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The dramatic dawn of architectural photography

Photography, as we know it, virtually generated by ‘spontaneous combustion’ in France and England, four decades before the founding of the SPAB. By 1877 photography had evolved despite patent battles and it had shed a number of processes on the way, but as John Chillingworth has learned, ancient buildings were often centre stage.

The term "Photography" was first used by Sir John Herschel, an early contributor to the science, in 1839, the year in which the general public first became aware of the photographic process. It derives from the Greek words for light and writing.

From the start, there was an earnest desire on the part of rich Victorian amateurs and professional photographers to record everything from historically important buildings to family portraits, previously the realm of the rich, who employed a portrait painter.

Many of the first photographers emerged from a scientific background, travelling the country with their ‘horse and cart’ mobile laboratories. As they photographed grand houses and ancient monuments, those ‘gentlemen scientists’ discovered their ability to see the world through the artist’s eye, as well as satisfying their scientific curiosity.

At the same time, established artists who had quickly realised the visual potential of the medium found that photography rapidly enabled them to establish new reputations.
In later decades, artists of the calibre of Degas were to use photography as an aide memoir for their brilliantly conceived interpretations of contemporary life and the human form.

However, although the camera obscura, the principle of which was known by thinkers as early as Aristotle in 1,000AD, the earliest record of use of the device was in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), although the unfixable images projected by the device remained an irresolvable challenge to science.

It was more than three hundred years after Leonardo’s death, before scientists, both amateur and professional sought, successfully, to create a method of fixing images by allowing light, transmitted through a camera lens, to leave its mark, first on paper, then on sensitised glass plates or other light sensitive surfaces.

When the breakthrough came, it was of Tsunami-like proportions! As early as the 1820’s experiments showed promise, but failed to lead the way. It was the combined discoveries of two Frenchmen in 1837, which recorded the first real progress. Nicéphore Niepce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had found a way to fix the image, a process which was to be called Daguerretype.

By 1839 an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot, a gentleman scholar of considerable means and social standing, had patented the Calotype negative-positive process, which was effectively the grandparent of photography as we know it today.

Fiercely defending his patented his discoveries, he initially inhibited the growth and exploitation of what has now become an essential element in our every day lives.

A few years later, Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857), sometimes described as "A very inconspicuous gentleman, in poor health, with a somewhat sorrowful look……," came upon the scene. He is honoured, now, as the inventor of the first practical photographic process to be both sharp and easily reproducible, taking photography a giant stride forward.

Although Archer was trained in the Calotype process, because he was a sculptor wishing to record his work, he was not happy with the texture and unevenness of the paper negative.

He experimented with a variety of solutions and surfaces, and in 1849 made a breakthrough when he coated a glass plate with a collodion solution and exposed the plate while it was still wet.

In 1852 he published: A Manual of the Collodion Photographic Process. Images created using the collodion wet plate process were sharp like the daguerreotype, easily reproducible like the Calotype, and enabled photographers to dramatically reduce exposure times.

The process led to a rapid expansion in all areas of photography. The Ambrotype method of image display, by which a positive was created by bleaching the negative and backing it with black paper, was a direct result of Archer’s efforts.

He also made significant contributions in optics and camera design, and patented several of his inventions. Sadly, had Scott Archer patented his Wet Collodion process, he could undoubtedly have made a fortune, but he died in poverty.

For some years attempts were made to discover ways of keeping the collodion moist for long periods. The bizarre elements tried included ones like liquorice, beer and raspberry syrup! It was not until 1871 that the next breakthrough was achieved by Dr Richard Leach Maddox, when he began using gelatine to create a dry plate.

At the same time, physicist and chemist, Sir Joseph Swan had also created a dry photographic plate process that was to accelerate the explosion of worldwide interest in photography when, in 1880, the American George Eastman followed in Swan’s footsteps, perfecting a dry plate process of his own, followed by the introduction of transparent film, which led to the creation of the Eastman Kodak Company.

Remembered for his fixing on paper the now famous image of the window at Laycock Abbey, Fox Talbot’s historic home, by 1843 he had ventured as far as Trafalgar Square, London, with his camera, his chemistry and mobile laboratory.

By that time, however, others had paid him for the honour of using his Calotype process and, with an artist’s rather than a scientist’s eye, they led a headlong rush to create pictures, which would freeze in time the world around them; for some it was out of historical interest, others for profit.

Amongst them was the painter and founding member of the Royal Scottish Academy, David Octavius Hill.

He had turned to photography as a means of artistic expression with the help of young chemist, Robert Adams. They collaborated from 1843 to 1848 and in that time photographed many views of Edinburgh and small Scottish fishing villages.

Sadly, Adams died young, but there were many more scientists and artists who found satisfaction, not only in the creation of images, but in the development of better cameras and optics.
In the grand Victorian amateur tradition, William Donaldson Clark, a trained industrial chemist, also photographed several Edinburgh street scenes in 1860 and Sotherby’s still auction a Clark print for high three-figure sums from time to time.

Another photographic milestone was The Photographic Society, which was set up for "the promotion of the Art and Science of Photography, by the interchange of thought and experience amongst photographers".

The catalyst behind its formation of the Society was Roger Fenton, a solicitor by profession, but he was like many other early amateur photographers from a wealthy background, with the time, money and inclination to follow his own interests. He is best remembered for his coverage of the Crimean War (1853-1856), but he was also a highly regarded architectural photographer, as well as being the official photographer to the British Museum.

The general public had been made aware of photography by the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, where the photography section, displaying Calotypes, Daguerreotypes and a few prints made on Frederick Scott Archer's newly invented wet Collodion negatives on glass, which aroused great interest.

In December 1852, a photography exhibition, held at The Society of Arts, displayed almost 800 photographs, delighting an enthusiastic audience and, at around that time Fox Talbot, the rich dilettante was prevailed upon to relax the patent of his negative/positive process, which became freely available to amateurs.

Those rich amateurs, rapidly followed by the people who were already earning their living by use of the photographic process, soon identified its valuable contribution to contemporary life and to posterity, when images were displayed by a photographic image fixed permanently on to a sheet of sensitised paper.

Many turned first, as did Fox Talbot, to architecture and the preservation of memories of the country’s passing glories, reflected in the castles, historically significant grand houses and occasionally the conditions endured by the proletariat.

Others recognised the commercial opportunities provided by a medium, which eventually swept away envy of portraiture in oils on the walls of the privileged few. Portraits reappeared in the albums and display cabinets of the general public, as soon as scientists found ways to reduce, dramatically, the time that it took to record an image.

It served to intensify the public’s ‘love affair’ with photography and became a lasting obsession for those early photographers. No doubt, those photographers who chose to view the country’s history through the architectural merit and the charm of its buildings made an understandable discovery. Houses do not move!

In his recently published book, ‘Building with light’, Robert Elwall, Photographs Curator at the British Architectural Library at the Royal Institute of British Architects, he features that illustrate, photographically, the architectural trends and key themes, which have developed since the early 1800’s.

Elwell observed, “There was a distinct contrast between early photographs taken in France and Britain. The French images aimed to provide accurate details of a structure from the architectural point of view, while British photographers often approached the subject with a view to placing the building in the context of its environment.”

Interestingly, there were a number of photographers operating commercially by the time of the Great Exhibition and it was a phenomenon reflected in the images reproduced without credits in Elwell’s book.

Early photographers of buildings were largely travellers, some for photography or others on business. Fox Talbot and others would often photograph from their hotel windows and other elevated locations in the countries they visited. Roger Fenton, often referred to as the first war photographer, took many fine architectural studies, both in England and on visits abroad, including one of Moscow at around 1850.

The later travellers like Francis Frith and Samuel Bourne using wet plate cameras, returned home with fine architectural studies from around the world.

The great challenge for them, because long exposures were still needed, was that the subject of their pictures would look different as light and weather changed! It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the images from that era were monumental, giving the subjects an impression of import and grandeur.

Frederick Evans (1854-1943) was one of the last great architectural photographers working in the early tradition. He was also a very fine portraitist, but some of his best work was of the exteriors and interiors of England's great medieval cathedrals.

For his interior views, Evans concentrated on the light projecting down through the often dusty air, illuminating the majestic pillars. Some agree that his most famous architectural study was of the 'sea of steps' leading to the chapter house of Wells Cathedral, a subject since copied by many photographers.

The ‘rich amateur’ tradition served the cause of early photography well, but there is no doubt that it was the magnificent skills employed by the many professional photographic businesses, which evolved subsequent to the invention of photography, were the real ‘powerhouses’ of British architectural photography and that is another story altogether!

© Copyright John Chillingworth