Capturing the Light by Roger Watson & Helen Rappaport - review by Gillian Tindall

Gillian Tindall

Decent Exposures

Capturing the Light


Macmillan 295pp £20

A spoon on a plate in a laboratory leaves a shadow of itself. The fleeting image of a leaf is chemically preserved. A man stands still, leg bent as his shoe is polished, on one of the outer boulevards of Paris, and so becomes the first tiny figure ever caught on camera. These three events, all happening within a short space of time in the 1830s, are famous in the history of photography, well documented and reproduced, along with many other marvels, in books that are frequently too large, heavy and beautiful in themselves for comfortable reading. Capturing the Light aims to tell the story of mankind’s attempts to capture shadows, reflections and imprints in manageable form, through stories of the main protagonists in the drama.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man – but it is usually several different men in different places, often unaware of each other’s experiments, who simultaneously develop scientific concepts and technologies. With photography, who really got there first? (The true inventors of the steam engine, the electric light bulb and indeed cinema are similarly disputed.) Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport, the authors of this book, do not commit themselves to whether the father of photography was the Frenchman Louis Daguerre, the artist and showman whose name became firmly attached to the earliest successful pictures, or William Fox Talbot, who was a gentlemanly scientist and less enterprising. This even-handedness is much to the authors’ credit, since Watson is the curator of the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock Abbey and Talbot’s capture of the shape of a Gothic window there in 1835 is championed by many as the true ‘first photograph’.

Capturing the Light also gives fair space to the poignant figure of the oddly named Nicéphore Niépce, who really does appear to have created something approaching a photograph, possibly as early as 1826, an image missing for half of the 20th century and which finally resurfaced in an abandoned trunk. Daguerre made contact with Niépce, who, after some hesitation, joined forces with him but then died of a stroke just as their pooled experience seemed to be getting somewhere. However, the authors do not seem to have heard of a still more elusive Frenchman, Hercule Florence, who emigrated in the 1820s to Brazil, where he produced lasting camera obscura images that were not rediscovered until the 1970s.

The centuries-old device of the camera obscura lies at the heart of the search to make images created by light remain permanently. The authors respectfully mention the earliest attempts to combine the camera obscura and chemical intervention, with reference to Joseph Priestley and Humphrey Davy, two of Erasmus Darwin’s Lunar Men. Tom Wedgwood, son of another ‘Lunartick’, who, like Niépce, died before he could see his experiments with silver nitrate evolve, also figures. But one has to say that it was really Daguerre, in the 1820s and 1830s, who provided the essential link between the camera obscura and the photograph. He made his money from the former. He was a successful artist and theatrical scene painter, with an already acclaimed talent for lighting effects, when he got together with another artist, Charles Bouton, to present scenes in a specially constructed Diorama, the first in Paris.

The basic difference between Daguerre and Talbot is that the former produced one-off glass plates that were miniature artworks in themselves, whereas the latter pioneered the paper negatives that became the basis for all subsequent photographic reproduction. There was no shortage of terms applied to the earliest pictures – shadowgrams, heliographs, daguerreotypes, calotypes, talbotypes, and later albumen prints and wet collodions. All are described in this book, and also the uneasy situation regarding patents and the ensuing wrangles and accusations in the decades before it was recognised that the photographic movement was too large and epoch-changing to be possessed by any individual. However, something of a problem arises here, partly stemming, I think, from two authors with very different approaches. Lucid and detailed as the technical information is, that story is available in more specialised accounts. The strength of this book should lie in its presentation of the people involved and, beyond that, in the social effects of the photographic revolution, especially in the context of other developments taking place at the same time. On this score, Capturing the Light is uneven.

Watson and Rappaport admit their task is not helped by the fact that there is not much direct documentation of Daguerre’s life, whereas Talbot left behind him an extraordinarily complete archive. As a schoolboy Talbot was already asking his mother to preserve his letters, which she did. She also became a one-woman PR system to promote her studious and retiring son. In contrast, we have little of Daguerre’s writings except handfuls of crumpled notes saved from the fire that eventually consumed the Diorama. I realise that this makes the biographer’s task difficult, but that is all the more reason to get the setting of his life right. The book is good on the peepshows Daguerre probably saw in childhood, but otherwise the historical and geographical contexts seem under-researched. We are told that the Third Estate consisted of ‘ruthlessly exploited peasantry’; the rise of Napoleon is located some ten years too late; the Paris of the era is described as being full of wooden houses when most of it was stone; there is reference to ‘bohemian artistic circles’, a concept that only became current a generation later. With a similar disregard for period, the district where the Diorama was built is categorised as a ‘little shabby and downmarket’: in fact, it was in the process of being constructed and was still semi-rural.

The broader social history is also patchy. There are excellent sections on the Great Exhibition and on the popularisation of the family photograph by Victoria and Albert, the first visible celebrities: these are subjects on which Rappaport has written before. There are 34 small but well-chosen illustrations. But the book is surprisingly thin in its perceptions of the extraordinary growth and change that took place during the Victorian era. The arrival of the photograph exactly coincides with that of the train, yet railways are barely mentioned. Once photographic portraits had, around 1850, come within the range of the ordinary citizen, some good stories are told, especially one about a lady failing to realise that, for the camera to record her, she must actually remain sitting. But the wonderfully revealing interview by Mayhew with a photographer who managed to pass off any spare portrait to customers who had never really seen themselves before is omitted. Photography revolutionised people’s conceptions of life and their own place in it, just as surely as the coming of mechanised travel did. It would be almost impossible for a book such as this to spread its net too wide.

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