Caught in the Light: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective of the Science of Photography


Early daguerreotype of Robert Cornelius, an American metallurgist and pioneer of photography, around October 1839. This is considered the first ‘selfie’.

If ever a technology should be considered as a 19th century innovation, it is photography. At the very start of the 19th century, around the year 1800, Thomas Wedgwood made the first known attempt to capture the image in a camera obscura by means of a light-sensitive substance. He used paper or white leather treated with silver nitrate. The camera obscura had been around for centuries, used by artists to help them capture the image they wanted to paint. Others had experimented with trying to capture the images of the camera obscura – even back in Medival times – but Wedgwood was the first to really experiment with light-sensitive substances.

Thomas Wedgwood – potter and the ‘father’ of photography. Sadly, he died at 34. Just think of what further innovations he might have discovered if not taken so early.

There are several different types of photography technology that was developed throughout the 19th century:-

Photograms: This is camera-less photography, developing images of items placed on light-sensitive paper and then exposing it to light. Anna Atkins used this technique to produce a book titled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. It was printed in instalments from 1843; it was the first book to be illustrated with photographs. (Anna’s father, John Children, gave Anna an unusually science-focused education for a girl of her era, as her mother died at her birth, and Children was a chemist, mineralogist and zoologist.) In modern times, this technique is mainly used by artists to achieve unusual effects. Personally, I find the fact delightful that the very first book of scientific photographs was produced by a woman.

One of Anna Atkins’ photograms of algae.

Anna Atkins

Daguerreotypes:  Frenchman Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839. To make a daguerreotype was time consuming. First, a sheet of silver-plated copper had to be polished to a mirror finish. Then it was treated with iodine fumes – later halogen fumes – that coated its surface in light-sensitive silver iodide or silver halide. At this point, the plate was exposed in a camera, which could be as little as a few seconds for brightly sunlit subjects or up to five minutes with less intense lighting, or even longer in dim lighting conditions. The resulting latent image was made visible by fuming it with mercury vapour; this was a very dangerous stage of the procedure, but few photographers took precautions to protect themselves from the fumes. Daguerre’s method to arrest the light sensitivity of the plate was to wash away the remaining silver iodide with a hot, saturated solution of common salt; a later development saw the light sensitivity of the plate arrested with a mild solution of sodium thiosulfate. The plate was then rinsed and dried. However, the image surface was still very easily marred and the silver was subject to tarnishing from exposure to the air. To protect the image, the finished plate was bound up within a box-like  glass frame, and the box sealed with strips of paper soaked in gum arabic. In the US and UK, a gilt brass mat was normally used to separate the delicate image surface from the glass.

Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot. Image from Wikipedia.

Daguerreotype technology continued to be improved after its discovery. As previously mentioned, the use of halogens was introduced to the fuming procedure, with the result of decreasing the exposure times. In 1841, the Petzval Portrait Lens was introduced; scientifically designed for the purpose of reducing exposure times. Gilding could be an addition to Daguerre’s process;  Hippolyte Fizeau introduced to the technique in 1840. It gave a grey tones of the images some added warmth and colour. In the Becquerel variation of the process, published in 1840, the plate was sensitized by fuming with iodine alone, and the image was developed by overall exposure to sunlight passing through yellow or red glass. Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel came across this process while experimenting with photochemical effects, and it was just a lucky accident of his research.

Daguerreotype camera built by La Maison Susse Frères in 1839, with a lens by Charles Chevalier

Daguerreotypes are normally laterally reversed – creating mirror images of the subject – because they are necessarily viewed from the side that originally faced the camera lens. As other photographic technologies were developed, the daguerreotype process became less popular, and its use died out in the early 1860s. Which I think is a shame, because daguerreotypes have a certain charm that other forms of photography can’t imitate, as the images glow with an inner light. But some people disliked the daguerreotypes for that same reason, and the fact that they were difficult to see in some lighting conditions because of that shine. And the process was complicated, expensive, and you could only obtain one image as there were no negatives to make multiple copies. The images were delicate and easily ruined. It was a technology with limited availability to society, and so doomed.

Calotype: The calotype and salted paper process (or talbotype as it was also known) was an early photographic process introduced in 1841, by the British scientist and inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot. This photographic process – even though it was easier and cheaper than producing daguerreotypes – didn’t catch as much as much as daguerreotypes because Talbot had taken out patents, while Daguerre had not (he was paid a stipend by the French government not to). Calotypes were grainier and less detailed. When the wet plate collidon process came along, calotype photography rapidly took a back seat.

William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864.

A calotype print on salted paper.

Ambrotypes: The ambrotype was based on the wet plate collodion process invented by Frederick Scott Archer. Ambrotypes were introduced in the 1850s and by the end of that decade it had almost entirely replaced the daguerreotype. Ambrotypes were much less expensive to produce than daguerreotypes, as they were developed on a glass plate and not a silver-coated copper plate, and they didn’t use as much silver and no gold in the process. However, they were also much duller to view.

Frederick Scott Archer.jpg

Frederick Scott Archer

Archer was a British sculptor, and found calotype photography was useful way of capturing images of his sculptures. However, he found the poor definition very limiting. Archer invented his wet plate collidon process in 1848 and published it in The Chemist in March 1851, enabling photographers to combine fine detail with the ability to print multiple paper copies. In publishing his discovery, he did so knowingly without first patenting it, giving it as a gift to the world. Alas, this meant he died poor, but his supporters raised money for his family by public subscription and the British government did see their way clear to grant small pensions to his children when the death of their mother left them orphaned.

Ambrotype from the 1850s.

The “collodion wet plate process” required the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes, so that any photographer taking images away from his or her studio needed a portable darkroom. But it was also fast for the time, requiring only seconds for exposure, and that was a major advantage over its rival photographic processes.

A portable darkroom

Tintype: A tintype is a photograph made by creating an image on a coating of dark lacquer or enamel on a thin sheet of metal, with this prepared plate used as the support for the photographic emulsion.The process was first described by the French inventor Adolphe-Alexandre Martin; on April 18, 1853, Doctor Martin shared his exciting new process in a paper he delivered to the Academie des Sciences. In 1856, it was patented by Hamilton Smith in the United States and by William Kloen in the United Kingdom. I’m not sure how legal this was … it sounds rather cheeky to me.

There are two historic tintype processes, using wet or dry emulsion, and in both processes, a very underexposed negative image was produced in the emulsion. In order to obtain an image, potassium cyanide was normally employed as the photographic fixer. Potassium cyanide is a very dangerous and powerful deadly poison; it was the most toxic of all the chemicals used in other early photographic processes. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, the Victorian seemed to be completely oblivious to the amount of toxins and poison they introduced into their working and home environments.

Tintype of two girls dressed as young men.

The main advantages of the tintype were threefold: the process created an unbreakable, durable, photographic image supported on a metal plate, which could be carried about and handled without breaking like the delicate daguerreotype. Secondly, it was  ready for the sitter in a just few minutes. Finally, as it was relatively inexpensive, its lowered cost of production meant the working class could own photographs.

The tintype remained popular at seaside resorts and county fairs well into the 20th century, losing ground only after the  owning a personal camera and photographic film became available to the working class.

Film Photography: The first flexible photographic roll film was marketed by American George Eastman in 1885, but this original “film” was actually a coating on a paper base. Eastman went on to found the Kodak company (Eastman famously thought the letter ‘K’ was ‘a strong, incisive sort of letter’. In 1889,  first transparent plastic roll film was made from highly flammable celluloid. It was the development of rolled celluloid film that made the invention of movies possible.


George Eastman

The Kodak Brownie camera popularized low-cost photography and popularized the concept of owning your own camera in Western society. The first Brownie was introduced in February, 1900.

Colour Photography:

Self-portrait of Sarah Angelina Acland.jpg

A self portrait of English photographer, Sarah Angelina Acland

 At this point, I would like introduce the English photographer, Sarah Angelina Acland – who, contrary to what might be written in Wikipedia, was no amateur. She was a pioneer of colour photography, taking and developing her own photographs. The concept of colour photography had been explored since the 1840s. Early experiments in colour photography required extremely long exposures and and a very complicated developing process with specialist knowledge. Acland’s ‘amateur’ status has to be questioned as a collection of Acland’s photographs is housed at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, and the Bodleian Library in Oxford has catalogues of her photograph albums and papers. Acland died before colour film became commercially available for personal cameras, but she was still taking pictures until she died.

Funchal Bay, Madeira, by Sarah Angelina Acland, taken in 1910.

Colour photography didn’t really take off until the availability of colour film from the 1930s, using a three colour emulsion process. It was still expensive, but now the development was done by the lab and not the photographer.

Bear with me, I know this has been a longer-than-average article, and that is after I removed a lot of the details of the science of photography. As you can see, the invention of photography benefited both the Arts and the Sciences, which makes it a very Steampunk invention in my own opinion. It was a technology that was embraced by women, Acland being only one of many Victorian female photographers and enthusiasts.

File:Girl in Traditional Costume, Taken in Madeira, by Sarah Angelina Acland, c.1910.jpg

Girl in Traditional Costume, Taken in Madeira, by Sarah Angelina Acland, circa 1910

One can’t help but wonder what Robert Cornelius would have made of all this. He died in 1893, so he would have been around to see all these innovations.

Cornelius would operate two of the earliest photographic studios in the United States between 1841 and 1843, but as the popularity of photography grew and more photographers opened studios, Cornelius either lost interest or realized that he could make more money at the family gas and lighting company. – from Wikipedia

I can’t see him losing interest. Instead, I see him still taking photos in his eighties, of his grandchildren, of his rapidly changing world. And still snapping a self portrait or two…

Brownie camera steampunk assemblage mixed media altered art clock parts. $150.00, via Etsy.: Brownie camera steampunk assemblage mixed media altered art clock parts. $150.00, via Etsy.



Filed under Historical Personage, History, Science, Steampunk

6 responses to “Caught in the Light: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective of the Science of Photography

  1. Anna and I have a camera near-enough identical to the folding Kodak Brownie. I think it is an Agfa. A delightful device altogether!

  2. Excellent history of photographic processes. I can never keep them straight.

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