Photographic History

There have been countless books, essays, blogs, and articles about the history of photography. Most follow an accepted path from materials discovered that were sensitive to light, the camera obscura, camera lucida, then on to Nicephore Niepce, and Louis Daguerre, wet-plate, dry-plate, celluloid film and finally digital.

But there were other pioneers, and in a couple cases people who should have had a more prominent profile, but for various reasons were neglected, some though rating only a brief mention in passing.

In 2012 I gave a lecture at the annual PIEA conference held in conjunction with PMA Australia (Photographic Marketing Association), titled “Who Invented Photography”. In it I cover the claimants to the invention of photography, especially focusing on the essay by Pierre Harmant titled “Anno Lucis 1839“. Harmant covered 24 people that claimed to have invented photography, but in the end anoints only four. And it is four that some historians may not agree with, at least all of the selections. His supposition was that there was not one photography invented, but several, and that is his main argument for choosing the four people he did….Daguerre, Talbot, Mungo Ponton, and Albrecht Breyer. Each invented a different form of photography.

The last two, Albrecht Breyer and Mungo Ponton are the ones that would gather the most debate. Mungo Ponton for the invention/discovery of the photosensitive properties of chromium salts, and Albrecht Breyer for “reflectography“, which was a simple process for the reproduction of documents.

My problem with including both Breyer and Ponton is that both invented a process that could not be used in a camera. At the time that Harmant wrote his essay, any definition of photography originally was defined as:

“An image, especially a positive print, recorded by a camera and reproduced on a photosensitive surface.”

Now more robust definitions, like the one from Dictionary.com, eliminate the camera altogether:

“The process or art of producing images of objects on sensitized surfaces by the chemical action of light or of other forms of radiant energy, as x-rays, gamma rays, or cosmic rays. “

But that doesn’t take into account a process such as a chemigram that produces an abstract image without requiring an object. And in fact you can eliminate the chemical action of light as the chemigram can produce an image just through chemical action. So we end up with:

“The process or art of producing images on sensitized surfaces.”

But does a camera-less process really produce a photograph, as most of us will inexplicably link a photograph with a camera.

Geoffrey Batchen in his 1999 book, Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography, like Harmant, documents in detail the numerous contenders for the invention of photography. But he also more importantly, explores the conception of photography. That is, the idea of photography, and more precisely, the idea of capturing an image from nature permanently.

For the idea of photography we can explore a surprising number of instances recorded in history and legend from about 1000 BC.

Josef Maria Eder in his seminal book, “History of Photography”, originally written in German and first published in 1891, but continuously revised until 1932 (German edition), anointed Johann Heinrich Schulze as the true inventor of photography because of his discovery in 1727 of the light sensitivity nature of silver salts. Almost all historians will disagree with Eder, as there is no evidence that Schulze applied the silver salts to paper or made any attempt to record natural images.

But it was the French inventor Nicephore Niepce who was one of the earliest inventors of photography producing the first known and extant photograph in 1826. Although his process was a dead end, as it was not practiced by anyone other than Niepce and perhaps Daguerre, he must still be recognized as turning the concept of photography into reality.

1839 saw an explosion of photography inventions with both Daguerre and Talbot announcing their process, followed by a number of others. In his essay Harmant provided a chronology for 1839:

  • January 7: Daguerre announces his invention and describes it in general terms at the French Academy of Sciences
  • January 20: Bayard (silver iodide)
  • January 25: H. F. Talbot (silver chloride)
  • January 29: Sir William Herschel (fixing with sodium hyposulfite, silver carbonate)
  • February 1: Steinheil and Kobell (silver salts)
  • February 2: Gerber (silver salts)
  • February 11: Desmarets (silver salts)
  • February 24: Vérignon (silver iodide)
  • March 2: Friederike Wilhelmine von Wunsch (silver salts)
  • March 9: Rev. J. B. Reade (silver chloride)
  • March 9: Samuel F. B. Morse (silver salts)
  • April 8: Jean Louis Lassaigne (silver iodide)
  • April 9: Breyer (reflectographic process)
  • April 17: Fyfe (silver phosphate)
  • May 25: Mungo Ponton (chromium salts)
  • August 19: Daguerre receives pension from France and his process is published free to the world
  • August: Hans Thøger Winther (silver salts)

For completeness I have added Daguerre, which was not on Harmant’s original list of events of 1839.