Romanticism, Realism and the Invention of Photography

If (as some writers have suggested) there are three sources for the invention of photography (optics, chemistry, and poetry), then optics appears to be a good place to start since it probably provided the first motive through the chance discovery of the effect of light passing through a small hole in a darkened room and producing a reversed image on a white piece of paper.

Optics: the use of mirrors, prisms or lenses to aid vision; the early optical inventions included the camera obscura (basically a box with a pin-hole) and the camera lucida (a prism on a stick)

The camera obscura becomes smaller and portable, and mirrors are added, making it possible to produce an image which is not reversed and thus, easier to trace.  The camera lucida was more portable than the camera obscura.  To work effectively, it required strong lighting conditions; as a result, dramatic contrasts of light tend to characterize paintings done with the use of a camera lucida.  We should note that these early predecessors of the camera and photography came into existence by chance, in some cases, and were often motivated by some people's desire to be able to draw without really knowing how.

Early experiments with chemistry and light share the characteristics of placing an object on a chemically treated piece of paper and exposing it to sunlight.  The resulting image is a negative image (solids appear as white rather than dark or black shapes).  These processes did not involve the use of a camera.  The cyanotype and photogenic drawing process are very similar, differing primarily in the chemicals used to produce the negative image and in the case of the photogenic drawing, to fix it after the image has been made.

Anna Atkins: Halymenia furcellata (from British Algae, Cyanotype Impressions, ca 1844) William Henry Fox Talbot: Leaf (photogenic drawing--salt print from paper negative)

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1799-1851): Daguerre was a scenic designer who wanted to find a technique which would help him with the accuracy and time required to produce the large diorama paintings he specialized in.  He already used the camera obscura for this purpose.  The daguerreotype is a stable, positive image (in other words, white areas are white and black areas are black, unlike a negative where these are reversed), made on a polished silver-plated sheet of copper placed in iodine particles which is chemically treated and exposed to light.  The final product was relatively resistant to light.

Daguerre: Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838 (daguerreotype) Gustave Oehme: Three Young Girls, 1845 (daguerreotype)

The earliest and most popular use of the daguerreotype was for portraits.  It was definitely a challenge for the person being photographed: the daguerreotype process, because it involved an exposure time of approximately 15 minutes, meant that the person had to remain motionless for that long.  The results, however, on a shiny metal plate and small enough to hold in your hand, were undoubtedly worth the wait.  Looking at them today is an almost magical experience since they can't be seen in too much direct light (it will create reflections on the surface), but the necessary low lighting conditions make viewing a slow and deliberate activity on the part of the person who is looking at it.  Once you find the right position and the right light, the image appears.

William Henry Fox Talbot invented the calotype at almost the same time as Daguerre's invention, but received less notice and acclaim. His invention, however, had more significant implications for the development of photography because unlike the daguerreotype, the calotype process produces a negative which can then be printed as a positive.

W.H. Fox Talbot: Open Door, 1843 (calotype)
David Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson: The Misses Binny and Miss Munro, 1845 (calotype) Anatole Francois Claudet: The Geography Lesson, 1850 (dag.)

Since it took slightly less time to make a calotype, it could capture greater spontaneity and allowed the photographer greater flexibility in taking the picture--some of the steps could be prepared ahead and the actual processing did not coincide with the moment of making the picture.
Because it was made on paper, the calotype could reflect a greater range of tonal variations.  Some people appreciated this quality; others criticized the calotype for not being as sharp in its appearance as a daguerreotype.

The next critical change in the emerging system of photography involved the use of glass plates for the negative and new forms of treated papers for the positive image.  These changes increased the flexibility of the photographer although it was still not a highly portable process since the glass plate had to be processed immediately.  This meant that the photographer had to carry his "darkroom" with him, an obvious disadvantage for the photographer who was interested in landscape scenes, urban scenes, and war.  In contrast, the new techniques did allow the photographer, amateur or professional, to create scenes of fantasy and imagination.  In the work of both Lewis Carroll and Julia Cameron, we might ask whether it is the artist who is dreaming in pictures or the subject of the photograph--an ambiguity which we can relate to the influence of romanticism, and one which makes the images more seductive and appealing.

Lewis Carroll: Alice Liddell as the 'Beggar Maid' (albumen-silver print from glass negative, ca 1859 Carroll: untitled (Margaret Langton Clarke Reclining on Side in Chair, c. 1866)

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)

Cameron, an example of an amateur who was not afraid to take risks with the photograph, saw herself as an artist who makes photographs.
Two dominant themes underlay her work: an attempt to capture the inner person along with the visible external qualities; the moralistic and narrativising images inspired by the pre-Raphaelites (a British form of romanticism and early symbolism) and the poets and philosophers who were part of her circle.  These areas overlap in many of her photographs, especially those of children and women who rarely seem to be just themselves, in large part because her artistic credo was based on the belief that beauty and spirituality were part of the same transcendentalist vision.
an example of a pre-Raphaelite painting
John Everett Millais: The Death of Ophelia, 1852

The innovative qualities associated with her work-- the soft-focus and the large scale combined with a close-up of the faceľare qualities which seem inherent to her vision.  Although critics greatly admire these qualities today, in the 19th century, they were qualities which were considered careless or defiant of good photographic technique probably because they did evoke Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, 1863 Cameron: Ophelia, Study No. 2, 1867