Musings On Photography

Photo History: Wedgwood Beyond the Porcelain

So. I just discovered that I share a birthday with a relatively major historical figure. I’m not talking about Che (born May 14th, not June, at least according to his mother). No. Imma talk ’bout Thomas Wedgwood. And before you go off on one, no that header image is NOT by the Man Himself because as you will discover none are extant.

I was doing some research for a piece I’m drafting about a photographer who uses light-sensitive papers to create camera-less images when I came across Wedgwood’s birth date. And then I immediately thought to myself, Dammit. Because my birthday was literally (inappropriate usage, not sorry) last week and I totally missed an opportunity to make an anniversary issue of it. Ugh. So over a week later here we go talking and thinking about that minor visionary, Thomas Wedgwood. 

The More You Know

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve only dipped your pinkie finger into that vast, Olympic pool that is the History of Photography, or whether you know more than me (entirely possible, I don’t that much in the grand scheme of things). The point is, you’ll have heard of the key players: Daguerre, Niepce, our own Talbot and Herschel (he wasn’t a practitioner but he did invent the term ‘Photography’ so he’s kind of necessary to mention). 

But that’s history. Or rather, where the history sometimes begins in class. The fact of the matter is that experiments with light-sensitive chemicals had already begun in the 18th century but more often than not we only learn about the experiments and developments that led directly to tangible results. Are you intrigued yet?

The First Photograph

The world was introduced to photography as a medium by which it would be possible to capture a likeness in August 1839, by one Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre. Already by 1826 Joseph Nicephore Niepce had managed to capture an image by using bitumen of Judea dissolved in oil of lavender to coat the printing plates in a process called Heliographie, which is literally ‘sun drawing’: Niepce had understood the role of the sun as an agent that would react with light-sensitive chemicals. The unexposed areas coated with this compound hardened through exposure to light, and the unexposed areas remained soft enough to be washed away with a solvent of oil of lavender and white petroluem. [1] That was around 1826-1827.

The resulting image that he produced, View from the Window at Le Gras is legit THE MOST FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPH IN THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY because like the One Ring That Rules Them All, it’s the One Photograph to Rule Them All. It was the first permanent positive picture to be made. Niepce subsequently entered into partnership with Daguerre in 1829 and then promptly died in 1833. 

THE MOST FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPH IN THE WORLD
Joseph Nicephore Niepce
View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826
Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum
Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center

Then, in 1835, and with absolutely no knowledge of Niepce’s success, William Henry Fox Talbot (I think it was a prerequisite to have a rather imposing set of names in order to make developments in photography in the 19th century) managed to capture and fix (remember this, it’s important) the library window of his home at Lacock Abbey with silver salts. I’ll save him for another time because now we’re moving swiftly on…

The Daguerreotype

Daguerre presented the eponymously named process to the Academie des Sciences in January 1839. The process worked akin to the Heliographic technique in that it relied on light as the catalyst by which the chemicals would react, but instead of using bitumen like Niepce, Daguerre iodised the silver plates and developed them with mercury. The process involved placing the sensitised plate into the camera, removing the lens cover and allowing the light to expose the plate.

Like Niepce’s process, the result was unique because one plate went in the camera. So when you see a Daguerreotype in an antiques shop you can be 99.9% certain that it’s unique. I hesitate from committing to 100% because you could technically make a Daguerreotype copy from a Daguerreotype original but this wasn’t a highly practical process. So for the sake of argument, let’s stick with Daguerreotypes as being unique. In later years more developments were made to further sensitise the plates with bromine and protect the surface by gilding it.

Talbot and the Calotype

In 1840 Talbot developed a process that built on his previous experiments with light and light-sensitive chemicals to produce the Calotype, from the Greek kalos meaning ‘beautiful’. Unlike the Daguerreotype or Talbotype, this Calotype was produced on paper. Exposure times were also significantly reduced and this represented the first photographic process to produce both negative and positive: which brought considerable strife to me in the 21st century as I attempted to navigate the vocabulary of the Photographica Historica (made up). Was it a Calotype negative or just a Calotype even if it was a negative, and if it was the positive did you just call in Calotype or Salted Paper Print from Calotype Negative? Mired in confusion. Anyhoo. Continuez!

Waffles

All of this above waffle about the history of photography is just a very lengthy preamble (I don’t think I understand what preamble means) before we get to Wedgwood. Effectively, the aforementioned history demonstrates the development of the earliest extant and fixed photographic images. 

Some of the reading I do for this blog

Hercules, Not Son of Zeus

Something that crops up infrequently (although these days you’re more likely to hear about it) is that we have a tendency to consider the History of Photography as quite Eurocentric. After all, Daguerre, Niepce worked in France and Talbot and Wedgwood were in England. 

Before I get to Wedgwood I wanted to mention Antoine Hercules Romuald Florence who settled in Brazil in 1820s and was producing photographs. He discovered the sensitivity of specific fabrics when exposed to light and experimented with the camera obscura. When he explored the potential of glass plates (which would crop up again in the late 19th century with collodion) covered with a combination of gum arabic and soot, he scratched designs onto the surfaces and then placed them on paper that had been sensitised to light through a treatment of silver chloride (a compound that darkens when brought into contact with light). He discovered that the light sensitivity could be stopped by applying a solution of ammonia. 

“Two people can have the same idea…”

Antoine Hercules Romuald Florence [2]

It’s fascinating to think that just because this gent was removed from the hubs of scientific discovery and learning he remains relatively unknown. And yet he was working independently to develop a photographic technique. He even began calling it ‘photographie’ in 1832, derived from the Greek photos meaning light and graphos meaning to write. Of course all this does is raise the question if there were other individuals in the world working on similar projects to develop photographs.

Beyond the Porcelain

And so to Wedgwood. According to Helmut Gernsheim, he was already familiar with the camera obscura as a means for sketching country houses to decorate the tea and dinner services made at the Etruria pottery. [3] He learned about the light-sensitivity of silver nitrate from his tutor Alexander Chisholm, who previously assisted Dr. William Lewis, the first in England to publish Johann Heinrich Schulze’s investigations on the sensitivity of silver salts. Contrary to popular belief, Schulze’s experiments demonstrated that silver salts darkened not because of the sun’s heat or air, but because of its light. This was all taking place in the 1720s. 

Unlike Florence who was in the middle of Brazil and far removed from any sources of scientific inquiry, Wedgwood kept up to date. As an amateur scientist he went to meetings of the Lunar Society, a distinguised group whose eminent members included James Watt and Erasmus Darwin. Part of their raison d’etre was keeping current with scientific discoveries in Europe and America and finding practical applications for new discoveries. 

According to Roddy Simpson, while Wedgwood was studying at Edinburgh University, he may have attended lectures given by Dr. Joseph Black, the father of modern chemistry. In his lectures, Black expounded upon “the action of light in darkening chloride and nitrate of silver.” [4] Simpson wonders whether it was through these lectures that Wedgwood first became aware of the sensitivity of silver salts, although he does emphasise that since class records no longer exist it would be difficult, nay impossible, to prove. [5] 

Genuine Leather

So Wedgwood experimented with silver nitrate in the camera obscura. But the exposure times were too long and he couldn’t fix the resulting image. Unbeknownst to him and Humphrey Davy, silver nitrate was not sufficiently light-sensitive to capture the image projected inside the camera obscura. So a different approach was sought. Instead of using the camera obscura, Wedgwood and Davy experimented with silver nitrate and direct light. They coated white leather with a solution of silver nitrate and placed leaves and insect wings on the surface, then exposed it to light.

That is the precursor of the photogram. And if you’ve practiced photography in the darkroom and played about with photograms then you’ll understand the process: you take a sheet of photographic paper, place it under the enlarger, spread some objects on top of the paper and turn on the light. Then the light goes off, the objects are removed and you whack the paper directly into the chemical baths to develop, fix and wash. And wait a bit, flick on the main light and voila you’ve got a photogram.

White leather although they do look cream

Problems with Permanence

In the case of Wedgwood and Davy though they didn’t quite manage to fix the results so they continued to react to light and the details eventually disappeared. Nonetheless, this is a SUPER DUPER important pitstop in the history of photographic science. Because even though they biffed it they published their findings in the Journals of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (1802) which meant that scientists and historians of photography could consult their work. Although it stills surprises me that their pioneering work didn’t really touch any subsequent efforts to stabilise images.

Somewhat surprising to me when I started studying the history of photography was that these pioneers of photographic techniques didn’t have much contact with each other. Daguerre collaborated with Niepce but didn’t know Talbot existed. Talbot didn’t know what was going on in France. And of course nobody knew anything about Florence all the way off the beaten track in Brazil. Today everyone knows about any development the instant it’s made because S*O*C*I*A*L*M*E*D*I*A. But back then it’s not as though they all had a Whatsapp chain going.

Imagining a Whatsapp convo between Daguerre and Talbot.
Not totally convincing but I’ve got to do something to keep this anchored in the 21st century…

Conclusion?

It seems to me that the nascent years history of photography can be seen through the collective scientific developments of a group of individuals who, although they never met, would ultimately provide us with the starting point for the medium we use today. We have that tendency to use our contemporary experience to view past events whereas we should realise that every discovery and development was unique to the time in which it was conceived and delivered. These were brilliant individuals and although we might imagine what could have happened had they met and collaborated, we don’t need to because it took the time it took. You can’t rush history.

References

  • 1. Helmut Gernsheim, A Concise History of Photography, 3rd edn., New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1986, p.9
  • 2. Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, 2nd edn., London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2006, p.8
  • 3. Gernsheim, A Concise History of Photography, p.8
  • 4. Roddy Simpson, Photography of Victorian Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2012, p.4
  • 5. Ibid., p.5