The Art and Science of Early Photography
The Ira Wolff Photographic History Collection, held in Special Collections, features 14,000 original photographs and publications. The collections' focus on nineteenth-century photography provides students and researchers with a major resource with which to study the history of photography.
With early examples of photographic technologies developed by Henry Fox Talbot, Louis Daguerre, and Adolphe-Alexandre Martin, to name only a few of these early inventors, the Ira Wolff Collection sheds light on the interrelationship of scientific knowledge and artistic expression in the new medium.
William Henry Fox Talbot came to his early experiments in photography from an education at Trinity College Cambridge and ecclectic interests in the sciences and the arts, including mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and art history. His early photographic experiments grew out of his frustrated attempts at landscape drawing using a camera lucida. He wrote “for when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold” (Talbot, in Daniel). His use of the camera obscura (see Diderot preceding pages), too, fell short.
Talbot produced his first 'photogenic' drawings in 1834 and his first camera negative the following year. By 1840, Talbot's process had become known as a 'calotype,' after the Greek kalos, or beautiful. Fox's positive images were created through subsequent contact between the negative produced in the camera and a separate sheet of photosensitive paper (British Library).
Talbot's calotypes (or talbot types) are particularly sensitve to light, leaving - nearly two centuries on - some of the images nearly indistinguishable. This is the case for Special Collections' copy of Talbot's print of the oak tree he created at his home at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire. This image (not pictured here), which once would have appeared much as these held by the British Library, has almost entirely vanished.
The variation in preservation of Talbot's calotype prints can be seen in these two images, the print to the left held by Special Collections Ira Wolff Collection; the print to the right held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both images of articles of china date to before 1844.
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre came to photography from a background in painting and printmaking. Working with Nicéphore Niépce in Paris in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Daguerre, like Talbot, hoped to discover a means of improving and making permanent the images seen in his camera obscura (Daniel).
By 1839, Daguerre shared his invention at a joint session of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in an effort to promote his photographic process as a tool for both the sciences and the arts.
Malcolm Daniel describes the process of the creation of each daguerrotype, which is "a remarkably detailed, one-of-a-kind photographic image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized (or fixed) with salt water or “hypo” (sodium thiosulfate)" (Daniel).
Each daguerrotype, such as these undated examples from Special Collections Ira Wolff Collection, is a single exposure, one-of-a-kind image. The process was widely used in portraiture in the 1840s and 1850s.
Descendants of the photographic work of Talbot and Daguerre include a variety of mediums, for example, tin types (seen here); salt prints; and ivory types. Tintypes, a medium invented in 1853 by chemist and physicist Adolphe-Alexandre Martin of Paris, used iron and required a much shorter exposure time than the daguerrotype. As a result, the product, which reached its height in the 1860s and 1870s, was signficiantly more affordable (Stewart).
The tintypes shown here feature a portrait of a woman mounted on a carte-de-visite - or visiting card - and a more casual scene of two men, reflective of the mediums' usefulness in the field. Tintypes were popular during the American Civil War, with soldiers including African American Union soldiers, recording their service.