Photography has always been a controversial medium—is it an art or a science?
1826 - c. 1870
Early Photography: Niépce, Talbot and Muybridge
By modern standards, nineteenth-century photography can appear rather primitive. While the stark black and white landscapes and unsmiling people have their own austere beauty, these images also challenge our notions of what defines a work of art.
Photography is a controversial fine art medium, simply because it is difficult to classify—is it an art or a science? Nineteenth century photographers struggled with this distinction, trying to reconcile aesthetics with improvements in technology.
The birth of photography
Although the principle of the camera was known in antiquity, the actual chemistry needed to register an image was not available until the nineteenth century.
Artists from the Renaissance onwards used a camera obscura (Latin for dark chamber), or a small hole in the wall of a darkened box that would pass light through the hole and project an upside down image of whatever was outside the box. However, it was not until the invention of a light sensitive surface by Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce that the basic principle of photography was born.
From this point the development of photography largely related to technological improvements in three areas, speed, resolution and permanence. The first photographs, such as Niépce’s famous View from the Window at Gras (1826) required a very slow speed (a long exposure period), in this case about 8 hours, obviously making many subjects difficult, if not impossible, to photograph. Taken using a camera obscura to expose a copper plate coated in silver and pewter, Niépce’s image looks out of an upstairs window, and part of the blurry quality is due to changing conditions during the long exposure time, causing the resolution, or clarity of the image, to be grainy and hard to read. An additional challenge was the issue of permanence, or how to successfully stop any further reaction of the light sensitive surface once the desired exposure had been achieved. Many of Niépce’s early images simply turned black over time due to continued exposure to light. This problem was largely solved in 1839 by the invention of hypo, a chemical that reversed the light sensitivity of paper.
Photographers after Niépce experimented with a variety of techniques. Louis Daguerre invented a new process he dubbed a daguerreotype in 1839, which significantly reduced exposure time and created a lasting result, but only produced a single image.
At the same time, Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot was experimenting with his what would eventually become his calotype method, patented in February 1841. Talbot’s innovations included the creation of a paper negative, and new technology that involved the transformation of the negative to a positive image, allowing for more that one copy of the picture. The remarkable detail of Talbot’s method can be seen in his famous photograph, The Open Door (1844) which captures the view through a medieval-looking entrance. The texture of the rough stones surrounding the door, the vines growing up the walls and the rustic broom that leans in the doorway demonstrate the minute details captured by Talbot’s photographic improvements.
The collodion method was introduced in 1851. This process involved fixing a substance known as gun cotton onto a glass plate, allowing for an even shorter exposure time (3-5 minutes), as well as a clearer image.
The big disadvantage of the collodion process was that it needed to be exposed and developed while the chemical coating was still wet, meaning that photographers had to carry portable darkrooms to develop images immediately after exposure. Both the difficulties of the method and uncertain but growing status of photography were lampooned by Honoré Daumier in his Nadar Elevating Photography to the Height of Art (1862). Nadar, one of the most prominent photographers in Paris at the time, was known for capturing the first aerial photographs from the basket of a hot air balloon. Obviously, the difficulties in developing a glass negative under these circumstances must have been considerable.
Further advances in technology continued to make photography less labor intensive. By 1867 a dry glass plate was invented, reducing the inconvenience of the wet collodion method.
Prepared glass plates could be purchased, eliminating the need to fool with chemicals. In 1878, new advances decreased the exposure time to 1/25th of a second, allowing moving objects to be photographed and lessening the need for a tripod. This new development is celebrated in Eadweard Muybridge’s sequence of photographs called Galloping Horse (1878). Designed to settle the question of whether or not a horse ever takes all four legs completely off the ground during a gallop, the series of photographs also demonstrated the new photographic methods that were capable of nearly instantaneous exposure.
Finally in 1888 George Eastman developed the dry gelatin roll film, making it easier for film to be carried. Eastman also produced the first small inexpensive cameras, allowing more people access to the technology.
Photographers in the 19th century were pioneers in a new artistic endeavor, blurring the lines between art and technology. Frequently using traditional methods of composition and marrying these with innovative techniques, photographers created a new vision of the material world. Despite the struggles early photographers must have had with the limitations of their technology, their artistry is also obvious.
The First Photograph from the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
Louis Daguerre, Paris Boulevard
An early example of a “daguerreotype.” Paris Boulevard is a significant step in the development of photography. Taken in 1839 by Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre, the photograph depicts a seemingly empty street in Paris. The elevated viewpoint emphasizes the wide avenues, tree-lined sidewalks, and charming buildings of the French capital. However, the obvious day light of the photograph begs the question – where are all the people in this normally busy city?
The answer to this question lies in the daguerreotype technique. The first photographs, such as Joseph Nicephore Niépce’s famous View from the Window at Gras, took about 8 hours to expose, creating indistinct, grainy images. Daguerre was intrigued by these experiments and formed a partnership with Niépce from 1828 until the latter’s death in 1833. Daguerre continued to refine the photographic method until he developed his new process.
His technique consisted of exposing a copper plate coated in silver and sensitized with iodine to light in a camera, and then developed it in darkness by holding it over a pan of heated vaporizing mercury. He also developed a method of creating a permanent image by using a solution of ordinary table salt. Daguerre’s technique significantly reduced exposure time and created a lasting result that would not dim with further exposure to light, but only produced a single image. It would be up to others to produce the negatives that allowed for the production of multiple copies of an image.
A shoe shine
Daguerre’s Paris Boulevard shows the advantages of the new technique. There is far more detail than in earlier photographs. We can clearly see the panes in the windows and the sharp corners of the building in the front of the image. The objects are no longer blurry masses of light and dark, but defined and separate structures. In fact, the only thing missing are the people, except for the small figure of a man having his shoes shined at a sidewalk stand.
The remaining problem of the daguerreotype, at least by modern standards, was the long exposure time, between 10 and 15 minutes. This meant that the people hurrying along those spacious sidewalks did not register on the photograph. The man having his shoes shined, possibly the first photographic image of a person, obviously stayed still long enough to register on the image. The haunting empty, yet evocative, image of Paris Boulevard shows both how far photography had come in a short time and how much farther the technology still had to advance.
Lady Clementina Hawarden, Clementina and Florence Elizabeth Maude
5 Princes Gardens, London, England is an address that no longer exists today, yet its interior rooms become familiar after looking through Clementina Hawarden’s photographs. In Hawarden’s pictures, we often see the same sun drenched spaces, and can even trace the growth of her children over the years.
Hawarden, born Clementina Elphinstone Fleeming, was one of the first female photographers in Britain. Most of her work was made while she was living in the Kensington neighborhood of London, near the present-day Victoria & Albert Museum that currently holds the collection of her photographs.
Who was Clementina Hawarden?
Hawarden was born on June 1st 1822 and grew up outside Glasgow, Scotland. Her father was an admiral in the navy and her mother was a Spaniard renowned for her beauty. Hawarden married Cornwallis Maude, 4th Viscount Hawarden, in 1845. Together they had ten children, eight of whom lived to be adults. Because Hawarden did not keep a diary, and few of her letters remain, most of what we know about her is based on these brief biographical details and her numerous photographs. Accordingly, Hawarden is often written about as both a maternal figure and a prolific photographer. The majority of her images depict her children, posed before the camera, within their familiar domestic setting.
In the image above we see two of the photographer’s daughters situated in front of a large window that lead out on to the upper story balcony. The standing figure, Florence Elizabeth, looks to be in the act of drawing the curtain, and we see small houses in the background. Many of Hawarden’s photographs feature these same windows. In a practical sense, the windows provided ample light into the interior space and allowed Hawarden to make her pictures. This double image is a stereographic print—a popular medium in the 1860s. When this image was viewed through a stereoscope it created an illusion of depth, making it look as if the two girls have are popping out in three-dimensional space.
Here, the same sisters pose again in front of the large French windows. This time they are in costume, which is a common element in Hawarden’s later photographs. Clementina is reclined on the floor, wearing classical dress and a star headband. She is an ancient prophetess or muse. Florence Elizabeth stands above her, dressed as a nun or saint. The dramatic shaft of light coming in from the window creates diagonal shadows and highlights on the wall, emphasizing the dramatic quality of the photograph. Hawarden used the most popular printing process at the time; her photographs are albumen prints made from wet collodion plates.
What did it mean to be a female photographer in nineteenth century England?
For a woman of Hawarden’s elite class it would not have been considered appropriate for her to sell her photographs. She did, however, exhibit her pictures with the Photographic Society of London in 1863 and 1864. The Photographic Society of London, of which Hawarden was a member, later became the Royal Photographic Society and is the oldest national photographic society. Hawarden was a well-regarded photographer who was celebrated by the photography community. In both years that Hawarden exhibited her work the society awarded her a silver medal.
Why are the photographs an irregular shape?
When you look at Hawarden’s photographs today, you might notice that the corners of the images are either cut or torn. They are typically displayed showing the piece of paper on which they are mounted (the light green or gray solid color that borders the photographic image). Some scholars, such as Carol Mavor, choose to take the jagged edges of the images into account while writing about Hawarden’s work. Indeed, it is interesting how the edges of the pictures often echo the shapes seen in the photograph, and create a repeating rhythm that is now part of viewing Hawarden’s work. One must keep in mind, though, that this would not have been how the photographer saw them, or conceived of them, in the 1860s.
When Hawarden made her photographs she pasted them in to albums, many of which served as gifts. The tears that we see today are a result of the images being removed from these albums. Hawarden’s daughter, Isabella, stored the photographs in a closet for safe keeping for many years. In 1939 the Victoria & Albert Museum in London had a special exhibition in honor of the first 100 years of photography. Much to Hawarden’s granddaughter’s disappointment, the exhibition did not include any of her grandmother’s work. After this, her granddaughter, Lady Clementina Tottenham, donated 775 photographs to the museum. Thanks to this generous donation, much has been learned about both Hawarden and nineteenth-century photography.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Herbert Duckworth
The artist’s niece
Staring out over her left shoulder, neck muscles strained by the severity of her pose, Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph Mrs. Herbert Duckworth is a striking portrait of the artist’s niece. The deep shadows emphasize the curves of her cheek and neck, throwing a large portion of the photograph into semi-darkness, while the light that shines down from the left side of the picture emphasizes the sitter’s downcast eyes, nose and mouth.
Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, one of Cameron’s most famous images, is an enduring portrait of a Victorian woman.
Only 21 at the time of the photograph, Julia Prinsep Jackson had just recently become Mrs. Duckworth when the picture was taken. A scant three years later, Mrs. Duckworth was a widow with two young children and a third on the way. Later, in 1878 she married Sir Leslie Stephen, a prominent Victorian journalist and mountaineer. Four more children were born, including daughters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf who would become famous as members of the Edwardian artistic circle known as the Bloomsbury Group.
A severe portrait
The close-up focus on the face is typical of Cameron’s portrait style and can be seen in many images of the sitter by her aunt. The strong contrast of dark background and dark dress against the pale face is similarly common in Cameron’s photographs. Mrs. Duckworth’s severe, unsmiling features are also typical of the Victorian era since the exposure time then required for a photograph was several minutes, much too long to hold a smile.
Julia Margaret Pattle Cameron was born in India and married Charles Cameron in 1838. The couple returned to England in 1848 and became actively involved with an intellectual group of artists and writers that included Alfred Lord Tennyson and George Frederick Watts.
Wet collodion photography
At the age of 48, Cameron began to experiment with the collodion method of photography after receiving her first camera as a present from her daughter. Creating a collodion print was an extremely difficult and hazardous process that required working with combustible materials in almost total darkness. The collodion process involved pouring chemicals onto a glass plate negative. The plate was then inserted into the camera, and the plate exposed for three to eight minutes. After exposure, the plate was removed and immediately developed in a darkroom. It was important for the plate to remain “wet” throughout the entire process.
Cameron recorded in her memoir Annals of My Glass House (1874) that she ruined many household items running through the house carrying dripping photographic plates. Nevetheless, the collodion process was a great improvement over previous photographic methods due to the sharper images and the fact that multiple prints could be made from a single plate.
Cameron’s artistry, skill and knowledge of the science of photography is obvious in a portrait like Mrs. Herbert Duckworth. The clear focus and dramatic pose combine with the manipulation of light and dark to create an image that is at once strong and feminine. It is a photograph that not only captures a moment in time, but also provides the viewer with an evocative image of Victorian womanhood.