What the Victorians Did for Photographers

What the Victorians Did for Photographers

The Victorians ushered in an era of dramatic change, principally in the application of science, but being able to do this (literally) on an industrial scale. The impact upon society was tumultuous - throw science, invention, industrial processes, and money into the mix and the way countries developed forever changed, forming the basis for the world we live in today.

The discovery of photography just pre-dates the Victorians (Niépce’s famous View from the Window at Le Gras in 1826), although it was his early collaboration with Louis Daguerre that led to the world-changing announcement of the daguerreotype in 1839. Both the daguerreotype and Talbot's calotype were commercially exploited during the 1840s, although these early photos now appear rudimentary when compared to modern film and digital images. However the ability of these early pioneers never ceases to amaze me - they constantly pushed the limits of possibility. I wanted to highlight how two of these continue to have a profound impact.

3D Images

The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in 3D - most will have experienced this at the movies through the use of polarized glasses, although those who have been around a little longer might remember using filtered red/blue glasses to view a shark jumping out of the page at them in their favorite kid's magazine! But this isn't new "technology" - Sir Charles Wheatstone first understood, and demonstrated, binocular vision back in 1833 with his stereoscope and hand-sketched images. The Victorians were a society who relished in seeing the latest 3D images!

The pencil drawings Wheatstone used were time-consuming and, well, were drawings! Photography was the obvious companion for stereoscopy and, when combined, created a genre that was avidly consumed by the general public. Photographers experimented taking stereo images throughout the 1840s, but it was the 1851 Great Exhibition that thrust 3D onto an all-too-willing international audience. Brian May's (yes, that Brian May!) sumptuously illustrated photobook is A Village Lost and Found a prime example, showcasing T.R. Williams' wonderful stereophotos of, what was at the time, an anonymous village. May identifies the village as Hinton Waldrist in Oxfordshire, UK, rephotographs the same scenes and includes a stereoscope (designed by him). Viewing Williams' and May's photos is as exciting now as it must have been over 100 years ago and just shows how magical stereo vision is - it's a window on "a world that was" and we view it as if we were actually there.

Aerial Photography

The second example and, at the time, an unrelated technology, was aerial photography. Whilst we might think of taking images from "off the ground" as being part-and-parcel of photography from an aircraft (something that saw rapid technological development during the First World War), there have actually been a whole host of interesting methods for lofting cameras off the ground. The very first aerial photo? That was taken by Nadar in 1858 and whilst this hasn’t survived, James Black’s 1860 photo of Boston has. With the explosion of drones in the public consciousness and proliferation of images they acquire, it now looks a little passé, however, pause for a moment to consider what was involved. Photography in the 1850s was dominated by the collodion wet-plate process that captured a high-quality negative on a glass plate. The plate had to be prepared at the time you were photographing and was light sensitive only whilst it was wet - it then needed to be developed straight after exposure. For Black, that meant a full darkroom was contained in his tethered balloon that was swaying 365m above the Boston streets! Photography was not only about the science and art of image capture, but about taking high risks as well!

The most successful alternative to balloons has been kites - the first successful known photo was in 1888 by Batut over Labruguiere, France. However it is George Lawrence’s photos of San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire that are astonishing - these genuinely take your breath away as photos, but the technology used to create them is just as remarkable. Lawrence used up to 17 large kites to lift a hefty 22kg panoramic camera with a 19" focal length and 20x48" plate. This was serious kite flying!

Where Next?

The Victorian's pioneered product development, that went hand in hand with the scientific method. It was a market open to all and funded by the limited liability "company." These were remarkable times and led to remarkable changes for the populations that lived during them. Whilst these inventions may seem distant now, stereoscopy remains a key component in movie production, something that movie-goers are all too familiar with. Aerial photography has used images in map production but also combined it with stereoscopy to enable the extraction of 3D features from the landscape. Kite photography is the direct ancestor of drones and everything that photographers originally learned about near-Earth imaging is now being re-learned by a new generation. The truly exciting area is the combination of drone imagery with stereoscopy... but that's for another post!

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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It's really cool how they managed to do that so early! Ingenious humans.

For reference, here is James Black's 1860 photo of "Boston as the eagle and wild goose sees it": https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283189

According to the Discovery Channel and it's corporate sister, The History Channel, this was alien technology provided by a species from outer space that seems to be responsible for all humankind's advancements. ;)