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Groundbreakers in Photography

Although there is no “founder” of photography, there has been – and continue to be – a number of influential scientists and dreamers who’ve paved the way for photographic art.

John Herschel, the son of the distinguished astronomer William Herschel, deserves much credit. He coined the term “photography” after all. He became interested in capturing and retaining images, and in 1839 had managed to fix pictures using hyposulphite of soda. In fact it was he who had discovered twenty years previously that hypo could dissolve silver salts.

Herschel, of course, had the fortune to be around just at the time both Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot were announcing their own discoveries.

The first successful picture was produced in June/July 1827 by Niepce using material that hardened on exposure to light. This picture required an exposure of eight hours.

On 4 January 1829 Niépce agreed to go into partnership with Daguerre. Niépce died only four years later, but Daguerre continued to experiment. Soon he had discovered a way of developing photographic plates, a process which greatly reduced the exposure time from eight hours down to half an hour. He also discovered that an image could be made permanent by immersing it in salt.

Following a report on this invention by Paul Delaroche a leading scholar of the day, the French government bought the rights to it in July 1839. Details of the process were made public on 19 August 1839, and Daguerre named it the Daguerreotype

The announcement that the Daguerreotype "requires no knowledge of drawing," and that "anyone may succeed and perform as well as the author of the invention" was greeted with enormous interest, and "Daguerreomania" became a craze overnight.  

The Daguerrotype process, though good, was expensive, and each picture was a once-only affair. Different, and in a sense a rival to the Daguerreotype, was the Calotype inventedby Talbot, which was to provide the answer to that problem. His paper to the Royal Society of London, dated 31 January 1839, actually precedes the paper by Daguerre; it 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.

In 1851 a new era in photography was introduced by Frederick Scott Archer, who introduced the Collodion process. This process was much faster than conventional methods, reducing exposure times to two or three seconds, thus opening up new horizons in photography.

Prices for daguerreotypes varied, but in general would cost about a guinea which would be the weekly wage for many workers. The collodion process, however, was much cheaper; prints could be made for as little as one shilling.

A further impetus was given to photography for the masses by the introduction of carte-de-viste photographs by Andre Disderi. This developed into a mania, though it was relatively short-lived.

The collodion process required that the coating, exposure and development of the image should be done whilst the plate was still wet. Another process developed by Archer was named the Ambrotype, which was a direct positive.

The wet collodion process, though in its time a great step forward, required a considerable amount of equipment on location. There were various attempts to preserve exposed plates in wet collodion, for development at a more convenient time and place, but these preservatives lessened the sensitivity of the material. It was clear, then, that a dry method was required. It is likely that the difficulties of the process hastened the search for instantaneous photography.

The next major step forward came in 1871, when Dr. Richard Maddox discovered a way of using gelatin (which had been discovered only a few years before) instead of glass as a basis for the photographic plate. This led to the development of the dry plate process. Dry plates could be developed much more quickly than with any previous technique. Initially it was very insensitive compared with existing processes, but it was refined to the extent that the idea of factory-made photographic material was now becoming possible.

Other names of significance include Herman Vogel, who developed a means whereby film could become sensitive to green light, and Eadweard Muybridge who paved the way for motion picture photography.