Simon zooms in on photography history

Rotarian Simon Foley, who gave a talk on the birth of photography.
Rotarian Simon Foley, who gave a talk on the birth of photography.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Shortly after the recent photographic contest, retired headteacher Rotarian Simon Foley thought he should educate members about the birth of photography.

A camera is basically a box with a hole in it that gives an upside down image on the back wall. A lens across the hole is used to focus the image.

Photography, which means ‘drawing with light’, is where that image is captured using light sensitive chemicals and made permanent in the form of a photograph.

Some of the earliest attempts to do this were by Thomas Wedgewood, son of the famous potter Josiah. He was able to record silhouettes in 1802 using light on silver chloride, but could not make the images permanent. They could be looked at briefly in low light, but quickly faded.

The first true photo was made by Frenchman Joseph Niepce in 1826 when he fixed an image from a camera obscura. It was a view of a courtyard from an upstairs window on a country estate at Gras in Burgundy, with an eight-hour exposure.

The first candid photograph of a person was in 1838 by Louis Dageurre, who had worked with Niepce.

It was of a busy city street in Paris, the Boulevard du Temple, taken from a rooftop. It was not understood why the traffic and the moving crowds did not show up, only a bootblack and a man having his shoes polished. As the exposure was for several minutes, they were the only people standing still long enough to be caught on the photograph.

He mainly worked as a showman and owned a diorama and a light show in Paris.

Dageurre perfected a process that could be used for taking portraits where the effects of light on chemicals was recorded onto a glass plate and then fixed, but it was only possible to make one copy of each photo.

He came to London, but there was little interest, although his work was quickly recognised and taken up by the French Government, and Paris went wild about ‘Dageurreotypes’.

He was given a pension and the French Government gave the details of the process as a gift to the world.

Five teams of photographers were sent across France between 1840 and 1851 to take pictures of monuments and views.

It was more than 30 years before Britain took a similar interest.

The first photograph in Britain was by Henry Fox Talbot, with a picture in 1839 of a window at Laycock Abbey.

He went on to produce the first negative in 1840, which allowed several prints to be taken of the same photograph.

Glass negatives became available in 1850 and a cheaper ‘collodion’ process was developed by Frederick Scott Archer.

Simon passed around a number of photos of his own family that had been taken in the 1850s.

The collodion process used a wet plate that was useful for portraits, but it had to be developed in around 15 minutes, before it dried out. Plates had to be taken at once to a nearby darkroom.

It was also possible to use a dry plate, but that required a very long exposure and was only suitable for landscapes.

In 1854 Roger Fenton took photographs around the battlefields of the Crimean War, but had to take a darkroom with him on a wagon.

There was great interest in the Press on how it could use photos in newspapers.

Following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace was taken down and rebuilt as a permanent wonder for the public to visit. Philip Henry Delamotte was asked to document in photos the reconstruction of the Crystal Palace between 1852 and 1854.

This was the start of the popularity of stereoscope pictures, where special cameras could take two pictures at the same time from slightly different angles to give a 3D image when looked at through a stereoscope viewer.

A viewer, with photographs, was passed around for everyone to try.

Stereoscopes became very popular in the UK and in the United States of America.

In 1884 George Eastman produced a dry gel that could be used on paper or film, and in 1888 the first Kodak Brownie camera went on sale.

Better equipment and cheaper processes opened up photography to everyone.

Bringing us back to modern times, the greatest and most recent revolution was the first digital image to be produced on a computer in 1957 by Russell Kirsch.

The first digital camera prototype was made in 1975 by Steve Sasson, at Eastman Kodak.

Members thanked Simon for a valuable extension to their knowledge and understanding.

• A Grand Christmas Concert has been arranged by Morpeth Rotary at Morpeth Methodist Church, featuring the internationally famous Ellington Colliery Brass Band.

It will take place on Saturday, December 9, at 7pm, with tickets at £7.50, free for under 16s with an adult. Coffee, tea and biscuits are included.

Sing-along pieces and old favourites will be featured.

By popular request, members of the Ellington Colliery Brass Roots youth band will lead some of the numbers.

Money raised will go to the Mercy Ships charity, which operates the largest non-government hospital ship in the world.

Tickets are available in advance from any Rotary member, Morpeth Methodist Church or Mackay’s shop at the old Morpeth Herald Office in Bridge Street. They are also being sold on the door on the evening of the concert.