Notes on the invention of photography

Notes on the invention of photography

In 1724 Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered the light sensitivity of silver salts and Thomas Wedgewood began experimenting with sensitizing paper or leather with silver nitrate.

Nicephore Niepce was independently wealthy and after years in Italy returned to Burgundy in 1801. He became a farmer and inventor (with his brother Claude) of the pyreolophore, a combustion engine, a species of bicycle and fixing the fleeting images of the camera obscura and creating “views according to nature.”

He made his first heliographs ‘sun drawings’ in the spring of 1816 using various acids etching the image onto metal or stone then glass plates and then copper or tin.

Jacques Mande Daguerre was a painter who became became interested in chemistry and creating a permanent image called the Daguerretype. The French government took the rights after a demonstration to the French Academy of Sciences in January 1839. After a court battle gave him a generous pension and Daguerre tended his garden.

Discovered by the Germans and the English, during the Belle Epoque, Bellagio became an international resort, famous for its neo-classical beauty. Fox-Talbot sketched Lake Como from Bellagio using light to define form, keenly looking outside the contours, all the while coveting a fix on the lake. While sketching by the Villa Melzi the beauty triggered a desire to capture the scene and that drove him to invent photography.

In neoclassic style, Villa Melzi was planned in 1808 by G, Albertolli. The house has square plan and finishes with a dome (cupola); on sides it has a Doric peri style. The marble door come from the ancient Villa Melzi in Milan, demolished in XVIII century. In the inside, besides roman rest, there are eighteenth century’s sphinxs and the statue of dea Sekhnet (XI cent.) presented by Napoleon to Melzi; there are also Etruscan and Greek rests, a drawing of Van Dick, a mural of Rubens and a landscape with seventeenth century figures of J. Van Ruysdael. i

Three weeks later, William Fox Talbot presented his ‘art of photogenic drawing’ to the Royal Society. His process based the prints on paper that had been made light sensitive, rather than bitumen or copper-paper.He placed objects on paper sensitised with silver salts in the sun. When the object was removed, the exposed paper retained the silhouette of the object. By 1841 he had improved his technique of a paper negative process and called it the Calotype. He patented it and for a time aggressively prosecuted anyone making them without paying him royalties. The astronomer Sir John Herschel experimented in the process and coined the terms ‘photography’, ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.

Advocates of a photography of detail and objectivity identified the daguerreotype as the origin of photography. The pictorialists who emphasised artistry argued for the calotype (see Joel Eisinger, Trace & Transformation). Fox-Talbot compared photography to “the pencil of the nature”, the title of his book of 24 calotypes (1844). Edward Lucie Smith argues that Fox Talbot ‘thought of photography as a kind of collaboration with nature, a means whereby natural forces could be allowed to speak for themselves, instead of having to filter their message through the individual temperament’ (E. Lucie Smith, The invented eye, 1975). Geoffrey Batchen suggests that Talbot thought that “the primary subject of photography was time itself.” ii

Photographic memory

The Kodak is a photographic notebook. Photography is thus brought within reach of every human being who desires to preserve a record of what he sees. Such a photographic notebook is an enduring record of many things seen only once in a lifetime and enables the fortunate possessor to go back by the light of his own fireside to scenes which would otherwise fade from memory and be lost.”                                                                                                             George Eastman, iii

Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory…but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.                                                                         Roland Barthes iv

[Photography is] not so much an instrument of memory as an invention of it or a replacement.                                                                     
                                                                                                                       Susan Sontag v 

Freehand sketching, for example, is a mostly nonalgorithmic process: every freely made mark that the artist chooses to execute is the realization of an intention, and the result is usually something that has a strongly personal character. Prestige attaches to skillful and accurate work of this kind: not everybody can do it. But when an artist traces a form with the assistance of a stencil or physiognotrace, or a scene with the aid of a camera obscura (as Fox Talbot did on the shores of Lake Como), the process has a much more algorithmic character: there is little prestige to be had through accuracy. 
               W. J. Mitchell vi

In his famous “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) Walter Benjamin argues that art worked only when its aura was available to critical contemplation, but that media technologies such as film and photography, destroy art’s “aura”, while making available radical new access in mass culture, spectators become participant producers.

I brought a book with me on Fox Talbot
wanting to finish a poem on his sketching trip 
to Bellagio and our stay there fixing time

and the view I was conceived in, all 
in my script, but the present catches up 
the sun moves 15 degrees of arc an hour.

Minor White would wait all day for the light 
to be just right, Weston would move on to 
the next snail, nude, or pepper.

I just run and hold her hand out 
to catch the coloured leaves 
being torn from exotic trees. 
 from Bundanon


Ekphrasis, Lake Como

Fox Talbot sketching this inspirational
shoreline, walking to the edge
where Pliny the Younger lived 
facing my conception
and the circularities of light,
flashing snow on the Alps 
explaining to the virginal girl on the desk
in sign language why I wanted to view
the honeymoon suite of the Grand Hotel Tremestre
the morning after perspective
that north Italian light gilding my mother, 
a young woman, sleeping heavily.

Not everyone was a fan: “It is useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me….  I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.” Baudelaire Correspondences. He complained Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: “Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing.’ Charles Baudelaire, ‘On Photography’, from The Salon of 1859.

[i] Website URL lost, no longer online.

[ii] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. Cambridge: MIT P, 1997, p93.

[iii] Quoted by Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, Saunders Books, 1982.

[iv] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, p91.

[v] Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

[vi] William J. Mitchell, ‘Chapter 3: Intention and Artifice’, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, Cambridge 1994.

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