Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy, Part I

Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy:
The Origins of Photography and Ophthalmic Photography
Part I, The Priority Debate (Who was first?)

Photography was born in the Victorian Era, a time of great discovery, invention, and advancement in science and medicine. Along with collaboration and discovery, there often came competition, rivalry, and controversy. Many brilliant minds of the day craved recognition for their scientific contributions. It was often a race to be listed as the “first” to describe or discover a new technique. The series of announcements of the discovery of photography in 1839, by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and several others became a frantic race filled with secrecy, surprise, jealousy, financial reward, political maneuvering, and legal action. To this day it’s still not entirely clear who was first to invent photography, and the “priority debate” continues.

The Origins of Photography

The origins of photography can be traced to 1826 when Joseph-Nicephore Niépce produced the first permanent photographic image using a pewter plate coated with light-sensitive bitumen of Judea in a camera obscura.

Color digital reproduction of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s
View from the Window at Le Gras.
Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center.

Gelatin silver print with applied watercolor of Niépce’s
View from the Window at Le Gras.
Helmut Gernsheim & Kodak Research Lab, Harrow, England.
Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center.

Exposure time was believed to be 8-10 hours in sunlight. The faint lines on the plate were then incised by hand and prints from it needed to be further enhanced with watercolors to produce what was termed a heliograph. While visiting England, he tried to present his results to the Royal Society of London, but was rebuffed. He would not be the only photographic pioneer that was treated this way by the Royal Society.

In 1826 Niépce began corresponding and collaborating with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a painter, stage decorator, and celebrated inventor/proprietor of the Paris Diorama. The Diorama was a unique theater that displayed large translucent paintings illuminated by variable stage lighting to create special effects. Daguerre was experienced with using the camera obscura to assist in creating the large paintings that decorated the stage.

He had made his own attempts to capture images with a camera obscura using phosphorescent powder. The image projected on the powder would remain for a few hours before fading. Niépce and Daguerre formed a partnership in 1829. In 1832 they created a new process called the physautotype using silver plates coated with a byproduct of distilled lavender oil. Daguerre continued the research on this and other photographic processes after Niépce’s death in 1833. He described a partial photographic process in Journal de Artistes in 1835. 

Daguerre and Talbot

By 1837, Daguerre was able to produce a well-known still life image titled, L’Atelier de l’artiste using a silvered copper plate developed with exposure to mercury after 20-30 minute exposure time in sunlight.

L’Atelier de l’artiste, 1837 Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

The story goes that a broken thermometer, serendipitously stored near a sensitized plate exposed it to mercury vapor which resulted in development of the latent image. The process was eventually improved to the point of practical use and was first reported on Daguerre’s behalf by noted French scientist and politician, François Arago, at the Academie des Sciences in Paris on January 7, 1839. Daguerre kept the specific details a secret for several months until he secured a pension for himself and Isidore Niépce (Joseph’s son) from the French Government in exchange for a full description of the process. Arago, acting on behalf of the French Government (as well as Daguerre) officially announced the Daguerrotype at a special joint meeting of the Académie des Sciences and Académie des Beaux–Arts held at the Institut de France in Paris on August 19, 1839. The announcement of the Daguerrotype as France’s “gift to the whole world” was met with great attention and fanfare.

Boulevard Boulevard du Temple, Paris Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

The Daguerrotype process resulted in sharp, direct positive, mirror-like images on silvered copper plates. Unfortunately multiple copies were not possible, as only a single print could be produced with this process. The images were also fragile and needed to be protected by glass or a frame. Still, at the time, the images were stunning and revolutionary.

bennett-hx-7-250At roughly the same time, noted British academic William Henry Fox Talbot, had been experimenting with photographic processes of his own. Talbot was a mathematician, physicist, philologist, Member of Parliament and Fellow of the Royal Society. His experimentation began in 1833 after being frustrated at his inability to accurately sketch scenery while on holiday in Italy. He employed a camera obscura to aid his drawing, but was still disappointed in the results.

In recounting the events that provided his inspiration to pursue a method of “photogenic drawing” he commented, “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.”

Talbot devised a successful technique, possibly as early as 1835. His early work consisted mostly of photograms (objects placed directly on sensitized paper) using direct sunlight with a print-out process. He later incorporated small modified box cameras to image sunlit scenes.

The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey (1835 or 1839) William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800–1877) Photogenic drawing negative 3 1/4 x 4 3/16 in. The Rubel Collection

The Race is On!

Talbot was reportedly stunned at news of Daguerre’s initial report in January just as he was preparing a paper on his own methods for presentation to the Royal Society in London. His process was significantly different than Daguerre’s, creating negatives on sensitized paper that were then contact printed as positives.

He immediately wrote to Arago claiming his photographic process preceded Daguerre’s and hastily presented a paper on his process to the Royal Society just three weeks after the initial Daguerre report. Within weeks of the dueling January announcements there was a flurry of photographic activity on both sides of the English Channel. The race for recognition was on! The March 1839 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine described the fast-growing rivalry, “Here is a revolution in art… for which we have so imitative a taste no sooner does one start up in Paris, but we must have one in London too. And so Mr. Daguerre’s invention is instantly rivaled by Mr. Fox Talbot’s.” While Daguerre bathed in the limelight of news reports in both Europe and the United States, Talbot received far less recognition. The Royal Society declined to publish his paper in their Transactions, in part because in his haste to establish priority over Daguerre, he published in the general press before submitting to the scientific literature. They were also unhappy that he withheld specific details. As early as March of 1839, photographic paper was being advertised in periodicals and sold in chemist & stationery shops in London. Cameras and boxed kits for photogenic drawing using Talbot’s technique were being offered for sale to the public by April. Frenchman Hippolyte Bayard displayed the first public exhibition of photographs on June 24th. His direct-positive process was different from both Daguerre’s and Talbot’s and its development may have preceded them both. Several other early adopters tried to jump on the bandwagon to gain fame and reward. By June 1839, the literary & science magazine Athenaeum commented: “Hardly a day passes that we do not receive letters respecting imagined discovery, or improvement, in the art of photogenic drawing, but the suggestions are generally far too crude to be worthy of publication.” And all of these activities took place before the official announcement of the “invention of photography” in August!

Financial Rewards

Talbot remained frustrated over lack of recognition for his work but continued to experiment and improve his techniques. In 1841 he patented his “Calotype” process trying to profit from it. The patent and Talbot’s attempts to enforce it prevented widespread acceptance of his process. Chemical imperfections caused his prints to fade over time, much to the delight and derision of artists that were threatened by photography. Over the next decade he was criticized in print, accused of appropriating others’ work, his patents were contested and eventually undermined. Talbot self-published The Pencil of Nature, the first commercially published book illustrated with tipped-in photographs. A significant milestone in photography and publishing, it was met with critical praise but was a financial failure.

The Pencil of Nature

Talbot has at times been treated unfairly in historical accounts because of his defense of patents and insistence on recognition of priority. Daguerre also attempted to profit from his invention at the expense of others. In a shrewd maneuver, he gave just enough details of his process in the January report to prove that it worked, so that he could petition the government to pay him for it. Only then did he reveal the details. A March fire that ruined Daguerre’s diorama, almost destroyed all his equipment, research notes, and photographic samples which were housed in his adjacent studio. Had he not persuaded the fire brigade to ignore the diorama to spare his studio, it might have been several more months before he could show evidence of his method to secure the support of the government. Surely, such a loss of momentum would’ve have given Talbot and others the opportunity to gain the upper hand. The diorama was also his sole source of income, so securing financial reward for revealing the details of his process became an urgent financial matter for Daguerre.

Arago, Daguerre’s friend and advocate, also arranged a small payment to Hippolyte Bayard to support his photographic pursuits and then persuaded him to delay announcement of his competing process. This calculated move by Arago ensured that Daguerre would be the one to retain recognition as the inventor of photography. Having been duped, Bayard publicly displayed a photographic self portrait that depicted himself as a corpse as a form of protest. The caption read: “The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you… The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….!”

Although the French government offered the Daguerrotype “free to the world”, Daguerre secured a patent in England on August 14, 1839 – just five days prior to the big announcement. Art critic and historian Lady Eastwick referred to this underhanded maneuver as “chicanery”. The motivation for the patent is unclear, but it has been suggested that Daguerre hoped to use it as leverage to gain financial compensation from the British Government or possibly profit from reselling the patent. There is also evidence that Niépce’s son Isidore pressured Daguerre to pursue the patent.

The Priority Debate

In addition to Bayard, some historians have credited another photographic pioneer, Rev. Joseph Bancroft Reade with preceding both Daguerre & Talbot. Reade testified for the defense during one of Talbot’s patent infringement proceedings stating he created a process prior to both Talbot & Daguerre. There is some evidence he may have influenced Talbot’s Calotype process by describing the use of sodium thiosulphite as a fixing agent. Unfortunately no example of Reade’s work exists and the evidence is mostly based on retrospective accounts by Reade after the fact. Most historians have completely dismissed his claim of priority, but recognize him as one of the first to take high magnification images with a solar microscope.

A more recent review of historic documents suggest that Sir John Frederick William Herschel’s presentation to the Royal Society in March of 1839 is more significant than Daguerre’s or Talbot’s initial announcements two months prior. R. D. Wood suggests that March 14, 1839 could be recognized as the birthday of photography. It’s hard to argue with this well researched opinion. Herschel discussed the improved light sensitivity of silver chloride, the use of gallic acid as a sensitizing agent and the use of hyposulphite of soda (sodium thiosulphite) as a practical fixer to remove unexposed silver and render the image permanent. Herschel shared the recommendation of hypo as a fixing agent with Talbot, who (with Herschel’s permission) wrote to J.B. Biot in Paris about it. This news was presumably passed on to Daguerre, who immediately incorporated it into his process as well. Gallic acid later became the developing agent in Talbot’s calotype process which was patented in 1841. Herschel worked out these chemical improvements just weeks after taking an interest in photography following the initial announcements. Herschel is also credited with coining the term “photography” in his March 14 report.

Niépce’s son Isidore received his father’s share of the pension that Arago and Daguerre secured from the French government, yet he became progressively bitter over Daguerre’s fame while his father’s contributions to the invention of photography were overlooked. In 1841, Isidore Niépce published a booklet called: History of the discovery improperly misnamed daguerreotype, preceded by a note from its real inventor Joseph-Nicephore Niépce. It seems that everyone was jealous of Daguerre’s fame and recognition. So who was actually first? Was it Niépce, Daguerre, Talbot, Reade, Herschel, Bayard, or someone else? Great question. Hans Rooseboom, Curator of Photography at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam writes in What’s wrong with Daguerre?, “Ever since the introduction of photography in 1839, the merits of each would-be claimant to the title of ‘inventor of photography’ have periodically been overemphasized by either themselves or excessively enthusiastic photohistorians.” Excessively enthusiastic photohistorians? Ouch! Some of this may be due to a nationalistic bias. Or it could simply be that photohistorians are caught in their own priority debate and crave recognition themselves as the “first”… the first to discover the true inventor of photography, or perhaps the first to discover a historical document which settles the issue once and for all.

History ultimately crowned a winner. Although Talbot (and others) made several significant early contributions Daguerre is generally given credit as the founder of photography. World Photography Day is celebrated on August 19th, the anniversary of Daguerre’s announcement to the world. Whether or not this is accurate is open to debate, but Daguerre is still the name most associated with the invention of photography. One Talbot bio suggests that his legacy could have been different: “Had his method been announced a few weeks earlier, he and not Daguerre would probably have been known as the founder of photography.” The same could certainly be said of Hippolyte Bayard as well. Daguerre beat them both.

Well played Messieurs Daguerre and Arago… Well played indeed!

Although the priority debate may never be fully resolved, these pioneers of photography collectively contributed several notable “firsts”:

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce First permanent photograph 1826.
Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre First public announcement of a practical photographic process, January 1839.
William Henry Fox Talbot First negative to positive photographic process, possibly in 1835.
First published collection of photographic works: The Pencil of Nature, 1844.
Hippolyte Bayard First public exhibition of photographs, June 1839. First faked photographic subject matter, Self Portrait of a Drowned Man, 1840.
Sir John Frederick William Herschel First description of hyposulphite as a fixer, March 1839
First use of the term photography, March 1839
Reverend Joseph Bancroft Reade First photomicrographer. 1839?



Swedlund C. Photography. New York. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1974:2-6

First photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826

Maison Nicephore Niépce, The Birthplace of Photography

Leggat R. A History of Photography from its beginnings till the 1920s

Wood RD. Midley History of Early Photography

Chronomedia: A detailed chronology of media history year-by-year

Hammerstingl W. The Beginnings of Photography 2001

The Daguerreian Society. Daguerreian Texts:The first two years (1839-1840)

Ewer GW. The Daguerrotype: an archive of source texts, graphics and ephemera.

The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot. DeMontfort University

Rooseboom H. What’s wrong with Daguerre? Reconsidering old and new views on the invention of photography.2010

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Edinburgh and London) 45:281 (March 1839): 382–91.

Eastlake E. Photography. London Quarterly Review, April 1857,pp. 442-68

National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Project Gutenberg EBook of The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot

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