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Photography Invention Or Discovery History Essay

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In this essay I will be looking at the work of Henry Fox-Talbot and Louis Daguerre. I shall compare and contrast the two different processes they uncovered in the creation of photography in the years leading up to 1839 when the first photographic means were gifted to the world by Louis Daguerre. Then slightly later the patented calotype discovered by the English man Fox-Talbot. The calotype and the daguerreotype process were highly different developments. The question I will be asking is 'was photography an invention or a discovery?' To do this I will have to examine in detail both processes and the history surrounding them. I will look at optics and specifically the camera obscura to see the influences these men were under in creating both the calotype and the daguerreotype.

"The camera itself is based on optical principles known at least since the age of Aristotle" [1]

It is known that a filmless version of the camera was in use in the mid-1500s as a drawing tool for artists. This screen produced an image suitable for tracing, from the inverted image conveyed through the lens. The human eye was the prototype for this tool, which functioned as a primitive extension of what the eye can view. At this time,

"Photographic technology was directed toward perfecting the medium as a surrogate, more sophisticated eye." [2]

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The Camera Obscua was a dark box or room with a hole in side or wall. If the hole was minute enough, an inverted image would be seen on the opposite wall. It is said that Roger Bacon invented the camera obscura around the year 1300, but this has never been accepted by scholars. In fact, the Arabian scholar Hassan, in the 10th century, described what can be called a camera obscura in his writings with which he and Bacon recorded viewings of solar eclipses. The earliest record of the use of a camera obscura can be found in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci in the 1400's

"Leonardo pioneered his own method of photography 300 years before the birth of photography". [3]

At about the same period Daniel Barbaro, a Venetian, recommended the camera as an aid to drawing and perspective.

"Photography was presented to the world on August 19th 1839 at a joint meeting of the Academy of science and the Academy of Fines Arts in Paris."[4]

Poe by William S. Hartshorn, 1848

Fig 2The daguerreotype process was the first workable method of capturing and preserving images. The man who discovered and named and perfected the method of producing direct positive images on a silver-coated copper plate was Louis Daguerre, a talented French artist and landscape painter. Daguerre started experimenting with ways of fixing the images formed by the camera obscura in 1824.

In 1829 he fashioned a partnership Joseph Nicephore Niepce; a French scientist and inventor who, in 1826, had succeeded in securing an image of the view from his bedroom window by using a camera obscura and a pewter plate coated with bitumen. Niepce called his picture-making process heliography often called 'sun drawing'.

"Heliography was first coined by its inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, to identify the process by which he obtained the first permanent photographic images. With its classical derivation from the Greek-helios meaning sun, and graphein denoting writing or drawing-the term encompassed both the source and the process in describing this first successfully permanent means of letting light record itself" [5]

Though while he had managed to construct a permanent image using a camera, the exposure time was very long around 8 hours. Niepce later discarded the idea of pewter plates in favour of silver-plated sheets of copper and discovered that the vapour from iodine reacted with the silver coating to produce silver iodide, a light sensitive compound.

Niepce died in 1833, which was seen by many as convenience. Daguerre maintained the experimentation with copper plates coated with silver iodide to produce positive pictures. Daguerre discovered that the latent image on an exposed plate could be developed with the fumes from warmed mercury. The use of mercury vapour meant that photographic images could be produced in twenty to thirty minutes rather than hours. In 1837, Daguerre found a way of "fixing" the photographic images with a solution of common salt.

Daguerre began making successful pictures using his improved process from 1837. On 19th August, 1839, at a meeting in Paris, the Daguerreotype Process was revealed to the world.

The Calotype was a refinement of the process of photographic drawing, offering a much more sensitive medium through its use of the latent image phenomenon. It was invented by Fox Talbot in September 1840 and patented on the 8th of February 1841. While it was never remotely competitive in the commercial sphere, Talbot used it as the basis of their photographic enterprise in Reading, it was offered as the best alternative to the Daguerreotype and better suited to amateurs, artists, and scientists, who adopted it widely.

"Publishers and physicists, printers and chemists, opticians and mathematicians, businessmen and precision engineers applied the process, developed it further and extended its distribution."[6]

Fox-Talbot.W (1838)

Fig.1 The Calotype process is a negative image that also creates a wax paper negative, although its positive counterpart, the salted paper print, is the more common form in which it is met. Calotypes are made by brushing the best quality drawing or writing paper with a solution of silver nitrate, drying the paper, and then immersing it in a solution of potassium iodide to form a light-sensitive layer of silver iodide. Immediately before use the surface it treated with silver nitrate to act as an accelerator. Exposure in a camera, where the paper must be held in a dark slide, produces a latent image which is developed by washing in gallo-nitrate, fixed in hypo and washed.

The translucency of Calotypes can be improved by waxing, and a positive can be made by repeating the original process. When toned in for instance, gold chloride solution gives a purple tone, a positive produced in this way is known as a 'salted paper print'.

The magnetism of the calotype process was that it allowed a latent image on the paper to be transformed into an actual image after the paper had been removed from the camera.

The calotype process allowed much shorter exposures than for photographic drawing, and so made portraits possible. Exposures of around 1 to 3 minutes might be required for a calotype. Talbot's earlier photographic drawing process might have required an exposure of an hour.

"The chief differences between the two are that calotypes are negatives that are later printed as positives on paper and that daguerreotypes are negative images on mirrored surfaces that reflect a positive looking image."[7]

While Daguerre had funding and the backing of the French Academy of Sciences, his competitor Talbot had to be very much self sufficient to push his methods. The French decided that their invention should be a gift to the world. Oddly though, Daguerre did register a patent in Britain for the process.

"Free to the world everywhere except Britain." [8]

This slowed the progression of photography by there being only a few people who could legally make daguerreotypes in the country. Since Talbot did not merely lack the funding of Daguerre but also his financial status, he looked to making his investment money from working on his photographic finds back by patenting his method and charging anyone who wanted to use them.

While we know why Talbot took out his patent and charged money for a license. It has always been a mystery as to why Daguerre would want to restrict the use of "his" invention in the same country that a competitor of his was equally as destined to make it to the history books.

At first Talbot had a lot of trouble developing how to properly fix his images giving another advantage to the already unique daguerreotypes to become much more popular. Nevertheless, while Daguerreotypes were at first much more popular, their years of practical production didn't really make it past the late 1800s though they are still used in artistic practice. Talbot's invention of negative to positive process was much more influential to further developments in the photographic industry and holds much more relevance to anyone still working with film and traditional printing.

Taking the historical and chemical information into consideration it is difficult to put the label of invention or discovery on either or both the Calotype or the Daguerreotype. Invention is classified as "The act of inventing something that has never been made or used before." Though "If someone makes a discovery, they become aware of something that they did not know about before." [9]

This leads me to propose that both men used technology that had been around since the time of Leonardo Di Vinci some 400yrs previously. I would like to put forward the case that instead of discovery or invention the original processes of photography were achieved by advanced modification and manipulation. The building blocks for both processes had existed for years before there was finally a process for fixing the images permanently. It is then arguable that the discovery as to the fixing of the images is tangible but not an invention but more crudely a matter of trial and error. The daguerreotype process is considered the first photographic process practical due to exposure time dropped from hours to minutes. However, it does not have the aptitude for replication this was a handicap that Fox-Talbot's Calotype did not have but the quality was missing there was no clean, crisp image. Both of the process's though their many adaptations from the primal camera obscura still were very basic. This I believe is why the Ambrotype process, also commonly known as the wet collodion process, developed in 1861 rendered both the daguerreotype and the calotype obsolete.

The wet collodion process was discovered by Scott Archer.  He published the process in 1851 and allowed its use free of copyright. This differed from Fox-Talbot who patented his process. This is a clear indication as to why the wet collodion soon surpassed the calotype. Being copyright free meant that is was readily available for those who could afford the materials and thus of course open to improvements.

The collodion process used a fine film of collodion, applied to glass, making a base for the image.  This glass negative that was normally used for making one or more prints. However, Archer found that a thin glass negative could become the photo itself, if it was viewed against a black background.

Like the daguerreotype the ambrotype created a unique image, consisting of a negative, often underexposed, mounted on a dark background in a case or frame. The image would be either normal or reversed according to whether or not the emulsion side of the negative lay against the black backing.

"Unlike a daguerreotype, an ambrotype image can be seen when viewed from all angles.  For this reason the process became popular, even though the finished result lacked the detail and tonal range of the daguerreotype." [10]

Concluding this essay it is clear to me that the Calotype and the Daguerreotype are both developments of the camera obscura and even earlier technologies. The process of the camera obscura was superseeded in the same way that wet collodion later rendered Daguerre and Fox-Talbots processes were rendered obsolete. I believe by looking at evidence that there is a strong basis for the argument that the development of the process's was down to the work by the two men who discovered the key to fixing the image but it is not their invention to claim.


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