British photographic history

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Puhar: Glass plate photography origins?

Many years ago (1981), as director of Yr Oriel Ffotograffeg in Cardiff, I was organizing a survey exhibition of contemporary Yugoslavian photography (never presented due to blinkered Xenophobia) and found myself at a small symposium in a Slovene town called Kranj at which there was considerable excitement around informing me and others that glass plate photography had been invented there in 1841 or '42 by a priest named Janez Puhar (who may also have invented a photographic process on metal plates a couple years earlier). It reminded me of attending similar gatherings in other western and eastern European countries in which I had been curating exhibitions (for a program in Cardiff called "Continental Enquiries") at which other significant historical revelations were being excitedly announced. I was pretty excited myself, and loved the enthusiasm and devotion displayed and the idea that the history of the medium (a history I had read and studied, but which often had been written either by Americans or from that perspective) was being born and reborn before my eyes in country after country. As my focus was contemporary European photography, I did not adequately follow many of these historical developments, the revelations of which I'd been privy. Can some of the BPH folks tell me what is the current status of verification and acceptance of the Puhar discoveries.

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Comment by Mike Ware on March 22, 2014 at 16:15

I know nothing of that claim, William, only that Puhar may have taken up Daguerreotype at an early stage, before inventing his sulphur process. The 200th anniversary of his birth is being celebrated in Slovenia this year; there is more biographical and technical information here. The TV documentary description is here.

Comment by William Messer on March 22, 2014 at 15:34

Thanks, Mike. And what may you know about the claim that Puhar was making camera generated photographs on metal plates in '38 or '39. Hopefully those potential PhDs are reading these blogs.

Comment by Mike Ware on March 22, 2014 at 13:07

The more one looks into the history of Janez Puhar's photography, the more tantalising it appears, but resolving the questions that it raises is made difficult by the inaccessibility of the research material in Ljubljana. That Puhar made early photographs (ca. 1841/2) on glass plates is not - to me - the significant issue (didn't Herschel do this in 1839?), but the remarkable possibility that Puhar appears to have done so using a camera-speed non-silver process employing - possibly - a photosensitive allotrope of elemental sulphur - a process which has never been repeated since, as far as I know. This is still an unfinished story, and there's at least a couple of PhDs in it for someone…

Scholarly background, including Puhar's report to the Viennese Academy of Sciences of 1842, can be found in Wolfgang Baier's Geschichte der Fotografie, 1963, pp152-3. A popular TV film of  "The Lost Formula of Janez Puhar" was made around 1999 by the Film Foundation of the Republic of Slovenia.

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