The Showman, the Sheriff, and the First Cameras

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Enter the Showman

In my last article, we discussed the first image makers, up until the late 1820s when Niepce had actually been able to make images using a camera obscura and silver plates coated with Bitumen of Judea. On his way to England, Niepce had been introduced to a most interesting man, Louis Daguerre, probably by Charles Chevalier, the lensmaker they both used.

Louis Daguerre

Daugerre was in almost every way the opposite of Niepce. Unlike the landed Niepce, Daguerre was the son of a clerk. Because of Louis’ artistic talent his father had apprenticed him to an architect so that he would make something of himself. Louis had other ideas and ended up working as an assistant Stage Designer for the Paris Opera. In those days, working in the theatre had all the social standing of waiting tables at a biker bar: Louis’ parent’s were not pleased, especially when rumors of his wild partying with the theater crowd reached them.

Despite his partying (or perhaps because of it — he ended up invited to a lot of society parties because he was known as a superb dancer) Daguerre became fairly successful. He eventually become a stage designer himself and was quite well reviewed. He and his friend C. M. Bouton began painting large Panoramas (which they sketched and laid out with the aid of the camera obscura). These huge and complex paintings were exhibited indoors and patrons payed a few francs to walk walk through and view the complex images.

Section from a panorama depicting the Battle of Waterloo

In 1822 Daguerre and Bouton opened an entirely new type of entertainment, the Diorama. This involved panoramic scenes, but they were painted on both sides of translucent linen with several canvases (each about 24 by 21 feet) one behind the other. By manipulating light through skylights, windows, and mirrors the canvases were lighted from the front and behind in varying ways. This gave a very realistic and 3-dimensional effect which could even give the illusion of changing over time. A given scene might pass from mid-day to dusk and even night as the lighting was varied. While a simple jpg cannot begin to reproduce the effects achieved in the diorama, a few of the original paintings do still exist like the one below.

The Effect of Fog and Snow through a Ruined Gothic Collonade. Dauggere, 1826

The Diorama was a smashing success, both well attended (despite being more expensive than a theatre ticket) and critically acclaimed. Daguerre and Bouton opened a second Diorama in London. While an entire staff was required to paint the canvases and manage the show, it was recognized that Daguerre’s skill with the camera obscura was a key factor in producing the realism of the diorama.

Despite being a superb artist (almost all the others involved in developing the early cameras seem largely motivated by their inability to draw), Daguerre began attempting to make photographic images with his camera obscura. He apparently met with little success and in 1826 began writing Niepce asking about his experiments. Niepce was not very interested at first, but visited the Daguerre on his way to England in 1827 and was very impressed by the Diorama. He actually wrote to Daguerre, after his unsuccessful trip to England, that he planned on writing up his experiments and publishing them. Perhaps knowing of Niepce’s financial distress, or perhaps just because it was his nature, Daguerre wrote back urgently:

As regards your intention of publishing your method, there should be found some way of getting a large profit out of it before publication . . . but for that is needed a degree of perfection that can only be reached in several years.

Probably because of the realism of the Diorama, Niepce felt Daguerre had a far better camera obscura than he did — in fact he wrote that he could only make further progress “if I had a camera as perfect as M. Daguerre’s”.  Daguerre knew that Niepce was further along with making actual images. The two formed a 10 year legal partnership in 1829, disclosing their methods to each other and agreeing to share any profits they eventually made equally. Oddly, it was a partnership of nothing: Daguerre’s cameras were no better than Niepce’s. Niepce’s technique of using Bitumen of Judea was a dead end, incapable of the resolution needed for photography.

The partnership was unsuccessful in other ways too. Niepce accomplished very little before passing away a few years after the partnership was formed. His son, Isidore Niepce inherited his portion of the business, but not his interest in “heliography” as Niepce called it. Daguerre was supposed to provide the financing for the business, but he himself filed for bankruptcy in 1832: although the diorama remained very popular, producing the shows was apparently very expensive. Daguerre, with little funding, less help, and almost no knowledge of chemistry, had to continue on his own.

Daguerre used the silver plates as Niepce had, but exposed them to iodine vapors (which created a film of light sensitive silver iodide on the plate) before exposing the plate to light. This did give him a faint image, although not one that was readily visible, even after ‘fixing’ the exposure in salt water.

It is said he finally found the method of creating stronger images by accident: one night he left an exposed plate in his chemical cabinet. The next morning a bold, strong image had formed. Daguerre realized vapors from one of the chemicals had caused the improvement in his image and began testing them one by one. When all of his chemicals failed, he finally realized the agent that improved his images was mercury vapor from a broken thermometer in the cabinet. By 1837, he was making very acceptable photographs, what we now call Daguerrotypes.

His final technique was fairly simple. He took a highly polished silver plate and exposed it to iodine fumes, creating a light-sensitive silver iodide film on the plate. This was exposed in the camera for 4 to 10 minutes, then the plate removed and placed in a box that exposed it to mercury vapor (There was no Environmental Protection Agency in those days so you could do this kind of thing.) The mercury blended with the exposed silver iodide creating a strong image. The plate was finally washed in salt water and then plain water to stop the developing process.

Daguerrotypes are positive images: the silver plate has the fixed image already suitable to be framed. The amount of detail they could record is phenomenal — even given the poor lenses of the day a Daguerrotypes is extremely sharp, even when viewed under a magnifying glass. However, each Daguerrotype is a single, unique image: further prints are not possible.

Daguerrotype of Henry David Thoreau


And the Sheriff

William Henry Fox Talbot was the classic landed English gentry: he had too many names, inherited a country estate, and received a classical education at Cambridge where he was named the 12th Wrangler. (For us Americans, a ‘wrangler’ isn’t a cowboy. At Cambridge, it’s someone who receives honors in mathematics examinations. At the end of the examinations, ranks from Senior Wrangler down through 12th Wrangler, then 2nd and 3rd class degrees are given. BTW – the person with the lowest passing marks is awarded the Wooden Spoon, which is where that term began.)

Talbot eventually became a Member of Parliament and High Sheriff of Wiltshire (Like Wrangler, a Sheriff in the 1800s was a somewhat different office in England than it was in American Westerns: it involved not only law enforcement, but also collecting taxes and being official representative of the King.) He dabbled in the arts and sciences and was elected to the Royal Society, England’s equivalent of the French Academy of Sciences.

William Henry Fox Talbot

Talbot, while vacationing in Italy, drew many images with his camera obscura and in 1833 began to experiment to see if he could capture such images without drawing. He began by following the work of Wedgwood and Davy, coating paper with silver chloride and making contact prints. He fairly quickly discovered that he could “fix” his prints in a solution of potassium iodide, making fairly permanent images (they still faded, but much more slowly).

Unlike Daguerre, Talbot’s process created a negative image. He found that the reversed image he created on translucent paper could then be reprinted as a positive image numerous times on other pieces of light-sensitive paper. This allowed him to make multiple prints of each image.

He was making images using a camera obscura by  1835 using this method, although he continued his work privately, waiting to perfect his process . He kept his processes and discoveries to himself, showing pictures to only a few friends. The images he made were not nearly as sharp and detailed as Daguerrotypes (although of course Talbott didn’t know that) but had the advantage that he could print many copies of each image.

Early image using Talbott's negative method


And a Few Others

Talbott and Daguerre didn’t know a thing about each other’s work at this time. Nor did they know about several others who were attempting to create images. A Frenchman with the absolutely awesome name of  Hercules Florence joined a Russian expedition to the Amazon jungles of Brazil as an illustrator and draftsman in 1825. He married a Brazilian woman and settled in Sao Paulo. In an effort to reproduce his drawings from the expedition, he independently invented a method of making contact prints similar to Niepce and Wedgwood before him.

Hercules Florence

With the help of a local pharmacist, Florence began experimenting with creating images using the camera obscura and was making images on silver nitrate paper by 1833. He even termed the word “photographie” to describe this work. However, he lived in remote Brazil and his work was not recognized or known elsewhere. And truth is while he had quite a bit of success with contact printing, he wasn’t able to make high quality photographs yet.

Another Frenchman, Hippolyte Bayard (they had great names in those days, didn’t they?) independently developed a separate process. He soaked paper in silver chloride, then potassium iodide (Talbott’s fixative) and then exposed them immediately in the camera. This created images on paper rather than silver, but the images were positive, not negative, and of good quality. Like all the others he didn’t tell anyone about his work and as a lowly clerk in the Ministry of Finance, he didn’t have the connections of his better known competitors.

Hippolyte Bayard

And Then It Hit the Fan

So there we have it, the status of the camera and photograph as of about 1838: several different people were well on their way to “inventing” photography: The bankrupt French Showman Daguerre and his disinterested partner, the son of his original partner. The English nobleman who, at the moment, had put aside his photography experimentation to write a book on archeology. Another Frenchman working in obscurity in Brazil, and a French clerk developing photography as a hobby.

Of the group, only Daguerre had the drive and connections to push his invention forward. In 1838 he presented a new contract to Isidore Niepce, making it clear that he considered the invention his own, but would transfer it to the partnership only if the process bore his (Daguerre’s) name alone and that Daguerre would receive a slight majority of whatever income it generated. Niepce signed the new contract, although he considered it unfair — but in reality Daguerre had done almost all of the work.

Daguerre then planned to sell 400 subscriptions to the secrets of the invention at 1,000 francs each and began limited exhibitions of Daguerrotypes he had made. He printed a pamphlet describing the upcoming sale but received limited interest. It is said his reputation as a showman creating optical illusions in his Diorama made people suspicious of his methods. And he probably did exaggerate the ease of the proces, claiming “The little work it entails will please the ladies” and the process was “most suitable for those of the leisured classes”. Obviously the term ‘politically correct’ hadn’t really caught on in 1838.

However, Francois Arago, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Science was smitten with Daguerre’s images and proposed that the French Government should purchase the rights and methods of the invention, and then make it freely available “as a gift to the world”.

On January 6, 1839, the Gazette de France announced:

. . . an important discovery of our famous painter of the Diorama, M. Daguerre. This discovery partakes of the prodigious. It upsets all scientific theories of light and optics, and it will revolutionize the art of drawing.

M. Daguerre has found the way to fix the images which paint themselves within a camera obscura so that these images are no longer transient reflections of the objects, but are fixed and everlasting impressions which, like a painting or engraving, can be taken away from the objects.

On January 8th, Argo presented Daguerre’s images to the Academy of Sciences and by January 19th the announcement had been repeated in the major papers across England and Europe. It would seem that precedence had been established, Daguerre would be rewarded, and photography would become mainstream.

But the chaos had only begun: Talbott read of Daguerre’s invention and dropped everything else to make a claim that he’d been first. Bayard and Florence (and a few others) would also make claims that the invention was theirs, one most humbly and the other with full-blown dramatic overkill. Sir John Herschel, a British scientist and chemist, would make immediate improvements to both Daguerre’s and Talbot’s processes within days of hearing about it. Not to mention the French government was a bit slow in paying Daguerre, and ever the sharp businessman, he proceeded with his own arrangements.

In other words, the next article, describing the first years of photography, will be fun!

Roger Cicala, Lensrentals.com

May 4th, 2011





Bankston, John: Louis Daguerre and the Daugerrotype. Mitchell Lane. Delaware.

Gustavson, Todd: A History of Photography from Daguerrotype to Digital. Sterling, 2009.



Marien, Mary W: Photography. A Cultural History. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall. 2011

Newhall, Beaumont: The History of Photography. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2009

Osterman, Mark and Romer, Grant: History of the Evolution of Photography. In: Peres, Michael (Ed.): The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th, ed. Elsevier, 2007.

Osterman, Mark. 2007. Asphalt. In The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science, ed. Michael R. Peres, 44, Focal Press.

Tims, John and Elmes, James: The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s, History of Photography, Autumn 1993, Vol.17 (3), pp. 284-295

Zakia, Richard: The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography. 3rd ed. Butterworth-Heinemann, 1993.



4 Responses to “The Showman, the Sheriff, and the First Cameras”

Marc said:

Roger, it’s always a pleasure to read your articles!
Especially this series about the history of photographie ist most entertaining.
Aside from the numerous info’s about the historical figures and technic’s, I like the humor.

If you ever consider bringing your articles together in print, consider me a customer. :)


Richard said:

Interesting article, as always. I agree with Mark–although I think the web is a good format, and am not sure that your readership would increase with a hard copy. Anyway, thanks for your scholarship, and your humor…I enjoy reading these, and suspect you must have been an English major gone bad.

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