Some Important Inventors of Photographic Processes


NIEPCE, Joseph Niecphore, 1765-1833

Niépce (pronounced Nee-ehps) is universally credited with producing the first [surviving] successful photograph in June/July 1827, calling his product Heliography (after the Greek "of the sun"). His first, unpublished acount of success had been as early as 1817. He came over to England later that year and sought to promote his invention, meeting with failure. Returning to France, he teamed up with Louis Daguerre in 1829, a partnership which lasted until his death only four years later, at the age of 69. He left behind him some examples of his heliographs, which are now in the collections of the Royal Photographic Society and the University of Texas, Austin TX.

There is little merit in his surviving pictures other than the fact that they are the first known ones. It is difficult to decipher: the building is on the left, a tree a third in from the left, and a barn immediately in front. The exposure lasted eight hours.


DAGUERRE, Louis Jacques Mandé, 1787-1851

Daguerre (pronounced Dagair) was perhaps the most famous of several people who invented photography.

He began work as an apprentice architect, and at the age of sixteen was an assistant stage designer in a Paris theatre, his elaborate stage designs winning him considerable acclaim, He developed an impressive illusions theatre, which he termed Diorama; it was a picture show with changing light effects and huge paintings measuring 22 by 14 metres, of famous places. This became the rage in the early 1820s.

He regularly used a camera obscura as an aid to painting in perspective, and this had led him to seek to freeze the image. In 1826 he learned of the work of Nicephore Niépce, and on 4 January 1829 signed up a partnership with him.

The partnership was a short one, Niépce dying in 1833, but Daguerre continued to experiment. He made an important discovery by accident. In 1835, so the story goes, he put an exposed plate in his chemical cupboard, and some days later found, to his surprise, that the latent image had developed. Daguerre eventually concluded that this was due to the presence of mercury vapour from a broken thermometer. This important discovery that a latent image could be developed made it possible to reduce the exposure time from some eight hours to thirty minutes.

Though he now knew how to produce an image, it was not until 1837 that he was able to fix them. This new process he called a Daguerreotype.

Daguerre advertised his process and sought sponsorship, but few seemed interested. He then turned to Francois Arago, a politician, who immediately saw the implications of this process, took his case up, and the French government commissioned a report on the process, to be chaired by Paul Delaroche. On 7 January 1839 an announcement was made of the discovery, but details were not divulged until 19 August when the process was announced publicly, the French government having bought the rights to the process from him and given it free to the world. (However, it had also been patented in England and Wales on 14 August—only five days previously). From the day the announcement was made of this new discovery, the process came to be used widely. The claim was made that the daguerreotype "requires no knowledge of drawing…" and that "anyone may succeed… and perform as well as the author of the invention."

The Literary Gazette for 7 January 1839 read:

We have much pleasure in announcing an important discovery made by M. Daguerre, the celebrated painter of the Diorama. This discovery seems like a prodigy. It disconcerts all the theories of science in light and optics and, if borne out, promises to make a revolution in the arts of design.

M. Daguerre has discovered a method to fix the images which are represented at the back of a camera obscura; so that these images are not the temporary reflection of the object, but their fixed and durable impress, which may be removed from the presence of those objects like a picture or an engraving.

An article in La Gazette de France, of the same date, also showed one of the limitations of the process:

Nature in motion cannot reproduce itself, or at least can do so only with great difficulty, by the technique in question. In one of the boulevard views… it happened that all which moved or walked did not appear in the drawing…

The early daguerreotypes had several drawbacks. 1) The length of the exposure necessary all but ruled out portraiture. 2) The image was laterally reversed (as one sees oneself in a mirror). 3) Many of the portraits reveal this from the way the coat was buttoned; if one required a picture the right way round, the camera would be pointed at a mirror reflecting the sitter's image. 4) Initially this will not have bothered people, who were used only to seeing their mirror image in any case. 5) It was very fragile. perhaps most limiting of all, it was a "once only" system; what was needed was a means whereby copies of a photograph might easily be made.

Taken in 1839, A famous early daguerreotype of a boulevard gives the impression of empty streets, because with long exposures moving objects would not register. However, there was an exception when a man stopped to have his shoes shined, and though he remains anonymous he has the distinction of being the first person ever to have been photographed.


TALBOT, William Henry Fox, 1800-1877

His signature is Henry Talbot, and though he is said to have disliked being called Fox Talbot, that name has stuck. Though Fox Talbot was not the first to produce photographs, he made a major contribution to the photographic process as we know it today.

Talbot studied the classics and mathematics at Cambridge, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1822, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1832. He was also a Member of Parliament, Biblical scholar and archaeologist, making a contribution to the deciphering of cuneiform inscriptions, brought to England from Nineveh.

Though some of his pictures show a measure of artistic taste, it was his inability to produce pictures which caused him to experiment with a mechanical method of capturing and retaining an image. Talbot used a camera obscura for his sketches, one of which was Villa Melsi, sketched in 1832.

Later he wrote:

[In] October, 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como in Italy, taking sketches with a Camera Lucida, or rather, I should say, attempting to make them; but with the smallest possible amount of success...

After various fruitless attempts I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing which unfortunately I did not possess.

I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before. This method was to take a Camera Obscura and to throw the image of the objects on a piece of paper in its focus - fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away...

It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me... how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed on the paper!

The earliest surviving paper negative is of the now famous latticed window of the library at Laycock Abbey, Wiltshire, where he lived. It is dated August 1835. The picture is small, and poor in quality, compared with the striking images produced by the Daguerreotype process.

January 1839 was a busy month as far as announcements of discoveries were concerned. On 7 January Daguerre announced the development of his process. A few days later Talbot wrote to Arago, who had promoted Daguerre's invention, suggesting that it was he, not Daguerre, who had invented the photographic process. (At that time he was unaware that the process was entirely different). One of Arago's fellow-scientists replied that Daguerre had, in fact, devised a number of processes over fourteen years.

Doubtless annoyed that Daguerre had been put in the limelight he felt he himself deserved, Talbot began to publicize his own process. On 25 January 1839 he announced the discovery at the Royal Institution of a method of "photogenic drawing" Two years later he called the improved version the calotype (from the Greek "Kalos," meaning beautiful) and on 31 January he gave a paper to the Royal Society of London. The paper was entitled "Some account of the Art of Photogenic drawing, or the process by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil."

At the time the sensitivity of the process was extremely poor. Then, in September 1840 Fox Talbot discovered the phenomenon of the latent image. It is said that this was a chance discovery, when he attempted to re-sensitise some paper which had failed to work in previous experiments; as the chemical was applied, an image, previously invisible, began to appear. This was a major breakthrough which led to drastically lowered exposure times - from one hour or so to 1–3 minutes.

Talbot patented his invention on 8 February 1841, an act which considerably arrested the development of photography at the time. The patent (a separate one being taken out for France) applied to England and Wales, but not to Scotland, and this omission paved the way for some outstanding photographs to be produced in Edinburgh by Hill and Adamson.

Talbot wrote a book entitled "The Pencil of Nature" (1844), the first book to be illustrated with original photographs (as opposed to Photograms - see Atkins). It is probably for this reason and to produce copies of prints that he set up the Reading Establishment, a photographic processing studio within relatively easy reach of both London and Laycock. This however lasted only four years as it was not a financial success.

Talbot's process in general never reached the popularity of the daguerreotype process, partly because the latter produced such amazing detail, but partly because Talbot asked so much for the rights to use his process. His asking price was 21 pounds to amateurs, with risk of prosecution if one ever sold a picture.

A writer of the time commented:

He is a man of some wealth, I believe, but he demands so high a price for a single right.... that none can be found who have the temerity to purchase.

Consequently calotypes never flourished as they might have, and the fault must lie largely with him.

Sadly Talbot's name was somewhat tarnished by his series of attempts to enforce his patent, including a claim in 1854 that the Collodion process was also covered by his calotype patent. That case was lost, and from then onwards, knowing that the faster and better collodion process was free for all to use, there were no further restrictions and photography began to take off in a big way.


ARCHER, Frederick Scott, 1813-1857

Scott Archer's development of the wet collodion process changed the face of photography, enabling the making of finely detailed negatives.

Until then the two processes in existence were the daguerreotype and the calotype, both of which had limitations: Daguerreotypes, though they had very clear images, required lengthy exposures and it was a "once-only" process. Calotypes, though capable of unlimited reproduction, were not as sharp, as one had to print through paper. Something that combined the best of both processes was needed.

In March 1851 the "Chemist" printed an article entitled "On the use of Collodion in photography." Three years earlier Archer had come across this substance, which produced a transparent waterproof film, and which was being used to dress wounds. Archer's procedure was to mix collodion with potassium iodide, and then immerse this in a solution of silver nitrate. Both the exposure and the development had to be made in the camera whilst the plate was still wet.

This new process was an important one, not only for its clarity (using glass as a base) but also because it reduced the exposure times to a matter of seconds. Within a very short period it had replaced the calotype.

Together with Peter Fry, Archer also devised the Ambrotype process. Unlike Fox Talbot, who was involved in a number of law-suits in order to protect his patent, Scott Archer did not seek to make money out of his discovery. Talbot even went as far as to claim that the Collodion process was covered by his Calotype patent; in December 1854 he began a lawsuit against Martin Laroche on this very issue, but he lost. Consequently the Collodion process became free to the world. In the wake of this court ruling Talbot did not renew his calotype patent, given that the collodion process, which was better in any case, was free.

Had Scott Archer patented his Wet Collodion process, he could undoubtedly have made a fortune, and though he lived just a few years to see others making a huge fortune from it, he died in penury, never receiving during his lifetime the appreciation due to someone who had made such an advance in photography.


MADDOX, Richard Leach, 1816-1902

Dr. Richard Maddox, an English physician, worked on photo-micrography and wrote on various photographic topics, but it was not until 1871 that his greatest contribution to the science of photography was made. Up to his time, wet collodion plates were being used. These required that coating, exposure and development be done whilst the solution was still wet, and soon the need for pre-prepared plates became evident.

Maddox, a photography enthusiast, first started looking around for a substitute to collodion when he found his health being affected by the ether vapour of the collodion process. In an article in the British Journal of Photography for 8 September 1871 he suggested a process whereby the sensitising chemicals could be coated on a glass plate in a Gelatin emulsion, instead of wet collodion. Probably he had no idea at the time of the significance his discovery would have on the future of photography.

Some years later Charles Bennett and others made the first gelatin dry plates for sale on the open market, a revolutionary advance in the science of photography. By the end of that decade the dry plate process had superseded the wet plate one entirely, and within a further ten years the emulsion would be coated on celluloid roll film.

In 1901 Maddox received the Royal Photographic Society's Progress Medal for inventions that led to the foundation of the dry plate and film industry. He had freely made his ideas known, and never patented the process; sadly he ended his days in poverty.


EASTMAN, George, 1854-1932

Up to the time of Eastman, photography, though already popular, was still considered too complicated for ordinary users, and George Eastman is remembered for having made photography accessible to all.

Eastman started off as a bank clerk, and then became interested in photography. He is particularly remembered for introducing flexible film in 1884.

Four years later he introduced the box camera incorporating roll film, and with his slogan "You press the button, we do the rest" he brought photography to the masses.

The box camera had a simple lens focusing on 8 feet and beyond. It was portable, and cost five pounds. One roll of film took a hundred images, all circular in shape. The entire camera would be posted to the factory where the film was processed and the camera re-loaded and returned to the user.

The photographs were of about 65mm diameter, and opened up a new world for popular photography.

Eastman's contribution not only made photography available to all, but also resulted in a gradual change in what constituted acceptable photography. Paul Martin, who worked with a large portable camera, had found it difficult to get his informal pictures accepted at exhibitions. To have pictures accepted, he complained, one would need to take "... a noble and dignified subject, a cathedral or mountain…" and that "few envisaged the popular snapshot until the coming of the hand camera and the Kodak."

From the age of 76 onwards, Eastman was becoming increasingly ill. Eventually, having settled his affairs, he took his own life. Next to his body was a note which said simply "To my friends, my work is done—why wait?"