Archive for Louis Daguerre

Anna Atkins, Mistress of Blueprint Manor

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends.
—Anna Atkins, October 1843

Anna Atkins, Alaria esculenta (from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype
(New York Public Library)

In August 1839 at the meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris Louis Daguerre debuted his eponymous photographic process. To the French public of that time, his “drawing by light” method was nothing short of miraculous; as if by magic, a singular image appeared on a chemically-prepared copper plate after its exposure to light in a camera.

Daguerre’s announcement dealt William Henry Fox Talbot a severe personal blow, for Talbot had discovered his own way to burn photographic images on to paper as a result of  experimentations begun in 1833.

Louis Daguerre, Arrangement of Fossil Shells, 1837-39
Daguerreotype
(Musée des arts et métiers, Paris)

Talbot would often bypass the camera by simply laying objects on top of the paper and exposing it to sunlight. The first exposure of these “photogenic drawings” (or “photograms” as they known today) resulted in a negative image, so Talbot simply laid the paper negative over a new sheet of sensitized paper to produce the corresponding positive image.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Leaf, ca 1840
Photogenic drawing
(©The Estate of William Henry Fox Talbot)

Unlike Daguerre, Talbot had kept his discoveries largely private.” Although the announcement forced Talbot to make his findings public through patent application, nonetheless, the Frenchman secured a place in history as “the father of photography.”  Ironically, it was Talbot’s wet-chemical, paper-based process that would create the basic framework for all subsequent photography until the digital age.

Despite initial disappointment, Talbot would have his own victory. His dream that photography allow “every man to be his own printer and publisher” was realized through Anna Atkins’s publication of the 12-part British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book be illustrated by the photographic medium. The work proved that an individual could print near-perfect reproductions, while preserving precise details of the subject matter.

Anna Atkins, Chordaria flagelliformis
(from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype
(New York Public Library)

In many ways Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was typical of a certain early Victorian gentlewomen. In an era when refined women like Atkins were not encouraged to participate professionally in science, they nonetheless became skillful amateur helpmates of their fathers, husbands or other male friends. Attitudes toward the seashore were changing greatly—the notion of the ocean’s edge as a territory marked by piracy, smuggling and wreckage was beginning to disappear and the concept of  the “beach,” a recreational area populated by the leisure-seeking masses, was still decades away. Though Darwin had yet to publish his Origin of Species (1859), public interest in natural world was high. Marine debris was a source of curiosity. As botany was the one science in which it was permissible for women to involve themselves, many, like Anna Atkins, spent hours at the seashore collecting specimens, not just for their scientific value but as aesthetic and collectibles objects.

Unknown Photographer, Anna Atkins,1861
Albumen print

Atkins was a knowledgeable amateur botanist and superb botanical illustrator to boot. She was enthusiastically supported by her widower father, John George Children, who was, among other things, Keeper of the Department of Natural History Modern Curiosities at the British Museum. Thus, Atkins had extraordinary access to botanical knowledge of the day. By the late 1830s, she had already illustrated her father’s translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells. At his urging, she set out to provide the visual companion to William Harvey’s pioneering but un-illustrated 1841 Manual of British Algae. It was not for lack of drawing ability that she turned to photographic processes in this effort.

Anna Atkins, Equisetum sylvaticum
from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, 1853
Cyanotype

Atkins’ father chaired the Royal Society meeting at which Talbot first disclosed the details of his “photogenic drawing.” Subsequently Atkins and her father received many tutorials on the method. Thus, it would have been only natural that she employ Talbot’s approach (if not his actual method) on her project; after all, arranging specimens on sheets of glass and letting the interaction of light and chemistry do the rest would have been far less time consuming than hand drawing the 400 plates.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Herschel with Cap, 1867.
Cameron considered Herschel “my first Teacher.”

Atkins’ neighbor in Kent, Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), greatly influenced the project. Herschel, the only son of the distinguished British astronomer William Herschel, was a well-known astronomer in his own right. By the time of Daguerre’s announcement, he too had been independently experimenting with various photographic processes for several years.

Sir John Herschel, Lady with a Harp, 1842
Cyanotype
(Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford)

Herschel had met Talbot a decade previously. With Daguerre’s discovery Sir John suggested Talbot come to his estate to view the latter’s own photographic discoveries.  Herschel ended up making many contributions to the emerging medium, the most important of which was something Talbot probably saw on the day he visited: the use of sodium thiosulfate  or “hyposulphite of soda” (“hypo” for short) to permanently “fix” (i.e. stabilize) photographs.  (Later, Herschel would be the first to coin the terms “positive,” “negative,” “snap-shot” and  to regularly use “photograph” to describe the prints.)

Anna Atkins, Himanthalia lorea
(from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
Cyanotype

Perhaps the astronomer’s most influential discovery occurred in late 1842, when he realized that, when exposed to UV light (i.e. sun) a paper soaked a with a complex iron salt solution durably captured a blue “negative” image, once the salts had been rinsed away. For obvious reasons, Herschel named these prints Cyanotypes, or more colloquially, blueprints.

Anna Atkins, Papaver orientale
(from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns, 1854-1861
Cyanotype
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Ironically, Herschel had little interest in producing images; he was more engaged with understanding the nature of light. His neighbor Anna Atkins, on the other hand, put his process to good use. She made 13 known versions of British Algae and, following its completion, went on to produce two other volumes—British and Foreign Ferns and, in conjunction with Anna Austen Dixon (relative of writer Jane), British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. She was responsible for thousands of Cyanotypes.

Anna Atkins, Anatomized Leaves
(
from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns), 1854-1861
Cyanotype

Atkins’ previous work reveals an illustrator driven more by artistic than scientific considerations. She may have chosen to use the Cyanotype process because its ethereal blue prints perfectly suggested the watery depths in which her algae specimens had lived.  It’s equally likely, given prevailing sentiments about nature,  that in the “photogenic” process Atkins found the truest way to replicate a plant just as nature had made it, edges, wrinkles and folds perfectly rendered. Her blue prints—taken from the plants themselves—were in a sense, the purest botanical drawings, drawn not by the hand of wo/man, but by light under the direction of nature.

Anna Atkins, Titlepage of British Ferns, ca. 1852
Cyanotype
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Wider Connections

Alternative Photographysource for alternative photographic processes
Geoffrey Batchen—William Henry Fox Talbot
“In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes Before the Digital Age”—r
eview of National Gallery exhibition
Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860

Into the Valley of Death

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Timothy O'Sullivan—Field where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg

Timothy O’Sullivan, “Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg,” 1863, albumen photograph bound into Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Some claim that the photographs attributed (and in many cases mis-attributed) to Matthew Brady are the reason the Civil War is more popular than the Revolutionary War in the American imagination. In fact, nearly 150 years later, the in situ portraits of weary-looking officers, the shots of battlefield formations, and the unvarnished records of the post-battle carnage still bring the immediacy of that war to us in a way that illustration techniques cannot.   Although many consider Brady to be the first “photo-journalist,” he wasn’t actually the first to photograph war. That distinction belongs to Roger Fenton (1819-1869), British chronicler of the Crimean War. During his short 11-year career as a photographer, Fenton photographed all kinds of subjects—portraits, landscapes, the monuments of ancient civilizations. However, it is the collection of 350 “salt-paper” photographs, taken during a brief 3-month period in and around the encampments at Balaklava, for which Fenton is best remembered.

Roger Fenton, Into the Shadow of the Valley of Death,1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). Note the cannonballs strewn in the road. This is one of two prints of the same scene—one with, one without cannonballs. Apparently, the one without was taken first. Fenton wouldn’t be the last war photographer to doctor a scene.

By the time Fenton arrived in camp in the spring of 1855, the infamous slaughter of the British cavalry brigades had already been immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his “The Charge of the Light Brigade” poem. Still, the Crimean conflict was in full swing and one imagines that Fenton had ample opportunity to record the action of battle and consequences wrought by the war. What kept him from reporting on this angle of the war?

Despite technical advances made in the wake of Louis Daguerre‘s introduction of his eponymous plate-process, by 1855, plein air photography was still no trivial matter. Transporting heavy equipment required large teams of porters. Fenton himself set sail to the Crimea with more than 30 crates of materials, as well as a portable tinker’s cart, which he used as a portable darkroom. Additionally, chemicals in the service of photography were fickle and could prove particularly ruinous in the wilderness.  (John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Grand Canyon expedition comes to mind.) Certainly Fenton would have had good technical reasons not to go out in the field. But Brady and others were using the same cumbersome equipment a half a decade later. Perhaps Brady was just a more fearless character, a man who had less qualms about the dangers of setting up shop on the battlefield. Popular legend has it that he got so close to the action at the First Battle of Bull Run he was almost captured. Even Brady, though, backed off the battlefield later in the war, sending assistants like Timothy O’Sullivan to do that more dangerous work.

Roger Fenton, Major Halford, 5th Dragoon Guards, 1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). A cavalryman not unlike those of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who met death during the infamous charge into “the Valley of Death.”

Gross military incompetence was a hallmark of the Crimean War. As a result, many thousands of soldiers died, perhaps unnecessarily. Additionally, it was the first war to make tactical use of trenches and blind artillery fire, and troops must have found themselves in horrific situations similar to those of WW1. Although the military deployed rifles with increased range, soldiers could still expect to find themselves in close conflict with the enemy. As tank technology was still to be invented, the cavalry was the primary arm of the forward thrust of military action. Fenton’s photographs depict war as if it were a gentlemanly, Victorian-era game; soldiers seem to be preparing for a dress parade.  One cavalryman after another with his steed strikes a contrived and noble pose, though surely even most experienced among them must have been struggling with mind-numbing terror, well aware that a fate similar to that of the “light brigades” might well await each of them.

It turns out that Fenton, as well as his subjects, was a pawn in the Great Game.  The photographer was sent to the Crimea by the British Government, anxious to shore up perceptions of the very unpopular war. He arrived at the military camps under the strictest of orders —”No dead bodies.”

Does the omission of the darker side of war make Fenton any less a war photographer?   Stay tuned.

Wider Connections

Roger Fenton at the Library of Congress

Charge of the Light Brigade

Crimean War

John Wesley Powell photographs

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