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Capturing the Light: The Birth of Photography, a True Story of Genius and Rivalry

Capturing the Light: The Birth of Photography, a True Story of Genius and Rivalry

by Roger Watson, Helen Rappaport


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An intimate look at the journeys of two men—a gentleman scientist and a visionary artist—as they struggled to capture the world around them, and in the process invented modern photography

During the 1830s, in an atmosphere of intense scientific enquiry fostered by the industrial revolution, two quite different men—one in France, one in England—developed their own dramatically different photographic processes in total ignorance of each other's work. These two lone geniuses—Henry Fox Talbot in the seclusion of his English country estate at Lacock Abbey and Louis Daguerre in the heart of post-revolutionary Paris—through diligence, disappointment and sheer hard work overcame extraordinary odds to achieve the one thing man had for centuries been trying to do—to solve the ancient puzzle of how to capture the light and in so doing make nature 'paint its own portrait'. With the creation of their two radically different processes—the Daguerreotype and the Talbotype—these two giants of early photography changed the world and how we see it.
Drawing on a wide range of original, contemporary sources and featuring plates in colour, sepia and black and white, many of them rare or previously unseen, Capturing the Light by Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport charts an extraordinary tale of genius, rivalry and human resourcefulness in the quest to produce the world's first photograph.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250061416
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/20/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

ROGER WATSON is a world authority on the early history of photography. He is currently the Curator of the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock Abbey and an occasional lecturer at DeMontfort University in Leicester.

HELEN RAPPAPORT is a historian with a specialization in the nineteenth century. She is the New York Times bestselling author of The Romanov Sisters, as well as eight other published books, including The Last Days of the Romanovs and A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy.

Read an Excerpt

Capturing the Light

The Birth of Photography, a True Story of Genius and Rivalry

By Roger Watson, Helen Rappaport

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03832-6



Man has always been fascinated by the sun, from the primeval days of his existence when he first stood erect on the great wide savannahs of Africa and gazed up at it through protecting fingers. To him the sun was not just a potent force, a god – the giver of life, food, warmth – the regulator of his very existence – it was also the giver of light. In the book of Genesis light was God's first creation and sunlight for ever after became the fount of an age-old puzzle which, from the moment man began marshalling his thoughts in written form, he longed to solve.

With the dawn of civilization and the creation of the very first written texts, be it on clay tablets, stone or parchment, the quest to capture the light and channel it – that inbuilt human desire to harness the natural elements and make them work for us – first entered the minds of thinkers and scholars around the world. In the fifth century BCE the Chinese philosopher Mozi was one of the first to talk of the power of light and spoke of a device for passing sunlight through a pinhole onto a 'collecting plate', its mysterious function being that of a 'locked treasure room' – a kind of lightproof box that would channel the power of the sun in such a way that man could safely observe it and the images of the recognized world outside that it projected.

Over the centuries this idea was regularly revisited by a succession of scholars from the Greek thinker Aristotle, who noted the patterns created by sunlight filtered through trees onto the ground below, to the first properly scientific description made in the eleventh century by an Arab scholar named Ibn al Haythaim. In a seven-volume treatise on optics – the study of the behaviour of light and its interaction with the human eye – written by him between 1011 and 1021, al Haythaim described the optical principle of a pinhole camera obscura with a single small aperture for letting in the rays of light and wrote up experiments he made during his years in Cairo that demonstrated how light travelled in a straight line. The Book of Optics was translated into Latin in manuscript form in the late twelfth century and finally printed in 1572. The use of the pinhole camera, in combination with glass lenses, in studying and understanding how light worked, was soon after discussed in the writings of the English Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon, who may have read al Haythaim in translation, and also wrote on the other-worldly and more spiritual and magical qualities of light as the source of all creation. The key to harnessing it, as Bacon saw it, lay in the enlistment of optics, as he observed in his Opus Majus completed in 1267:

It is possible that some other science may be more useful, but no other science has so much sweetness and beauty of utility. Therefore it is the flower of the whole of philosophy and through it, and not without it, can the other sciences be known.

The first camera obscuras used in the study of light in this period were quite large, hence the name, which means 'dark chamber'. They were effectively small darkened rooms into which the light was projected through a small pinhole, producing an inverted image of the scene outside on an opposite wall. Such chambers were particularly popular for safely observing solar eclipses and were used by Bacon for this purpose in the thirteenth century. From this original incarnation the pinhole camera was rapidly developed into a more practical camera obscura that could be adapted to different technical uses – most importantly, for directing natural light onto paper for use by artists and draftsmen in making accurate drawings from real life. By the sixteenth century the camera obscura had been dramatically reduced in size – down to that of a portable wooden box with a lens on one end and a ground glass to focus the image on at the other that could be set up on a table or stand anywhere. In this way a scene or object could be projected onto paper, and the camera obscura was increasingly used by artists to create a template for paintings executed later at their leisure back in the studio.

The greatest early exponent of the device was the artist Leonardo da Vinci, who during the Renaissance used the camera obscura to help him with the drawing of perspective; in his notebooks he described its use in his discourse on the function of the human eye. The painters Velazquez and Vermeer followed da Vinci as leading advocates of the camera obscura's use in the seventeenth century and the Italian master of waterscapes, Canaletto, made extensive use of it in order to create his vast, magical scenes of Venice in the century that followed. Scientific enquiry into the nature of light meanwhile reached its high point with Isaac Newton's seminal work on the subject during the 1670s which culminated in the publication in 1704 of his Opticks. In it, Newton unknowingly predicted the science of photochemistry when he remarked that 'The changing of Bodies into Light, and Light into Bodies, is very conformable to the course of Nature, which seems delighted with Transmutation.'

Newton's ground-breaking work on optics, combined with his study of gravity and the orbit of the planets, marked a watershed between the end of the dark age of alchemy – the art of 'transmutation' to which Newton alluded in his guise as the 'last of the magicians' – to the new age of practical science. It came at the point at which scholars were making the dramatic leap from the metaphysical and philosophical discourse of how things might or could be done into serious empirical research and experimentation in the laboratory. This new age of scientific enquiry, based on experimental verification, was fostered by the work of the Royal Society in London, which took as its motto 'Nullius in verba' – effectively meaning, 'Take nobody's word for it'.

Such is human inventiveness and curiosity that it was not long in the new eighteenth century before some of those who looked at the images in the camera obscura began wondering whether they could push the boundaries of its use. Might it ever be possible, they wondered, for the delicate images they saw projected through its pinhole or via lenses to be captured permanently onto paper or some other medium? Was it conceivable that a way could be found, through the enlistment of chemicals in fixing that image, to cause the image in the camera obscura to be frozen in time, in all its perfection? Would man ever be able to achieve the till then unthinkable, and make nature paint her own portrait?

By the end of the eighteenth century numerous practitioners – scientists, artists, astronomers, as well as businessmen and entrepreneurs – were beginning to broach this great puzzle, although investigation into light and how it worked was but one facet of the thrilling and tumultuous new period of scientific enquiry and invention across Europe that became known as the Age of Enlightenment. It brought with it the dawn of a new mechanical age that spurred inventors to design machines that could do what till then had only been done by the human hand.

Scientific experimentation at this time was largely the domain of gentlemen of leisure, of men – and with a very few exceptions, extraordinary women – grounded in the kind of classical education and private means enjoyed only by the moneyed classes. But there was also by the mid-eighteenth century a new generation of thinkers and inventors that had sprung up amid the thrusting new mercantile classes in the industrial heartland of England. No group more typified the extraordinary coming together of the exciting and disparate scientific talents of the age, and one that cut across religion and class, than the Lunar Men.



They called themselves the Lunar Men but the reason was prosaic rather than deliberately obscure or mysterious. The fourteen or so members of this small provincial society began meeting monthly in the late 1750s on the first Monday nearest to the full moon as a matter of practicality. At such times there would be more light in the sky to get home by when their meetings were over; although, as intellectuals, they were not unaware of the significance of the full moon as a time for conjuring the powers of darkness. And so, in a humorous nod to age-old superstition, they dubbed themselves the 'Lunar-ticks'. But they didn't meet in London in some grand institution or learned society; at first they simply discussed the latest scientific enquiry and invention over dinner in each other's home. Later they transferred their meetings to the Shakespeare Tavern in the freethinking, Nonconformist stronghold of Birmingham, a manufacturing city in the Midlands that by the mid- century was leading the way in industrial innovation.

The leading Lunar Men were an eclectic mix of talents who exemplified the age: Erasmus Darwin, a physician, philosopher and reformer, and grandfather of the much more renowned Charles, who even today still overshadows him; the abolitionist and porcelain manufacturer from nearby Stoke-on-Trent, Josiah Wedgwood; Matthew Boulton, another highly successful manufacturer – of metal goods – who with his business partner and fellow Lunar Man James Watt pioneered the steam engine; and chemist Joseph Priestley a Nonconformist clergyman and outstanding scientist of the day who in 1774 would discover and describe the properties of oxygen. Together, these extraordinary individuals 'classified plants and isolated gases, they built clocks and telescopes, they flew in hot-air balloons and invented machines that could speak, performed tricks with magnets and dreamt up recipes for disappearing ink'. It was men like this who blazed the scientific trail for the invention of photography in the century that followed. Erasmus Darwin, of all of them, foresaw what might one day be achieved; in his Zoonomia, published in the 1790s, he discussed visual perception, likening the camera obscura to the human eye, and in so doing reiterated man's age-old aspiration to make copies of the things he saw in the natural world around him.

GENTLE READER! LO here a Camera Obscura is presented to thy view, in which are lights and shades dancing on a white canvas, and magnified into apparent life! – if thou art perfectly at leisure for such trivial amusement, walk in, and view the wonders of my ENCHANTED GARDEN.

The thought of entering that enchanted garden was a tantalizing one indeed, and even more so the possibility of finding a way of preserving an image of what it contained.

* * *

Tom Wedgwood, born in 1771, the fourth and youngest son of Josiah the potter, was very much the inheritor of Erasmus Darwin's enquiring mind and the atmosphere of scientific experimentation fostered by the Lunar Men. He should have followed Josiah into the pottery trade, but he was, from childhood, plagued by ill health. But in the philanthropic tradition of the Lunar Men he had a keen social conscience and a sense of the responsibility that his family wealth brought him and channelled his failing energies into education and moral improvement. Tom was, wrote one friend, 'a strange and wonderful being. Full of goodness, benevolence, with a mind stored with ideas ... A man of wonderful talents, a tact of taste, acute beyond description – with even good-nature and mild manners.'

His father's involvement with the Lunar Society and the frequent visits to his home of its members, inevitably exposed Tom to the intellectual challenges and debate of the day and in particular Darwin's work, which he greatly admired. His chronic illness forced him to spend much of his life in private study and experimentation at home – when he wasn't travelling the world in a fruitless search for a cure. By his mid-teens Tom had proved himself to be a skilful draughtsman, having had lessons in perspective from the painter George Stubbs, but his great passion, from the start, was the study of gases, acids and metals and their chemical interaction with heat and light. He was encouraged in this by his father's chemical assistant, Alexander Chisholm, at the family home, Etruria Hall near Stoke-on-Trent. The firm of Wedgwood had already been using the camera obscura to draw country scenes from which transfers onto Wedgwood pottery products could be made and young Tom might have played a major role in the burgeoning family business, had his health not prevented him; but in 1793 he left the firm to concentrate on his scientific interests.

In the years that followed, Tom Wedgewood's slide into physical exhaustion was triggered by his obsessive bouts of experimentation, combined with headaches and depression. It led, in the end, to nervous breakdown and ultimate opium addiction – a result of the large doses prescribed for him by Darwin. It blighted the tall, fine-looking Wedgwood's active and personal life, but it never dimmed his love of science and with it came the first tentative steps towards making photographic images on paper. Back in 1792, Joseph Priestley had spotted the twenty-two-year-old's potential when Tom had published a paper on his experiments with phosphorescence. Priestley wrote to him that year, telling him of the exciting path of scientific discovery out there, waiting for young men such as him. 'There is nothing more within the field of random speculation, and less within that of experiment, than the subject of light and heat,' wrote Priestley, adding prophetically, 'this I hope is a business reserved for you. It is ground unoccupied.'

Tom Wedgwood had of course studied Newton's Opticks and was well versed in the latest scientific thinking on the subject of light. In his early experiments in the as yet unoccupied ground of photography some time in the 1790s he had worked with the dim old camera obscuras of the day. But he was frustrated to find that none of the exposure times he had used had been long enough to produce an image on his chemically treated material, because the light levels inside the camera were just too low. By the end of that decade, when his bouts of illness allowed, he once more attempted to find ways of creating images chemically, this time by contact exposure. What Wedgwood eventually achieved – though simple – were 'silver pictures', as Lunar Man James Watt described them, although they were later sometimes referred to as 'photograms' or 'shadowgrams'. He achieved them by applying a mixture of silver nitrate dissolved in water to pieces of paper and then exposing the paper to the light with small flat objects – such as leaves or insects' wings – laid on their surface. He also tried using pieces of white chamois leather as the medium, which proved more successful. The leather readily soaked up the silver nitrate solution and it is possible that the ingredients used in tanning, such as galls and salts, that were already present in it reacted with the silver nitrate, giving a faster and more successful response.

But in all cases, the minute the images revealed themselves there in front of him, they began to darken dramatically if left out in the daylight. The same thing happened when Tom tried placing a semi-transparent silhouette of a picture painted on glass upon sensitized paper and exposed it to the light. All too briefly the image emerged only to begin once more to disappear if not immediately removed from the light. He was therefore able to show the images he had achieved to his friends only at night by candlelight, which would not be bright enough to change them. But shadowgrams such as this, which could only be viewed in the dark, were of little use; they did, nevertheless, survive, albeit in an ever-diminishing state, much longer than expected. Although they are now lost to us, these first tentative images were seen as late as 1885 by the chemist, Samuel Highly, who during his researches noted that he had been 'looking at specimens of some of Wedgwood's experiments with chloride of silver on bibulous paper' – probably held by a private collector.

It is possible that during a brief period of remission in his illness after 1799 Tom Wedgwood went back to photographic experimentation in earnest. Some time between March and May 1802, when he was in London consulting with his doctor, he was able to recreate his experiments at the well-equipped basement laboratory of the Royal Institution, in collaboration with his friend and colleague Humphry Davy, who was a professor of chemistry there. In his own experiments on heat and light in 1797, inspired by the work of the French nobleman and outstanding experimental chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, Davy himself had concluded that light and not heat was 'the important imponderable'. 'What we mean by nature is a series of visible images,' wrote Davy in his notebook, 'but these are constituted by light. Hence the worshipper of Nature is a worshipper of light.'


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Prologue My First Daguerreotype xi

1 The Locked Treasure Room 1

2 Shadowgrams 6

3 The Box of Wonders 14

4 An Inheritance 23

5 The Panorama 31

6 An Innate Love of Knowledge 40

7 More Beautiful than Nature 48

8 Lacock Abbey 59

9 Seeking the Impossible 67

10 The Heliograph 77

11 The Melancholy Artist 88

12 Fixing the Image 97

13 The Latticed Window, August 1835 105

14 The Magic Cabinet 115

15 The Most Wonderful Discovery Ever Made 126

16 From Today, Painting is Dead 133

17 Photogenic Drawing 144

18 The Académie des Sciences, August 1839 158

19 Daguerreotypomania 166

20 Portraiture 173

21 The Pencil of Nature 184

22 The Monopoly of the Sunshine 197

23 The Great-Exhibition of 1851 204

24 The Reluctant Inventor 214

25 Art or Science? 226

26 The Mute Testimony of the Picture 238

27 The Eye of History 254

Epilogue Everyman's Art 267

Acknowledgements 275

Notes 278

Bibliography 291

Index 296

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