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Fixing the shadows

When photography was invented around 1839 the camera had been in use for hundreds of years. Accounts of using a small opening (pinhole) to project an image stretches as far back as the third century BCE. Using a lens attached to a box (called a camera obscura) to create an image that was copied by an artist began in the sixteen century. One master of using the camera was Giovanni Antonio Canaletto whose speciality was Cityscapes, mostly of his native Venice.

In the early 19th Century cameras began to be used for different reasons. Instead of copying the image it had been discovered that by using light-sensitive chemicals you could produce a picture. The problem was that once outside the camera, the picture continued to darken in the light and the image disappeared into blackness. Just as shrouded in darkness is the story of who discovered the secret of how to fix the image and prevent the darkening. Those working on the problem were very secretive about their research. Even when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre announced the birth of Photography to the French Academy of Science in 1839, Daguerre would only demonstrate his daguerreotype process to its Secretary.

The French Government gave Dageurre a pension and offered his method free to the world*. In England, Fox Tolbort quickly followed Dageurre by announcing his Calotype method, an alternative process to make a photograph. Both men had arrived at different answers to solve the problem of fixing the image. Each method had advantages when compared to the other. The daguerreotype produced a sharper image than the calotype. However the calotype produced a paper negative that could then be used to make numerous prints. Daguerre’s method produced a one off photograph on a polished metal plate.

Both processes were complicated and it would be decades before it would be possible to print a photograph in a newspaper or book. The general public’s contact with photography mainly came through having their portrait taken or seeing those of their relatives and friends. It was also an expensive pursuit that limited its use by amateurs. Most of the early practitioners of photography saw it as a business opportunity; many became portrait photographers.

The long exposures (often a minute or more) required led to stiff postures and blank stares as the photographer used his watch or counted the time required. Outside the studio photography was similarly constrained, it was more about capturing views rather than the flow of life.

The ingenuity displayed in working within the limitations of the technology can be impressive. A notable example of this is the photograph by Oscar Rejlander entitled, The two ways of life  made in his studio in Wolverhampton. It was produced by combining over thirty negatives laid out over the print that measured 79cm x 41cm – this was before the invention of the enlarger. Although it gives the impression of a moment captured in time, all of the models would have held their positions for the camera.

It took more innovations from other pioneers to improve photography before it was able to freeze time. By the 1880’s exposures of less than a second were possible and photography could offer a similar view to those painted by Canaletto centuries before.


 *Daguerre took out a patent in England, so not quite free to the world as announced. Fox Tolbot patented his Calotype process requiring a license to be purchased by a professional photographer wishing to use it.

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