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Review: Capturing the Light

August 17, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

We live in a world awash with cameras. I’m amazed to realise that between us, my wife and I have nine digital cameras. Today, photography is ubiquitous - but it wasn't always so. In fact, it was 175 years ago this year that two men, one in Britain and one in France invented photography - and I’ve just read a fascinating book about it.

Capturing the Light by Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport tells the story of how Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot simultaneously developed processes for photography.

And a fascinating story it is too.

The two men were very different in background and temperament, as is revealed by the names of their inventions. Daguerre, the self-made man, Louis DaguerreLouis DaguerreLouis Daguerre entrepreneur and self-promoter named his process the Daguerrotype. Talbot, the introspective scientist and “gentleman”, eventually named his process the Calotype, from the Greek “kalos” meaning beautiful.

Differences between the two go further. Talbot was one of those remarkable nineteen century polymaths. A member of the Royal Society, he left vast quantities of notebooks and letters, so that we know how he developed his process. By comparison, Daguerre left virtually nothing, meaning that the authors had to piece together the process of invention.

In reading this book, I was struck both by how different the world of 1839 was to our era - and how they are much the same. One extraordinary difference was the value of the negative. The Calotype produced a negative, whereas the Daguerrotype produced a positive image. To our minds, the advantage of the Calotype over its rival is obvious, but in 1839, the negative was seen as a serious drawback. People wanted positive images as provided by the Daguerrotype - and it was the preferred form of photography for a couple of decades.

William Henry Fox TalbotWilliam Henry Fox TalbotWilliam Henry Fox Talbot Some of the differences between then and now reflect the technology. For instance, the earliest images were of landscapes and buildings, rather than people. The reason? A 15 minute exposure doesn’t lend itself to photographing people. As technology advanced, so did portraiture and for the first time in history, ordinary people could have images of loved ones.

And speaking of technology: I was delighted to see that the “fixer” used by both men to remove excess silver halide (and thus prevent the images going black) was hyposulphite of soda or “hypo” (sodium thiosulphate). Those of you who have experienced the magic of an image emerging from a sheet of paper in a darkroom will remember hypo well, as the fixer used to this day.

But I digress …

In 1839, the advent of photography was a game changer. In some ways it could have been described (as was the LASER) as a solution in search of a problem. People found novel and unexpected uses for this new technology - such as in law enforcement. We expect to see images of an escaped criminal; but this use had to be invented.

But the book also illustrates how little some things have changed. To this day, Talbot is criticised in some circles for patenting the Calotype. Yet he was forced to do this to prevent others patenting his process - and locking him out of his own technology. As it was, he was very generous with his patents: amateurs could use his process for free. By comparison, Daguerre the entrepreneur patented his process - and was treated as a hero of France.

There’s much too much in this book to cover in this review. It’s a great read - whether you are interested in photography, or simply in the similarities and differences of a society 175 years in the past.

Shane Baker

Capturing the Light by Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport. Pan Books 2014.

 


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