Although for centuries humans have known the principle of the “camera obscura” – in which light passing through a pinhole can throw an upside-down and reversed image onto the opposite wall of a darkened room – it wasn’t until 1826 or 1827 that a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce figured out a way to preserve the images.
Photography was born.
Nicéphore Niépce’s photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras is believed to be the oldest surviving camera photograph. His discoveries were quickly followed by those of such photographic pioneers as Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, who publicly announced their own photographic processes in January 1839.
To preserve a photographic image, the challenges included how to capture the image, and how to transfer the captured “negative” onto a positive surface. One of the ways to print a photograph from a negative was to make an albumen print, and another way was the wet collodion printing process.
Albumen, or egg whites, can be used with silver nitrate to produce a photographic print. The paper must be first dipped into a solution made with albumen, and then dried. Once it’s dried, the paper is taken into a darkroom and “sensitized” by being placed in a bath of silver nitrate, then dried again. Once that’s complete, then the negative plate is placed on the prepared paper and the whole thing is exposed to light until the picture develops. After that, the silver is washed off, a toner applied and then the print is dried. Finally your image is ready to be admired! The process is fully described in this interesting resource: http://www.cwreenactors.com/collodion/21steps.htm
Alternatively, collodion – a highly flammable, gooey mixture of guncotton dissolved in sulfuric and nitric acid with ethyl alcohol and ether added – can be used in the place of the albumen. Less exposure time is needed with the collodion than with albumen. As the solvent evaporates, it dries to a clear, celluloid-like film.
For a step-by-step description, visit http://www.alternativephotography.com/the-wetplate-collodion-process/
Most of the early pioneers of photography were male. The science of photography involved expensive, dangerous chemicals and new processes. Furthermore, dabbling in such advanced technology went against Victorian expectations of female behavior.
Nevertheless, there were a few women pioneers in those early days of the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. Among them were Anna Atkins, Viscountess Hawarden, and Julia Margaret Cameron.
Anna Atkins (nee Children) was the only child of a prominent scientist, John George Children, who gave her “an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time.” It was her great interest in botany that led her to explore the cyanotype process – she was interested in using cyanotype to preserve images of various types of seaweed. She did this by placing the dried seaweed on the cyanotype-treated paper, and then exposing it to light.
Some say Anna Atkins was the first woman to produce a camera photograph. What we do know is that Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs. Only 17 copies of this historically important book are now known to exist.
Clementina Maude, Viscountess Hawarden, turned to photography in 1857 or 1858, while living in Ireland at her husband’s estate. In 1859 she moved to London, where she set up a photographic studio in her home in South Kensington. Considered an amateur photographer, her work was nevertheless praised for its artistic excellence. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and also a photographer, was among those who admired Hawarden’s work.
In the approximately 7 years that she was actively photographing, she created 800 photographs. Her photographs include images of her children, particularly her daughters – she had eight children in all. Scholar Carol Mavor says the photographs raise “issues of gender, motherhood and sexuality.”
Probably the best known of the early female photographers is Julia Margaret Cameron. She created many portraits of Victorian aristocrats and artists, many of them dressed up as Shakespearean characters or legendary figures.
When she was 48, she was given a camera as a present, and thus began her photographic career which lasted from 1864 to 1875.
During the 11 years in which she was active in photography, Cameron treated photography as an art as well as a science, manipulating the wet collodion process to give her images a dreamlike feel. As a result, her soft-focus images and cropped portraits were appreciated more by the pre-Raphaelite artists than the photographic critics of the day.
Photography was in its infancy at the beginning of the Victorian era – as a pursuit, it was exacting, expensive, and high-tech. These women were among the vanguard of explorers in a new field that merged chemistry and art. They used their skills to express ideas about botany, family, and about how we present ourselves to the world.
Individuals living in 1850 probably felt like new technology and scientific information was being thrown at them so fast they could barely catch their breath. And yet, today’s scientific discoveries and inventions are being developed even faster than they were 170 years ago. But no matter what the historical age, men and women have been willing to explore ever deeper into the mysteries of our world.
How about you? Do you like exploring new ideas, or do you prefer the comfort of the familiar? Let me know in the comments.
By Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – Rebecca A. Moss, Coordinator of Visual Resources and Digital Content Library, via email. College of Liberal Arts Office of Information Technology, University of Minnesota. http://www.dcl.umn.edu, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107219
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=455356
By Clementia Hawarden – http://year117deadlysins.blogspot.com/2011/04/envy.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15312439
By Julia Margaret Cameron – HQGPeFPsjI99sA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22179500