PRINT September 1989


LIGHT HAS SO OFTEN, and in so many cultures, been used as a metaphor for higher knowledge and spiritual well-being that you might think it was some rare element, like lustrous gold. Yet light is quite literally everyday—a universal medium basic to life, a gift so commonplace that we take it for granted, the way the fish takes for granted the sea. The richness and the ordinariness of light coexist in photography. Beginning as theory in the 19th century, the medium has evolved as both esthetic and practical, so practical, in fact, that we risk here another comparison to the fish swimming uncritically in the sea of photographic images. Catching shadows that distill samples of the passing illuminations, the impartial lens transcribes indiscriminately whatever is put before it. Yet the pictures that result depend on the photographer’s visual intelligence to focus our attention (and intention). This subjective manipulation of objective equipment has both esthetic and industrial applications, and in the relatively short period since photography was introduced, it has become an omnipresent element of global culture. The 19th century’s first faint tracings of natural light have been followed by computer-programmed images that trap reflections from stars too distant for us to see with our own eyes. The perceptual cargo that photographs carry is precious both intellectually and emotionally.

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the invention of photography as a commercial tool and as an art form, both aspects present and accounted for at the time of its inception. And the medium’s first age of inventiveness was celebrated earlier in the year in “Photography: Discovery and Invention,” a symposium hosted by Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California. In eight scholarly lectures, museum curators, academics, a collector/dealer, and a lone photographic practitioner proved how intense the interest in the first ways and means of photo-picture making has remained. Accompanying the talks at the Getty was an exhibition of rare and wonderful images selected from its collection, each taken when there was nothing automatic about either the camera or the different processes for fixing an image to a support—cyanotype, dessin-fumée, salt-fixed print, calotype, daguerreotype, collodion, etc. The symposium, on which much of the factual information in this article is based, and its accompanying 13-month exhibition program, as well as other special events occurring worldwide, give photography of the mid 19th century needed reconsideration with the enlarged perspective of fresh scholarship and recently rediscovered images. As Naef remarked,

[This] is the 150th anniversary of the first public display of a photograph in London by William Henry Fox Talbot, and his simultaneous announcement of details of the process. It is also the 150th anniversary of the first public display by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre of his daguerreotypes in Paris. Not since the mid-15th-century explosion of engraving had a new visual medium come along that radically transformed visual communication and creative expression. “The miracle happens instantaneously, quick as thought, rapid as the ray of the sun,” wrote Jules Janin when he first saw a photograph, in a sentence that described some of the reasons why people have been transfixed by photography ever since.

It has been less than 20 years since the first Ph.D. degree in the history of photography was awarded, an event that heralded a new generation of scholars, historians, and critics. New methods of study along with a vocabulary and syntax tailored to the subject have emerged beside traditional ones. The analytic methods created for the history of art have proven useful and resilient, yet they are gradually being complemented by other approaches. Critics have turned to science, linguistics, poetry, music, and literature in the quest for models. The symposium papers reflect different approaches to the study of photographs and bring to the subject intimate firsthand knowledge of a particular photographer or body of photographs. The unifying thread between them is the commitment to studying and handling original photographs; each starts with an object around which a story is allowed to unfold. For these scholars, reproductions will not suffice, and each of them is a servant of light.

Rare and fragile, some pale with age, others colored delicately from a home brew of solutions and fixatives, the images in the exhibition are powerfully intriguing. Something newborn is being visually defined here, something that shares the openness of all young things and demonstrates a native curiosity and excitement about what can or might be done in this as yet unknown esthetic territory, free from established barriers or preconceptions. Even when 19th-century fine-art conventions are flat-footedly borrowed, the photographic medium translates the imposition into a uniquely new language. Pictorially accessible, by necessity direct in approach and technique, the photographs pry inanimate objects out of their contexts, giving them a new weight as worthy of our attention. Sitters pose stiffly for the long exposures of the period; but there has been no time for camera-shyness to develop, so the images have fewer layers of defense than contemporary photographs informed by the post-Freudian and post-Modernist interest in the hidden meanings the lens can reveal. Insensitive to these dangers, the early images allow our close examination, providing a view of the world distanced by dress and manner from our own pressing realities and more self-conscious stance. They also serve as artifacts of the progress of a developing technology, and as a historical record of esthetic pretensions, formal conventions, and social mores. But finally the works in the exhibition are best appreciated as works of art that exhibit a visual authority transcending their original time and circumstance, as well as the considerable technical restraints imposed on their makers, to appear fresh, alive, and emotionally complex to late-20th-century viewers jaded by an overabundance of visual information—a condition that itself, in large part, is photography’s legacy to the modern age.

The first introduction of the general public to photography occurred, with high drama, in early 1839, when an army of inventors pressed claims, learned societies held meetings, and the popular press enthusiastically reported the latest developments. In Paris—the City of Light—a broadside titled “Daguerreotype” was published describing the wonders to be expected in the near future. The sheet was written by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a popular theater artist and entrepreneur already well-known for his sets and Diorama spectacles. Now he offered his compatriots a new process by which, “without any notion of drawing, without any knowledge of chemistry or physics, it will be possible to take in a few minutes the most detailed views and the most picturesque sites.”1 (Daguerre promised a public exhibition of the products of his invention, but this did not take place until the summer.) Later he elaborated, “The plate is exposed to light and at once, whatever the shadow projects on this plate, earth, or sky, running water, the cathedral lost in the clouds, . . . all things big and little engrave themselves instantly. . . . You can now say to the towers of Notre Dame—Place yourselves there and the towers will obey, brought home in their entirety from the tremendous rock on which they are built to the slender and light spires.”2 On January 6 the prestigious Gazette de France supplied more information: “M. Daguerre does not work on paper at all, he must have polished metal plates. We have seen on copper several views of the boulevards, the Pont Marie and its surroundings, and a lot of other places rendered with a truth which nature alone can give to her works.”3

On July 30, both houses of the liberal government of France passed a bill granting Daguerre an annuity of 6,000 francs a year for the purchase of his invention and proclaiming free use of the medium for all. On August 19, François Arago—a scientist as well as an astute politician in the Chambre des Deputés—called an unusual joint meeting of the Académie des Sciences (of which he was secretary) and the Académie des Beaux Arts. Hours before the meeting began, the hall was filled, and a large overflow crowd formed in the courtyard. The learned Arago spoke at length about photography while Daguerre sat proudly by, listening to his thunder. Once the lecture had ended, the lucky few inside the hall passed on the news: as the London Globe reported, “The crowd was like an electric battery sending out a stream of sparks. Everyone was happy to see others in a happy mood . . . . after a long wait a door opens in the background and the first of the audience [comes] out . . . ‘silver iodine’ shouts one, ‘quicksilver’ shouts another . . . everyone pricks his ears but nobody understands anything. . . . dense circles form around single speakers, and the crowd surges forward in order to snatch bits of news here and there.”4 Within days, dark three-legged boxes could be seen planted in front of churches and palaces all over Paris, causing serious hindrance to street traffic.

Daguerre was not, in fact, the sole inventor of this miracle, which the English Spectator called “some marvel of a fairy tale, a delusion of necromancy.”5 Though he certainly refined the process, he himself had been introduced to it through experiments begun in 1816 by Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce (later assisted by his son, Isidore). Daguerre’s most important contribution was as Niepce’s business partner, the brilliant realizer of the project’s commercial potential. Besides managing the financial and publicity coups apparent in the circumstances of the announcement and government purchase of the invention, he also arranged for the manufacture of a camera, and for the publication of a handbook that went into eight editions in France, three across the channel in England, five in Germany, one to the north in Sweden, two to the south in Italy, two in Spain. . . . In all at least 39 editions appeared, in eight languages, within 18 months. Magazines and newspapers everywhere reported on the “inventor” and the invention, and the accessibility assured by the public ownership of the daguerreotype opened the way for many enthusiasts to give the new French gift to the world a personal try. As for Niepce, who had died in 1833, he “could justifiably be called the Christopher Columbus of photography” to Daguerre’s part as Amerigo Vespucci, Naef remarked, since he too had his discovery named after another.

Much less publicized than Daguerre’s system of printing on metal were the concurrent experiments of two amateurs who had been working out methods of making photo images on paper. Hippolyte Bayard, a civil servant in the French ministry of finance, had developed a process for positive photographic images that were sharp, clear, and remarkably subtle in tone. (Eventually they would be much admired in the artist community.) Unfortunately, however, Bayard followed the urgings of Daguerre’s patron Arago to delay the publication of the process until after Daguerre had come out with his own announcement. The much embittered Bayard was utterly overshadowed in the consequent excitement. Working meanwhile in England, at Laycock Abbey, Wiltshire, and far more resistant to being put aside, was William Henry Fox Talbot. A gentleman scholar cum natural scientist, Talbot had begun his search for a new way of picture-making out of frustration over his lack of ability in drawing, which he had been using to record the specimens of different kinds that he gathered for study. He hoped to overcome this disadvantage by making “nature his draftsman” through the aid of a more effective version of the camera lucida, and had made quiet progress to this end when, in mid January of 1839, he learned of Daguerre’s announcement. The news, he complained, put him “in a very unusual dilemma scarcely to be paralleled in the annals of science, for I was threatened with the loss of all my labor.”6 Talbot had no way of knowing that the daguerreotype, though better perfected, was in fact completely different from his own photography, which at this point consisted of cameraless images on sensitized paper and the bare beginnings of a system that utilized a locally assembled machine (later nicknamed the “mousetrap” for its small size) to create a reversed, negative image from which positive prints on paper could be made. Each negative had the potential to produce endless copies, and this multiplicity would eventually prove the key to the process’ success. But in 1839 Talbot’s chemical agents were chancy, and the images less permanent and less capable of detail than either the daguerreotype or Bayard’s direct-positive prints. Talbot was at one point so discouraged that he named the paper he was using “Waterloo,” after another, and to him lesser, defeat. But if he was less prone to showmanship than Daguerre (just as Wellington was less flashy than Napoleon), he was just as determined to press his claim.

Talbot introduced his process at a hastily arranged showing held after a regular meeting of London’s Royal Institution on January 25, 1839. (Daguerre’s findings would not be officially published until February 6.) This modest preview of hazy images was arranged on the invitation of Michael Faraday, the famed formulator of many electrical principles. After the scheduled talk of the evening, Faraday invited the audience to the library to see Mr. Talbot’s “photo-genic drawings,” which were exhibited there alongside other scientific curiosities. There had been little time to prepare for this first-ever public showing of photographs, and Talbot had selected prints from what he had on hand, some dating back to the beginnings of his experiments in the mid 1830s. Nonetheless he was able to state his case. Within days, Talbot’s correspondent the astronomer Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who had been unable to attend the meeting, had duplicated the negative-positive techniques, even improving upon them. It was this remarkable thinker who coined the term “photography.” Herschel had followed the discussion because of his basic interest in science, and because, as Larry Schaaf remarked at the Getty symposium, it “bore strongly on his ‘first love,’ of light.”7

Once the science of photography had advanced beyond pure theory, there were numerous useful applications. To the scientific and scholarly community the photograph was a means of quickly and accurately recording primary information. It assisted both the astronomer and the archaeologist—replacing, for example, the hundreds of draftsmen who would otherwise have been needed to record the millions of hieroglyphs covering the monuments of Thebes and Karnak. For the natural scientist the photograph offered a way at least visually to preserve the freshness of specimens after returning from the field. Architectural historians used photographs to preserve fine old buildings before their modernization or demolition. And for collectors of all kinds photography presented, as Eugenia Parry Janis suggested, a new way of having and conserving. The oddly book-obsessed Sir Thomas Phillipps, for example, recognized early the archival potential of the new medium, seeing it as a means of cataloguing his library, a task until then performed in handwriting by the child labor of his daughters, or in type by a poorly paid printer. “A person whom Dickens would have loved,” in Janis’ words, Phillipps stated flatly that his goal was to own “one copy of every book in the world.”8 At his home, every hallway and room was filled with books and packing cases; the decomposition of the collection from worms and damp made living conditions there less than splendid. (The second Lady Phillipps complained that she was “booked” out of one wing and “ratted” out of the other.) Thus Sir Thomas commissioned the first archival photographs we know of, from a Mrs. Guppy, who arrived on Talbot’s recommendation. While her 120 pictures read more as indifferent still life studies of random volumes than as an orderly inventory of Phillipps’ eccentric collection (the largest library ever assembled by an individual), they do point the way toward the use of photographic media for documentation. They also suggested to Sir Thomas the idea of collecting photographs themselves, which he proceeded to do with atypical discretion.

For the nonspecialist, the main application of photography in the early days was as a new means of portraiture. The commercial daguerreotype studio quickly became a popular source of family icons. Some artists in traditional media had reason to be discomfited by this development, but others welcomed the new tool and were eager to learn from it. As curator John Szarkowski remarked, “The effect of photography on painting came from the recognition by artists in the traditional arts of the possible meaning of dumb facts, not simply in the way that photographs make things look. . . . It is, I believe, this alertness to possibilities that are not yet assigned a name or habitation that defines what we mean when we speak of exceptional artists. It is not difficult to assemble in a thick catalogue the debt that specific paintings, good, bad, and indifferent, have to mostly bad and indifferent photographs.”9 According to Beaumont Newhall, the painter Paul Delaroche, far from worrying that painting was dead, as is often reported, was among the first enthusiastically to endorse the “new way of sketching,” asserting that “Nature is reproduced in [photographs] not only with truth but with art. M. Daguerre’s wonderful discovery is an immense service rendered to art.”10 Others found that these “drawings” had their own beauties. Like several other painters of the period, Gustave Le Gray initially became interested in photography as an aid in analyzing the light and tonal values underlying basic color. After attempting, with Arago, to document sunspots in a daguerreotype, then trying out (and improving) the paper process introduced by Bayard, he began to make use of photography as a creative medium. The true subject of many of Le Gray’s large photographs is the play of light, his best-known pictures being seascapes that abstract cloud, air, and ocean. His view of earth has an inner glow that suggests the heightened definitions of twilight without the sharp edge. To produce these images he would marry several negatives, juxtaposing sky and clouds from one photo with the sea of another. The artistically spectacular photographs that resulted, more perfectly real than natural reality, were immediately recognized as fine art when exhibited in both Paris and London. Rather than mirroring nature, Le Gray showed, the photograph could reassemble raw realities into a more perfect one.

At the same time that photography was a source of images for artists, and a tool for making art, it would also be, in more general cultural terms, a source of a new sensibility, in large part defined, as Szarkowski remarked, by photographic realism. A literary example he gave at the symposium was the commonality of feeling between a passage in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and images in the Civil War photobook Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1866), including Timothy O’Sullivan’s A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July, 1863. The matter-of-fact horror of these war pictures, the hurt of wasted life they convey, is still painful to modern audiences numbed by repeated doses of the evening news. While it is true that Crane, as a child, met aging veterans of the war and heard their stories firsthand, it is also true that he knew photographs such as O’Sullivan’s, which were then a part of the popular imagination, and that his writing shares a certain sharp focus with them:

It seemed to the youth that he saw everything. Each blade of green grass was bold and clear. He thought he was aware of every change in the thin, transparent vapor that floated idly in sheets. The brown or gray trunks of the trees showed each roughness of their surfaces. And the men of the regiment, with their starting eyes and sweating faces, running madly, or falling, as if thrown headlong, to queer, heaped-up corpses—all were comprehended. His mind took a mechanical but firm impression, so that afterwards everything was pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there.11

There was of course a political side to all of this. The French government had covered itself with laurels by giving photography, that is the daguerreotype, to the world; to convince his fellow deputies of this concept, Arago employed a combination of jingoism and learning that appealed to their national pride—a pride that subsequently became an unscientific refusal to endorse the other photographic directions that continued to emerge, particularly those that did not originate on French soil. But ideas cannot be patented, only demonstrated processes, and there were differing opinions even within France as to who had the rights and privileges to the various discoveries. As several speakers at the Getty symposium observed, photography could rightfully be said to have been repeatedly “invented,” each “inventor” recognizing the importance of particular available pieces of information, which each combined to achieve more or less successful results. Men and women of many different social classes, interests, and goals involved in the early development of the medium saw their own importance differently; there was much name calling, many charges and countercharges. When the Lille cloth merchant Louis Desiré Blanquart-Evrard made useful improvements on Talbot’s calotype process, and published a detailed manual, a French court ruled that he had not infringed on Talbot’s patent rights although he had followed the Englishman’s ideas without crediting or even mentioning them. To Talbot, Blanquart-Evrard’s actions were “a glaring act of scientific piracy.”12 But Talbot’s process, privately owned (as befitted his Victorian sense of property), suffered from the protectionism of the patent, and refined itself far more slowly than the daguerreotype, with which everyone was free to tinker. When, on the prompting of Sir Charles Eastlake, the president of the Royal Academy (and the first president of the Photographic Society), and Lord Rosse, president of the Royal Society, Talbot finally abandoned most of his rights, and the calotype became more freely available, its technical problems were solved and Talbot’s negative-positive method preferred.

If the results of the different methods were steadily improving, however, it was at the cost of an ever-more-difficult process. The photographic technology, Szarkowski argued, “became not easy, as is often claimed, but so fearsomely complex that it was taken out of the hands of the photographers.” Some, including Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, wife of Sir Charles, questioned these improvements. In a letter of 1857 Lady Elizabeth complained that the mystery of photography was gone, replaced by “mere manual correctness, nimble slavery.” This early connoisseur was sensitive to the photograph’s ability to combine cool factuality and loving intimacy: “Though the faces of our children in a photograph may not be modeled and rounded with the truth and beauty that art obtains, yet minor things, the very shoes of the one, the inseparable toy of the other, are given with the strength of identity which art does not seek.”13 Like others in Talbot’s genteel circle who had first been attracted by the useful side of photography, she came to appreciate the medium’s artistic properties, developing the kind of romantic attitude that reached full expression in the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. Yet the photograph’s esthetic potential was present even in pictures taken for the most practical of purposes. Very early on, the naturalist Anna Atkins was employing a basic, cameraless form of photography to illustrate small-edition books of botanical specimens. These pages of field samples, not unlike a nature project done at summer camp, have an inherent elegance of placement and proportion that surpasses the original intention of scientific display. Wonderful blue cyanotypes of lovingly arranged English flora (such as the snippets of graceful algae that I find so pleasing), they are totally without artistic pretensions, yet seem a naive art form.

Talbot himself was interested in edition printing, and beginning in 1844 used his calotype process to present The Pencil of Nature, a didactic tract on the possibilities of photography. This book of 24 plates with explanatory text was professionally silver-printed at an establishment set up by Talbot in Reading. While the esthetic quality of the images was mixed, and fading was a serious problem, the publication proved the potential of commercially printing quantities of photo-images from single negatives, a lesson on which commercial printers soon capitalized. Today there are more inked photo-images than any other kind. Talbot himself came to prefer ink printing over silver because it was more stable in light; Sir John Brewster would call him a “Gutenberg,” and he has a certain right to the name, for the camera has surely proved as revolutionary a device as the printing press. The sweetly flowered scrap of linen calico that Talbot posed in 1835, and showed in a photograph at that first exhibition at the Royal Institution, is prophetic of his later experimental photographs taken through the weave of a cloth to fragment tonal values, images that themselves recall the modern screen used for making halftones. As Richard Benson pointed out, these screens are now “a memory in a computer that can guide a laser to form . . . particles in what we call a scanned halftone.”

The basic parts of photography’s technological puzzle, as well as the social need for it, were clearly present at the time of its introduction, and photographs quickly proved to be the ideal way of passing news and information in an age of innovation. While much was claimed for the new medium at its beginnings, even the most enthusiastic member of the Paris crowd back in 1839 would be amazed to know how completely the photograph has entered and altered society. Photography has changed fundamentally the way we see, and has revolutionized what we think we know about an event, a thing, or a person. It is the basic ingredient of contemporary communications and mass media: movies, television, and print, advertising, entertainment, and journalism. Photography has demonstrated that its air of believability can create as well as satisfy our needs, and can be used to sell goods or a bill of them.

Of course this has long been the role of images in society; from the first mark made by primitive man, pictures have given form to ideas. With photo images, however, a new layer of complexity was added because unlike anything before, photographs presented a seemingly unquestionable reality. Once accepted as factual in the public domain, they can be used to create history. Recent events in China are a chilling example. We need to remember that the photographer—or often, in the commercial and political spheres, the photographer’s employer—controls what picture is taken and how it will be used: while today some cameras “think” for you, what is pictured is still subjective. After 150 years, we are still trying to trap the light to our satisfaction; and as Benson said, “nothing is harder to make than a great negative.”14 We are still in the age of photographic invention.

Amy Baker Sandback is a writer who lives in New York.



1. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, “Daguerreotype,” 15 January 1839, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, “1839,” a paper read at the Getty symposium.
2. Magazine Artiste, 1839, quoted in ibid.
3. Gazette de France, 1839, quoted in ibid.
4. London Globe, 19 August 1839, quoted in ibid.
5. The Spectator, March 1839, quoted in ibid.
6. Talbot, quoted in ibid.
7. Larry Schaaf, “‘A Wonderful Illustration of Modern Necromancy’: Significant
Talbot Experimental Prints in the J. Paul Getty Museum Collection,” a paper read
at the Getty symposium.
8. Eugenia Parry Janis, “Sir Thomas Phillipps: Photographic Memoirs of a ‘Vellomaniac,’” a paper read at the Getty symposium.
9. John Szarkowski, “Early Photography and Modernism,” a paper read at the Getty symposium.
10. Paul Delaroçhe, letter to Francois Arago, quoted in Newhall.
11. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, 1895, New York: Oxford World’s Classics, Avenel Books, 1985, p. 133. Quoted in Szarkowski.
12. André Jammes, “The Blanquart-Evrard Process: ‘A Glaring Act of Piracy,’” a paper read at the Getty symposium.
13. Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, quoted in Szarkowski.
14. Richard Benson, “An Artist’s Perspective on Talbot’s Other Legacy: The Photomechanical Alternative to Silver,” a paper read at the Getty symposium.

The “Photography: Discovery and Invention” symposium was held at the Getty on January 30, 1989. The participants were Richard Benson, a professor at Yale University; André Jammes, a collector and scholar who lives in Paris; Eugenia Parry Janis, a professor at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Nancy Keeler, a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin; Beaumont Newhall, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Larry Schaaf, a scholar and consultant who lives in Baltimore; Graham Smith, a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and John Szarkowski, director of the Department of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Getty will publish their lectures in the spring of 1990. All the photographs reproduced with this article are in the collection of the Getty.