Capturing the Light
The Birth of Photography,
A True Story of
Genius and Rivalry
(St. Martin's Press)
We always thought that George Eastman invented photography somewhere up there near Buffalo. He didn't ... but he did the next best thing. Over a hundred years ago, he found that if he gave away the photographic cameras, he could charge an arm and a leg for those who wanted to develop their shots.
This economic truth (give away one part of the process; charge a small fortune for the other) has recently been brought to high art in the computer print business. You get a printer for almost nothing, and end up paying too much for the cartouche. It has been brought to further fruition with the common cell phones. Get one free, then, forever after pay out the gazoo through the monthly charges.
But George Eastman didn't invent photography. It was, probably, according to Watson and Rappaport, two men, in 1839: William Fox Talbot. And Louis Daguerre (with the help of Isidore Niépce).
Daguerre, was the shrewdest of the lot. He had his house and business burn down before he announced his discovery. In this way, he was able to present his struggle to create the Daguerrotype as one of personal martyrdom, sacrificing his youth and his possessions for his love of science and France.
Daguerre had the renowned chemist Louis Joseph Gay-Lussac introduce the story of his invention in the Chamber of Peers. The yes vote would give each of them --- Niépce and Daguerre --- an annual sinecure. The law was passed, and immediately signed by King Louis-Philippe on 1 August 1839. "It is the beginning of a new art in an old civilization; it will constitute a new era and secure for us a title to glory," said, Gay-Lussac ... thus binding together French pride, French prestige, the two inventors, and a pot of money.
Meanwhile, in England, William Fox Talbot was trying to unwrap the real mystery of photography. Daguerre figured out how to make a picture using a camera obscura, but his photos had two problems. One was that they faded quickly; the second that they were reversed. The white was black and the black was white.
Talbot had decided early on that the production of a true photograph must be a two-step process. While Daguerre was being feted, Talbot invented a procedure to convert negatives into true copies: a white white, a black black --- and grays in the middle. Unfortunately, Talbot was a member of the elite, wasn't hungry enough to know that if an invention is going to work for you, you have to get the state to come in on your side.
Daguerre made photography French; Talbot had to be satisfied with getting a patent ... and the tale of his patent is long and complicated and sad: it didn't work out. He got to live with the fabled gold miner dilemma: Daguerre got the gold, Talbot got the shaft. Capturing the Light details this exactly and copiously, sometimes too much so.
Many of us will come to this volume interested in the process. How did these two --- along with Isidore Niépce --- figure out how to catch the image; what did they do to fix it; how did they succeed in making a fleeting vision permanent. Where did their inspiration came from?
One thing you do learn about early photography is that these three --- and the hundreds of others in Europe and America who were trying to perfect the same product --- were steeping themselves in virulent poisons. It is wonder that they didn't up and die of the chemicals they were handling so routinely: mercury, chlorine, iodine --- mostly silver iodide --- gold chloride, and fumic bromine. All were inhaling these chemicals for the chance to capture a scene out their window ... on paper or metal.
Your basic daguerreotype was "an image made on a highly polished silver plate made sensitive to light by fuming it with the vapors of iodine. The sensitive plate is then exposed in the camera obscura and the latent image developed out over a pot of heated mercury. The remaining, unexposed silver iodide is removed by fixing the plate in a bath of hot salt solution. Wash; dry; frame. Voilà!"
The surprise in Capturing the Light was how the capture of image became such a sensation, and so quickly. You and I live with copies --- of ourselves, of others, of other worlds --- all around us. We've been part of this magic for so long that it is no longer magic.
But if you lived in those years, the idea that one could point a thing called a "camera" at something or someone, push a button, and in a few minutes have an image that, if done right, would last forever --- the very process created wonder, surprise, disbelief.
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The authors report that with the photographic frenzy of 1839, "by the end of the year daguerreotypes were being made on at least three continents and all over Europe ... there was no doubt that the enthusiasm for this new-fangled toy was intense, and some were already finding novel, if not ambitious, ways of exploiting the new medium."
As you would suspect, individual portraiture was the desideratum, and Talbot made himself immensely unpopular by patenting this very activity in England. But there were other subjects, and other objects. Dead people --- livened up with color paints --- were in vogue. Historic spots, historic features, famous events were immortalized with a hand held-device that would separate two images coupled at different angles, making a stereoptic image.
There are in Capturing the Light a lengthy parade of facts. That Daguerre's first means of livelihood was something called a "Phantasmagoria" ... complete with flying angels, illusions, and 3-D effects. That the first photograph may have been "a view from the window at Le Gras" by Nicéphore Niépce (1826). That Talbot did not allow himself to be photographed until 1842, and after you see it reproduced here, you'll know why: he was one scary looking individual, a guy who brushed his hair atop his head so you wouldn't catch on --- he thought --- to his baldness. Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was hardly better. A shot here shows him to have the beady eyes of a time-life salesman, complete with a full-neck black choker.
The first self-portrait came from America ... possibly because there was no dithering over rights there. It is of a man named Robert Cornelius, also rather homely [Fig. 2 above]. The authors label it "an astonishing image full of life and character" but to some of us, it resembles more a mid-19th Century grifter in flight from the local constable.
The first war to be captured on film was the Mexican-American war, but the Crimean War was where it came into its own. It was no small problem to follow the soldiers around to shoot them --- not with bullets but with light --- because with all the tools and chemicals and plates and camera and lenses, you needed a small truck with a large team of horses. And, of course, since the exposure time was so long, one could never get a picture of people finishing each other off. The best one could hope for was an image of the many bloated bodies left behind after the action had moved on.
The New York Times caught its drift on seeing the first photographs to come out of the American Civil War:
We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door: it attracts your attention, but it does not enlist your sympathy. But it is very different when the hearse stops at your own door and the corpse is carried over your own threshold ... Mr. Brady has done something to bring the terrible reality and earnestness of the war. If he had not brought bodies and laid them in our very door-yards and along [our] streets, he has done something very like it.
Political leaders were quick to catch on to the fact that war photography could quickly make war itself unpopular. If the lumpen were exposed to the sight of so many dead scattered here and there over a battlefield, they might want to abandon war as the mean of politics taken to its limits.
Cameras were ultimately banned from the killing-fields of the Somme in World War One as they were in the same areas in its continuation, World War Two. Recently an similar ban turned up: President Bush II did not allow photographs of any of the bodies being flown home from the fighting in Iraq.
But our willingness to hide from the reality of humans doing in other humans may soon come to an end, along with the demise of Talbot's and Daguerre's style of photography. The availability of videos from minuscule cell-phones has already shaped policing in our cities. And someday images of men and women dying for our country (right or wrong) may finally come to touch the rest of us as well.