outside on the opposite wall.  The observer of course, had to enter the room in order to contemplate the image produced.  

In the seventeenth century, the camera obscura became a portable instrument.  The apparatus became quite popular as a device used by magicians and charlatans to create "apparitions", as well as by painters of the time and scientists.  Then, in 1819 came along a well known British scientist by the name of Sir John Herschel with the discovery of sodium hyposulphite and its silver chloride dissolving properties.  His discovery took twenty years to become a method for "fixing" the residual salts, that is, producing actual photography.  It was his friend Fox Talbott whom pushed the process in the competion to lay claim to primacy in the discovery of photography.  

The first images produced were those of "views" directly from nature (often taken from a bedroom window), in black and white and with true tonal values (a "positive").  The daguerreotype was a popular method for recording "views" but there was one major drawback: it allowed only a single copy to be made and successive copies could not be reproduced.  The admiration was nonetheless expressed as a "miraculous" phenomena for their precision and tonal detail which many agreed far surpassed any painting.  

L.J.M Daguerre,
View of the Boulevard du Temple
daguerretype, Paris 1839, Stadtmusuem, Munich
Very few people had been allowed to look at a daguerreotype before the official announcement in 1839.  One such and now well preserved and famous image produced by Daguerre is the view of the Boulevard du Temple, taken from his apartment window.  The american painter and physician Samuel F.B. Morse whom invented  the electric telegraph was particularly enthusiastic about the detail of the "drawing".  "You cannot imagine how exquisite is the fine detail portrayed.  No painting or engraving could ever hope to touch it.  For example, when looking over a street one might notice a distant advertisement hoarding and be aware of the existence of lines and letters, without being able to read these tiny signs with the naked eye.   With the help of a hand lens, pointed at this detail, each letter became perfectly and clearly visible, and it was the same thing for the tiny cracks on the walls of buildings or the pavements of the streets."  

The length of exposure to light, which at the time was ten minutes or more, would not allow passers-by or the traffic on the boulevard to appear, their movement was too rapid to leave an impression on the sensitive surface.  "Moving objects leave no impression.  The boulevard, though constantly crossed by a flood of pedestrians and carriages, appear completely deserted, apart from a person who was having his boots polished.  His feet must, of course, have remained immobile for a certain time, one of them being placed on the boot-black's box, the other on the ground."  

Louis-Adolphe Humbert De Molard,
The Prisoner,
daguerreotype, circa 1848, Museé d'Orsay, Paris
The daguerreotype would suddenly offer an incredibly precise  and effective image of the world as it had never before been seen.  The next most important application was that of portraiture.  When the craft became technically feasible, the spread of daguerreotypes, an expensive and unique object, was subject to market forces and at first was reserved as in many things for the well-off middle classes and the wealthy.  Studios sprang up everywhere in the towns, encouraging a whole network of traveling photographers whom could master the fine art and technically complicated process.  The world in all its aspects - people's role in society, inaccessible places, phenomena invisible to the naked eye, seemed destined to be preserved in a museum of images, an inventory of curiosities, anything could be a subject of interest for the camera; but this would quickly be overtaken by innovations which made duplication on paper possible.  

Deguerre's invention of 1839 was indeed hailed by many in the kind of terms that might be used as "magical".  The daguerreotype became commercially viable on a large scale.  Photography in practice had the unique ability to record shapes without omitting any detail.  Imagine life without photography today?


  1. Hello Leticia Alaniz! Your article is excellent and your photographic style is captivating. The photograph of the two girls is mesmerizing. I'm a photographer in Germany. Good luck to you!

    Dominik Sven

  2. What a gorgeous b/w pic of the girls and I also enjoyed your article. I think I am going to learn lots from you.

  3. Thank you Dominik Sven! Your compliment means so much especially coming from another photographer.

  4. Platanos, Mangoes and Me! Thank you for your comment. Black and White photography illustrates the subject in its purest form. It is my favorite!