01 September 2015

France or Britain - where was photography invented?

Many thanks to “Introduction to Photography”, published by Niilm University, in Kaithal in the Indian state of Haryana.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) studied the classics and math­em­at­ics at Cambrid­ge, was elected a Fellow of the Royal As­tronomical Society in 1822, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1832. It was his inability to draw which caused him to experiment with a mech­an­ical method of capturing and retaining an image, the camera obscura. In 1833 he was on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como in Italy, taking sketches with a camera obsc­ura when he then thought of re­try­ing an old method. So he threw the image of objects on a piece of paper in the camera obscura’s focus. They were brief images to be sure, doomed to quickly fade away. But it led Talbot to wonder if it were possible to cause his natural images to remain on paper!

The earliest surviving paper negative is of the now famous 1835 Oriel window in the South Gallery at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, where Talbot lived. Talbot’s apparatus was armed with a sensitive paper, taken out in a summer afternoon, and placed 100ms from a sun-lit building. Later he opened the box and found a very dist­inct representat­ion of the illuminated building on the paper.

At the same time or slightly earlier, and completely unknown to Talbot, two Frenchmen were struggling with the same prob­lem. The first was Joseph Niépce (1765-1833) who had began research in 1814. He was fasc­in­ated with lithography, but being unable to draw, had to look for another way of obtaining images. Niepce also bought a camera obscura which he loaded with a pewter plate coated with bitumen. Hours later, he removed the plate and washed it with white petroleum and lavender oil. The first ever photograph had been born in 1827, and the prod­ucts were called heliographs.

So Niepce travelled to England and sought to prom­ote his invention via the Royal Society, then the lea­d­­ing learn­ed scientific body. However the Royal Society had a rule that it would not publicise a secret disc­ov­ery i.e. a discovery without all the scientific information attached. So when Niépce died in 1833, leaving examples of his heliographs but no description of his method, he still had not received professional credit from the Royal Society of Science.

Has history underestimated Joseph Niépce’s vital contribution to the invention of photography? If only he had provided a detailed description of his method to the Royal Society when he had the opportunity back in 1827! If only he had taken out a patent on his process! Niepce and France would have been paid their rightful dues as the inventors of photography.

Boulevard du Temple Paris, 1838
The original photo was destroyed in 1940

The second Frenchman was Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) who began work as an apprentice architect, and became a successful stage designer in a Paris theatre. He developed a Dior­ama i.e a picture show with chang­ing light effects and huge paintings of famous places. In 1826 Daguerre learned of Nicephore Niépce’s work, and in 1829 the two men became partners. The partnership was a short one because Niépce died in 1833, but Daguerre continued to experiment with photographic images frozen in time.

Daguerre made an important discovery by accident. In 1835 he put an ex­posed plate in his chemical cupboard, and some days later was amazed to find that the latent image had de­veloped, due to mercury vapour from a broken thermometer. Discovering that a latent image could be “developed” made it possible to reduce the exposure time from some 8 hours to 30 minutes. Though he now knew how to produce an image, it was not until 1837 that he was able to “fix” them. This new process he called a Daguerreotype.

Daguerre announced the development of his proc­ess in Jan 1839 and sought sponsorship, but few seemed interested. So he turned to the French politician Francois Arago who immediately saw the implications of this process and vigorously promoted it. In Jan 1839 the French government announced the discovery, but details were not divulged until August. It was then that the French government, having bought the rights to the process from him, gave it freely to the world.

The Literary Gazette of January 1839 wrote: “We have much pleasure in announ­cing an important discovery made by M. Daguer­re, the celeb­rated painter of the Diorama. This disc­overy promis­es to make a revolution in the arts of design. Dag­uerre has dis­covered a met­hod to fix the images which are repres­ented at the back of a ca­mera obscura; so that these images are not the temp­orary refl­ec­tion of the object, but their fixed imp­ress".

William Talbot was furious. He wrote to Francois Arago, suggesting that it was he and not Daguerre, who had invented the photographic process and deserved all the credit. Arago disagreed so Talbot began to pub­l­icise his own processes. Talbot quickly exhibited some of his Photogenic Drawings to the scientists meeting in the library of the Royal Institution.

The Open Door, 1844
The J. Paul Getty Museum

The early daguerreotypes had limits. 1] The length of the exposure necessary made land­scapes and still lifes ideal but other images less so. 2] The image was laterally reversed. 3] The image was very fragile. And 4] it was a once-only system; copies of the photograph were impossible.

British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792–1871) was very involved with the founding of the Astronomical Society in 1820. He was awarded the Royal Society of London’s med­al for his work on math­ematics. In Jan 1839 Herschel heard of Daguerre's work on photography and without knowing any details, Herschel was soon able to take photo­gr­ap­hs himself. Appropriately the term photography was first used by Sir John Herschel in 1839, the year the photographic pro­cess became public.

At that time, the sensitivity of the process was extremely poor. Then in September 1840 Talbot accidentally discovered the phenomenon of the latent image. This was a major breakthrough which led to short exposure times: from one hour down to a few minutes. By this time Talbot had learned to be pro-active; he gave a paper 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 the artist's pencil." And Talbot patented this invention in 1841.

Hill and Adamson
Deed of Demission (etching of)

Because Talbot chose not to extend his patent to Scotland, he acc­identally made it possible for outstanding photographs to be produc­ed in Edinburgh. Daguerre and Talbot had both announced their processes back in 1839. Just four years later, in 1843, the part­nership of David O. Hill and Robert Adamson blossomed. Their timing was perfect - 400 clerics signed a Deed of Demission, re­signing their livings and establishing the Free Church of Scotland. The photo­graphers captured this critical moment in the nation’s history, just before the good ministers went to their new parishes.

In 1844 Talbot began issuing a book entitled The Pencil of Nat­ure, the first commercial book to be illustrated with actual ph­otographs. But Talbot's process in general never reached the pop­ularity of the daguerreotype process, partly because the lat­ter produced such amaz­ing detail.


One last thought. Consider the important dates in photographic history (1835-45) and compare them with the arrival of the railways for pass­enger trav­el. The rail­way was THE means of inland trans­port over any dist­ances in the late 1830s and 40s, and by 1850, the nat­ional network was complete. The arrival of railways was unlinked to that of photography, but the impact of each on travel­lers and tourists was limitless. It was now possible to photograph archaeological sites and ant­iq­u­ities in Greece, Egypt, Italy, Turkey and the Holy Land. Travelling Vict­orians could capture mount­ains, rivers, forts, castles monuments and cities in their photographs.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Why do some people need to find a single inventor for things like photography, trying to establish one candidate while venomously dethroning others? It seems that most inventions are products of their times, and all of the ideas and technology involved had been coalescing for a while, inspiring several inventors in a short period of time. All deserve to share credit.

As with so many of the arts, it seems that the finest results were often achieved with the earliest and most primitive technology.

Joseph said...

Patents were certainly critical. But which ordinary citizen would have known how to take out an effective patent?

Andrew said...

Well researched. The clarity in some very early photographs is extraordinary when viewed a little expanded on a screen. As Jim says, many people add to knowledge.

Hels said...


you are quite right of course, and not just about art. We could say the same thing about immunisation or development of the microscope. So I am assuming that the French historians are annoyed, largely because William Talbot was so bloody minded about his own _critically important_ contribution to photographic history.

The Niepce House Museum put it well. In 1829 Niépce went into partnership with another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, to continue experimenting with heliography. He died in 1833. His pioneering work in photography was largely built upon in 1839 by the announcement of his partner’s daguerreotype process. Progress continued, on both sides of the Channel.

Hels said...


I had no trouble finding the new French Patent Law of 1791. But the coverage, geographically and in time, was uncertain, and the conditions of granting a patent seemed onerous. Even had Niepce thought about protecting his inventions, I am not sure he would have known how to go about it in France.

Hels said...


*nod* I am still surprised at how clear some of those early photos were. Have a look for example at the clarity of Daguerre’s "Fossils" and "The Louvre from the Left Bank of the Seine", both 1839.


Student of History said...

I like the idea that Josiah Wedgwood's son was an early innovator in photography.
Certainly his images were not fixed but he did try to print camera images on material coated with a light-sensitive chemical. Josiah Wedgwood was a pottery genius, as we know from lectures; perhaps his son was part of a long line of geniuses in photography as well.

Hels said...


look at the date: 1802!! Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphrey Davy presented a paper entitled "An account of a method of copying paintings upon glass and of making profiles by the agency of light upon nitrate of silver." As you said, they were unable to fix their photograms, but if Thomas had not died so young, perhaps we would have heard the name Wedgwood in later photographic history. Thank you.