Results tagged “daguerreotype” from this Public Address 2.0

Images and Print

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From Image to Print

I managed to get Photography and the Book, a lecture by Beaumont Newhall printed in a limited edition of 2000 on interlibrary loan. My hat is off to Gary Saretzky for alerting me to it in his articles on Edwin Rosskam for Photo Review.I’ve got issues with Newhall, due to his close association with Ansel Adams and the myopic nature of his History of Photography but that doesn’t keep this particular lecture from being incredibly informative. From the first page, it has me rewriting some of my efforts. The connection between photography and printing is even stronger than I first thought. While Humphry Davy’s failed experiments were a clue— Davy and Wedgwood were looking for a way to avoid employing engravers— I had not thought about Niépce before.

A quick search turned up an incredible site on Nicéphore Niépce. The material there helps me in putting together a revised timeline with fewer gaps. But before I do that, I feel the need to return to the hopes and desires of the people involved. The aspirations of Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy are clear from the title of their 1802 Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain article, “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver.” Thinking about that title, usually abbreviated simply “An Account of a Method,” makes me realize how much the disparity between nineteenth century photography and the twentieth is exaggerated— the contexts are not really that different. Looking at it closely, method (agent) is privileged over the desired result (action).

First, photography is a method of copying— in Davy and Wedgwood’s case, of copying paintings. This legacy, brought to fruition by Henry Fox-Talbot, is subtly shifted into copying nature. Casting this into another light, Davy and Wedgwood were interested in reproducing texts (logos) whereas Talbot was interested in evidence of a different sort— nature— mirroring the search for authority common to most eighteenth century praxis.

The problematic nature of authority involved in any practice of copying is deeply explored in the writings and art of William Blake— a crisis exacerbated by the low artistic station of engravers. The conventions of captioning for engravings reflect this. Long into the nineteenth century, it was the painter (or inventor) of an image whose name appeared first in the visual field, on the left, whereas the engraver (sculptor) was placed in the lower right-hand corner. Mechanical reproduction of original works would remove the need for the second caption, and the interference of an intermediary on the “truth” of the image. The search was for a more direct route for authority in copying, whether of nature or art.

The second consideration, “of Making Profiles,” is a more commercial one. Given the limitations in detail and slow speed of light-sensitive materials, they might be a possible technological improvement on a rising commercial art practice of the day— making silhouettes. I had already been thinking about the rise of the daguerreotype and the death of commercial miniature painting in the early nineteenth century— but I had not thought of the poor man’s miniature— the silhouette. These had long been produced through the mechanical help of the pantograph. Davy and Wedgwood’s declaration foretells an interesting confluence: the satisfaction of the popular appetite for images through technological means. The appetite for representations of people as both a commercial endeavor and as scientific evidence for theories wishing to join internal states with external appearance was rising during the late eighteenth century.

Thanks to Newhall’s assertion (echoed in a more recent essay by Michel Frizot in A New History of Photography) that Niépce was alone among the early pioneers of photography in connecting photography with engraving, I just had to think about Davy again. I think they are wrong— reproducibility may have taken a back-seat with the rise of Daguerre, but the concern was prominent in many early experimenters. The goal, at least initially, was a direct route between the eye and paper— a mechanical means of reproduction.

Strictly Commercial

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Street Types of Chicago—Rushing the Growler and Oh Golly But I’se Happy— by Sigmund Krausz, 1891

Strictly Commercial: The Medium and the Media

The relationship between advertising, public relations, and photography is so deep that in order to adequately cover it I think I need to go back to the beginning. What follows is a tentative sketch of the connections. It's rough and it's big. About 1800 words for those who are interested, covering from 1839-1866.

Time to rush the growler. Oh golly but I’se happy.

Retro Porn

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Heres looking at you, kid

I feel sorry for all those poor surfers who end up here looking for nude photos. While I can’t compete with the audacious Shauny on a bicycle or Nerve’s Retro porn, I thought I would offer up some stylish daguerreotypes from the 1850s. But as for the person poking around my old blog looking for Marky Mark nude, or the unending stream of surfers who reach here looking for Rachel Griffiths nude, I can’t help you.

*caution— may be unsuitable for those with no sense of humor!

Open Source

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The Wandering Moon, from Blake's illustrations to Milton

A Model of Open Source Behavior?

A question has been bothering me for the last few years: why did it take so long to invent photography? Studying the romantic period in Britain, I was constantly amazed at how forward thinking and innovative they were. Sir Humphry Davy, when he wasn’t rubbing two ice-cubes together or getting his friend Coleridge to sniff nitrous, figured the basics out in 1802.

The experiments were economically motivated. Working for Josiah Wedgewood, Davy pottered about with ways of reproducing drawings without employing expensive engravers, like William Blake. It was a limited success, though, because the images couldn’t be made permanent. For a time, the engraver’s jobs were safe.

John Herschel, distinguished astronomer and friend of computer pioneer Charles Babbage, found the solution to the problem in 1819— sodium hyposulfate, now commonly known as “fixer” (go figure). However, it wasn’t until the race for patents in 1839 that Herschel told his friend Fox Talbot about it.

The first negative, shown close to actual size

Puttering around yesterday, I happened upon The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot. The website won’t be completed until May of 2003, but it promises to be fascinating. What happened between the production of this negative in 1835, and the perfection of the process in 1839 is probably well preserved in letters. Interestingly enough, Talbot also corresponded with Humphry Davy. I have little doubt that this venture into photography was economically motivated, and patent driven. It wasn’t an open source environment in England at the time.

Fox Talbot was a scholar, and there may have been no work on the project between 1835-9 because he was easily distracted. He was a specialist in classical languages and mathematics, not chemistry. It is thought that he didn’t pursue photography during this time, because he thought Daguerre’s work was similar to his own. It wasn’t. So, the race was on from 1839-41 to secure patents for his own unique process. One of the interesting oversights in the patent race was that the use of “fixer” was not patented, even after it was discovered to work.

Daguerre did an incredibly bold thing. He made his invention open source— that is, to everyone except England. Anyone was free to modify and improve his process, except those in England (where he patented it), who had to pay a license fee. There was an instant boom in daguerreotypes and all their variations around the globe after 1840. The freely available process spurred improvement and modification to Talbot’s calotype process, to make it more economically competitive.

The problem with daguerreotypes is that there is only one original; it can’t be infinitely reproduced like the negative/positive process developed by Talbot. Daguerreotypes were ultimately, of lesser commercial potential. But it lit a fire under the commercial developers to make their product more useful, in order to compete. There’s a lesson in that somewhere. Hopefully, it isn't that open-source has a limited utility and lifespan. Daguerreotypes anyone?