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Interview: Rewriting the History of Photography

An Australian national radio show recently interviewed John Wood (Aston University, Birmingham) and Sally Hoban (Art Historian, UK) on the early history of photography. This involved using poisonous cyanide leaving traces around fern leaves, as well as letters revealing rivalry and bribes. The full transcript of the programme can be read below, or you can listen to it using the link here.


Robyn Williams: Photography, was invented as a chemical process by Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre in the 1830s. Or was it?

Now we've reached a turning point in the history of photography as film retreats and even Kodak goes wobbly, threatening to go to black. Could the history of photography go back even further than we imagined? Here are intrepid researchers Jon Wood and Sally Hoban at the Museum of Photography in Bradford, Yorkshire.

Jon Wood: That is the conventional history of the vast majority of people, they believe that Louis Daguerre, a Frenchman, invented a process that captured what was similar to a Polaroid. It was a single shot on a piece of silvered metal. After that it was William Henry Fox Talbot who was the first person to develop a process that we used throughout the 20th century, that of creating a negative from which many copies could be made afterwards.

However, like all scientific inventions, the science is based on previous experiments. Some experiments were actually carried out earlier than this by a man named Tom Wedgwood. Tom Wedgwood and his friend Humphry Davy wrote a report for the Royal Institution, and in this, in 1802, just three years before Tom died, they wrote about the scientific experiments in photography that Tom Wedgwood had been making. They weren't fully successful because he couldn't fix his images, his images always disappeared, but at the same time it was a very, very important step forward in the field of photography.

However, it is not the only part of the story that we have in regard to the invention of photography. Something was happening amongst that a wider community of people known as the Lunar Society.

Robyn Williams: This is the aristocracy of science, isn't it, Sally?

Sally Hoban: It is indeed. What was happening in Birmingham in the late 18th and early 19th century through James Watt the great engineer, Erasmus Darwin the scientist, Josiah Wedgwood the potter…

Robyn Williams: That's Charles Darwin's grandad.

Sally Hoban: It is, and he had some of the ideas about evolution before Charles actually published in the 19th century, and it was a really fertile environment at the Soho Manufactury in Birmingham, this was a Matthew Boulton's empire, it was this huge factory, and Matthew Boulton was a very, very clever man and he was very well connected. So between all of them, these artists, these scientists, these philosophers, these doctors, if there had been anything interesting happening in the community, in the artistic community or the scientific community, they would have known about it. So there is some very interesting evidence pointing to the fact that these early experiments in photography were known about by the Lunar men and that they may well have been joining in with them and actually trying to pioneer photographs themselves.

Robyn Williams: And this is decades before Fox Talbot.

Sally Hoban: It is, very much so, this is going right back to the late 18th century, so perhaps 1780 onwards. But I originally came across a reference to these mysterious early photographs about 20 years ago when I was an undergraduate student in a magazine, left it alone, thought at some point in time that looks really interesting, I'm going to come back and do a research project on that, and that's how we ended up doing this.

Robyn Williams: Jon, any sign of these early photographs?

Jon Wood: No, the Science Museum in London has records of the pictures that were given to Mr Smith that were on paper, but also submitted to Mr Smith by a gentleman who worked for Mr Piers Watt Boulton were two pictures on silver plate. These are the two that the Photographic Society and Mr Matthew Piers Watt Boulton said, well, yes they're photographs. The issue then was finding out how old these photographs were, whether they were daguerreotypes or whether they preceded Louis Daguerre and in fact, according to the evidence that people were suggesting, even preceded Joseph Niépce.

Robyn Williams: How amazing. Who was the woman in the story Sally?

Sally Hoban: A lady, she was quite elderly at the time that this story broke in Victorian England, called Elizabeth Stockdale Wilkinson, and she was Matthew Piers Watt Boulton's aunt. What's interesting in the archival evidence that we've found in these letters at the Science Museum is that she was actually making early photographic experiments alongside whatever the Lunar men were doing, and this is something that we don't really think about in the history of photography or the history of art and design as well because the women's contribution has been very much neglected. So it was a delight to find that actually it might well have been a lady who was doing these early photographic experiments.

We have evidence to suggest that in 1825, a letter, that she was actually producing images, photographing ferns, and this became quite common in the 1840s. Fox Talbot then picked up this idea. But it would have these very tantalising, a very intriguing references in these letters, so what we need to do now is go on further with the research and actually try and find where these images are. It's possible that they could be in a provincial museum somewhere, just catalogued as 'image of fern' with no name on them. So that would be a further stage in the research, actually trying to find where these images are, now that we know that they actually exist.

Robyn Williams: What a wonderful story. Jon, I don't know whether I'm testing your knowledge of this field even further back than it might go, but before photography, we're talking about photography as a chemical event, you know, using silver plates, there was the camera obscura and there was a way of having an image on the back of a screen that was in fact through a little hole. How did that work?

Jon Wood: Yes, what would happen is that the word 'camera obscura', when you look to the original meanings of these words, actually means 'dark chamber' or 'dark room', so what you would have is you would have, for instance, a tent, and in that tent you would have a lens attached, and on that would be reflected a scene that was outside. While these things could be erected as tents, you could also have them as something that would resemble a box, may be a large shoebox, in which case one of two things could happen. A camera obscura could actually be used to be able to see an image and then draw the image because the image would be seen through a lens, reflected down and you would be able to practically trace the image. However, you would also be able to insert a prepared piece of paper, chemically prepared, so that it would be able to, when exposed to the light, capture the differences between light and dark and any sort of even mildly photosensitive chemical would be able to show where the light and where the dark was, and you would have what essentially could be a photograph.

Robyn Williams: A sort of photograph without actually having the film. Let me take you around the corner to where there is a sort of display, and here is a setup where you've got a studio with some of the original people taking a picture, if you like, of how you had to sit there for minutes on end.

Sally Hoban: That's quite interesting because we have this image of Victorian people as being very upright and very stiff and being very formal, and we have to ask ourselves sometimes to what extent were they really like that, or to what extent was it that they were made to sit like that for their photographs. And this isn't actually too bad because there were actually contraptions, metal contraptions, they look like torture instruments, that the photographers used to put around people to keep their neck in place and to keep their back in place. So they would be pinned in like that because the exposure times were so long, so he actually got off quite likely I think there.

Robyn Williams: And the man with the hat, Talbot, 1839, after discovering his process for making photographic drawings, Talbot turned his attention to other matters.

Sally Hoban: That's very interesting as well because it was photogenic drawings that we think Elizabeth Stockdale Wilkinson was producing at Soho, these images of the ferns, and she is actually referred to as actually doing this in some of the literature and the letters that we have looked at as part of our research. So she was doing it very early on, and then the process was probably developed by Talbot. But because all these artists and intellectuals were working in this very close-knit community, we think this is one of the reasons why these processes were happening all at the same time, because they were sharing ideas and they were sharing their enthusiasms essentially for what they were trying to do.

Jon Wood: Indeed, one of the letters that refers to Miss Wilkinson creating fern pictures refers to the chemical fixing process that she used which involved cyanide, according to one of the letters by a man named Amos Beardsley who sent to Mr Smith three of these fern images. Cyanide is very, very poisonous, but it is one of the chemical processes that is involved in creating what are referred to as cyanotypes. Cyanotypes typically are kind of a blue picture. The female photographer Anna Atkins from the Victorian period was very prolific in creating wonderful pictures, specifically of algae. She actually spent ten years creating volumes of algae pictures, and they are typical Prussian blue, we would refer to it as, you'll see, it's a very, very vibrant blue. But it could also be stained using things like tea to make them a different colour, it's quite remarkable.

But essentially if you laid a fern down on the paper and exposed the paper to light, then what happens is chemically (and here's the science) it goes from iron(III) to iron(II) but involves a process of using cyanide and it creates very permanent pictures that are created by Prussian blue dye. And where the light wasn't exposed, for instance by a fern that was placed on the page, then you get a white outline of where it was. Very, very simple photography, but Miss Wilkinson was creating these type of images in using cyanide and using ferns well before any of the other people were using it.

Robyn Williams: You mentioned Smith and the cover-up. Do you think there was actually a cover-up to obscure all this?

Jon Wood: There were many people who referred to a suppression by a whole bunch of different people, one of which came via the artist William Beechey. William Beechey went to paint the portrait of Matthew Boulton. Matthew Boulton in 1799 had his image recorded. At this time Beechey was worried about the sun pictures that he'd heard of being created at Soho, so he goes and gets a petition from all the artists saying, well, this will put us out of business, and at a certain stage the government are prepared to pay Mr Francis Edgington £20 a year to stop what he was doing. He says this will shut down all the portrait shops.

Sally Hoban: There are in Mr Edward Price's letters to Mr Smith...there are repeated references where he says things like, 'I think I have bothered somebody by bringing this matter to the public.' So it's very, very intriguing, that sort of suppression. And there's a whole air of mystery around the history of photography now based in Birmingham and based on what was happening at Soho.

Robyn Williams: What a story, and here in the Museum of Photography in Bradford, upstairs we've got the first videotape and video machine. Who knows, Sally, is it possible that you'll have somewhere, the photographs that you're looking for, up here in this very building?

Sally Hoban: It would be amazing one day if that would be so, yes.

Robyn Williams: And you're going to have a look.

Sally Hoban: Absolutely. We started this now, we'd like to take it further, get some research funding for it, make it a more formal project. So hopefully we can re-write perhaps the very, very early history of these early photographic experiments.

Robyn Williams: Wouldn't that be exciting! Sally Hoban at the Media Museum in Bradford, where they keep the oldest negative. And Jon Wood from the Aston University in Birmingham.

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