Library and Archives
Library and Archives - A picture is worth a thousand words
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August 14, 2014
A picture is worth a thousand words
We are all familiar with photographs. They dominate social media such as Facebook, and Pintrest where the audience is invited to comment on what they see. It is an engaging activity, one in which the viewer becomes part of the process, the object the subject too. However, photography and the sharing of images is nothing new. Each photograph taken has had an audience in mind and how we interpret those images can reveal much of society's conventions.

The science behind the image

It is not the purpose of this blog to discuss the inventor of photography as many can lay claim to this accolade. But for simplicity's sake Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype process in 1839. The metal-based daguerreotype came in to competition from the paper-based calotype negative invented by Henry Fox Talbot. Fox Talbot made the first surviving photographic negative on paper in Britain in 1835.
Since then photography and the chemical process behind it excited scientists in to perfecting the art. One of those scientists was Sir Joseph Wilson Swan.

Swan was apprenticed to a chemist in his native town of Sunderland. He later became a business partner in a pharmacy in Newcastle which manufactured photographic plates. His interest in photography led him to make significant improvements in the field.

The first practical process for negatives on glass was introduced by F. Scott Archer in 1851. A sheet of glass was coated with a thin film of collodion (guncotton dissolved in ether) containing potassium iodide and was sensitised with silver nitrate. The plate had to be exposed while still wet. Swan and his partner, John Mawson, produced collodion and their improved technique gained recognition.

In addition to the collodion process Swan discovered how to make a sensitive dry plate in place of the less convenient wet collodion process and patented the method of printing using the carbon process in 1864. By 1871 R. L. Maddox proposed the use of silver bromide in gelatine to make dry photographic plates. Swan experimented and perfected the process and by 1877 Mawson and Swan's bromide plates were renowned. In 1879 Swan followed this success with the invention of bromide paper.

Swan is also remembered for his work on the incandescent electric lamp. More information about this can be found on the IET's biography on Joseph Swan. Among his many distinctions he was president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1898.

Other scientists and inventors associated with the development of photography and the IET are Michael Faraday, Sir Francis Ronalds, Sir William Crookes and Silvanus P Thompson.

The collections of Faraday and Ronalds correspondence, deposited with the IET Archives, covers the subjects of early photographic processes. There is also a collection of pamphlets belonging to S P Thompson on the subject of photography.

Some examples of different photographs within the IET Archives

The portrait photograph developed from the painted portrait that has its roots in the Renaissance. Photographs of individuals imitated the conventions of portraiture such as pose, background and accessories. They were commissioned by the sitter and taken by a commercial photographer for a fee. Later as photography became more affordable and practical amateurs began to take photographs as a leisure time activity.

The earliest photograph in the IET Archives is a daguerreotype of Michael Faraday and William Thomas Brande in a presentation case. It was taken in 1848 by Maull and Polybank with a note by S P Thompson explaining that it was given to him by Sir William Crookes on 22 February 1913. The daguerreotype is a highly polished silver surface on a copper plate which was sensitised by iodine fumes exposed in a camera and the image developed by exposure to mercury powder. It can be easily damaged by touching therefore the case served as a means of protection as much as having an aesthetic quality.

An expression of time

As with painted portraits the early photograph was designed to portray the positive virtues of the subject. It is often remarked that Victorian photographs are devoid of emotion and facial expression. However, if one understands the conventions of the time then we can appreciate that they were trying to epitomise the ideal expression and reflect that on to the audience. They wanted to project the notion that they were dignified, pensive, absorbed in thought which in turn is what they wanted the viewer to emulate.

Similarly the pose was also important. Standing or seated can mean authority or an ease with his surroundings. Props and backgrounds can tell us a lot about the subject too. This harks back to painted backdrops used to create a stage. Books and scientific apparatus signify education, literacy and expertise in their chosen field.

A sense of touch

The Victorians believed that intimate emotions such as those conveyed through touch were not appropriate on display in publically viewed photographs. Therefore many family portraits or those of husbands and wives will show them distanced from each other or any physical contact is lacking in affection. Yet two photographs in the IET Archives collection show otherwise.

Michael Faraday married Sarah Barnard on 12 June 1821. There is little evidence to suggest as to the congeniality of their marriage but Faraday's collection of correspondence often refers to his wife and this photograph shows warmth between the two. It is interesting to note the direction of their gaze as this did comply with common practice. Faraday looks straight ahead which projected a sense of strength and engagement. Women on the other hand usually averted their gaze to suggest modesty.

Another photograph of F H Webb, Secretary of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, taken c1890 shows a pose with a child. Nothing is known about this photograph but it can be surmised that the child has a close relationship with Webb given the visibly affectionate composition.

This is just a snapshot of the many different types and subjects of photographs we hold in the IET Archives. For more information please see our online catalogue.

If this has sparked an interest in photography why not check out the Newcastle Photography Festival "A celebration of photography inspired by Joseph Swan and his adventures with carbon, collodion and light". It runs from 20-26 October 2014 and more information can be found by visiting:

Edited: 18 August 2014 at 03:10 PM by Asha Gage


    Posted By: Asha Gage @ 14 August 2014 03:09 PM     Archives  

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