BUSY WITH THE PHOTOGRAPH**
IT may be as well, just now, to “take stock” in respect to our photographic and stereoscopic knowledge: to see how far the photograph and the stereoscope, up to the present time, have been rendered available for useful purposes. The principles involved in the processes and apparatus, with an account of explanatory details, occupied two papers in former volumes.* The present article may be considered in some sense supplementary to those beautiful arts in their artistic applications.
How astonishing that the sun’s light should be made to engrave a steel plate! We know that electricity can do something of this kind, on copper if not on steel; but really it seems even yet more marvellous and beautiful that such deeds can be achieved by the agency of light. Attempts have been made, during many years, to complete the photographic process by engraving the plate impressed with the image; that is, by causing the photographic image to engrave itself, by chemical aid alone, without requiring it to be touched in any way by the hand of artist or engraver. It was a bold thing to hope, but seemingly not too bold; for just about a year ago Mr. Talbot announced that he had actually succeeded in the attempt. To understand the mode of proceeding, it may be necessary to bear in mind that Mr. Talbot gives the name of positive etching to an etching of such a kind that the impressions struck off from it represent the objects positively, or as they are in nature. Well, then; the objects most successfully engraved are said to be such as can be placed in contact with the metallic plate – the leaf of a fern, the light, feathery flowers of a grass, a piece of lace, and so forth. Objects which cast a broad and uniform shadow, such as the opaque leaf of a fern or other plant, produce an etching, which, when printed off, delineates the original in a manner something between an aquatint engraving and an Indian ink drawing. Even a photograph on paper can be made to engrave itself on steel. The minute chemistry of the matter we need say nothing about; but the processes are somewhat as follow: - A salt of potash is dissolved in a solution of isinglass, and is spread over the steel plate; it is dried by artificial warmth; the selected object is laid on the prepared plate, and is pressed down close to it by a piece of plate glass; the sun’s rays are allowed to act through the glass upon the object and upon the steel plate. The part of the steel plate covered by the object is protected from the action of the solar rays, and remains yellow and unaltered; but those portions which are not covered by the object become to some extent chemically acted upon, and assume a brownish hue. The glass and the object being removed, the plate is steeped in water, by which most of the unchanged layer of film or potash and isinglass is washed off, leaving the metallic steel more nearly exposed than in the other parts. Another chemical solution, prepared from platinum, then has the effect of etching the plate in these exposed parts. Mr. Talbot describes the etching as being so complete, that it appears almost as if the shadow of the object had itself corroded the metal. If a veil of black crepe be laid upon the metal plate, every thread of it becomes engraved or etched with wonderful precision and distinctness; and if two thicknesses of the crape are placed upon the metal, obliquely to each other, the resulting engraving offers us confusion, but with the help of a lens the lines belonging to each of the folds can be distinguished from those of the other. The analogous process was discovered by some French photographers; and there can hardly be a doubt that great results will be produced by and by, in the production of engraved copies by these means.
Mighty Sol, portrait painter and artist in general, seems pretty nearly indifferent to the material on which he works, provided it be coated with a certain chemical preparations. Silvered copper, plain paper, waxed paper, glass – all will serve as “panels” or “canvases” for this universal genius. And now he has adopted a new ground-work; he produces his pictures on wood. A process has lately been devised, whereby portraits, landscapes, and other subjects, can be produced on any smooth piece of wood. Once let this art surmount a few practical difficulties, and we may soon see wooden snuff-boxes and hand-screens, and other minor elegancies decorated with portraits, or scenes from nature, or copies from celebrated pictures, by photographic aid. Nay: a suggestion has been thrown out, whether photography might be applied to wood blocks for wood engravers, for certain purposes making the drawings by light instead of by hand.
There is a battle going on between the high-toned artists and the practical men, as to the extent to which photography can justifiably be used in art. The aesthetic advocates view the optical stranger with some distrust, and fear that the power of taking dozens of copies of works of art with very little trouble will disentitle those copies to be designated works of art at all. Some of our eminent men, however – eminent as true artists – declare they are ready to avail themselves of the art of photography, in certain tedious details of their art. A story is told of a noble peeress, whose portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence; both the peeress and the artist became tired and cross during the imitation of a satin dress; the impatience of stillness in the one, and the requirement of stillness insisted on by the other, nearly occasioned a collision of tempers. Now it has been urged that the photograph might render admirable aid to an artist, in hundreds of instances such as this. Mechanical exactness the photograph can realize, beyond the power of the eye or the pencil to imitate; and there is ample reason to believe that, after accepting aid of this kind in mechanical details, there will always be abundant scope left for the genius of the true artist.
The publication of photographic prints has not yet extended far in England; but in Paris copies of celebrated buildings are sold in large numbers and at low prices. From one negative, many positives may be obtained; as the processes become more and more familiar, the price at which such articles may be sold will become lessened. We have had an example of this kind of art in relation to the Great Exhibition. The Commissioners caused to be prepared, for presentation to the foreign courts, and to a few distinguished bodies, magnificent copies of the Illustrated Catalogue, and the Jury Reports, adorned with a large number of photographs relating to exhibited articles; of these photographs there were as many of each taken as there were presentation copies of the whole work; and thus there was a reduplication, or a publication, equivalent to that whereby prints of the ordinary kind are diffused among the nations of the world. The great power of multiplication is one secret of the importance of the more recent photographic processes. Daguerre and Talbot, the two chief discoverers in this beautiful art, differed widely in this respect. Daguerre’s process gives inverted or reverted pictures, without any power of reproduction or multiplication; but in Talbot’s process there is a “negative” produced, whence dozens, or scores, or hundreds of “positives” may be obtained – all cast in the same mould, so to speak.
The power of seeing things when out of sight, as Don Whiskerandos might have said, is given by the aid of photographic pictures. Thus, an English engineer has been constructing, over the Dnieper at Kieff, the most magnificent suspension bridge, perhaps, which the world possesses. The puissant Emperor, far away from Kieff, but impatiently longing to know how the work progressed, caused photographs to be sent to him periodically, showing the exact state of the bridge at a given time. Two thousand miles of distance were thus practically annihilated; the Czar could know all that was going on, without stirring from his palace at St. Petersburg, by comparing the photographs successively forwarded to him. Stages of progress, in numerous works of art and of ingenuity, can thus be easily registered, as it were, for each photograph tells a true tale concerning a particular spot at a particular time.
Let us now go from art to literature, and see how photography speeds there.
A correspondent of Notes and Queries, in the early part of the present year, asks whether photography might not be well employed in making fac-similes of valuable and rare ancient manuscripts? He suggests that if copies of such manuscripts could be multiplied at a moderate price, there are many proprietors of libraries who would be glad to obtain such copies, which, for all purposes of reference, would answer equally well with the original. The editor of the journal in question coincides with this view, and adds, “We have now before us a photographic copy of a folio page of a manuscript of the fourteenth or fifteenth century, on which are inscribed a number of characters; and although the copy is reduced so as to be but about two inches high and one and a half broad, it is perfectly legible, and the whole of the contractions are as distinct as if the original vellum was before us.” There has been an announcement that a catalogue of the National Library (perhaps now the Imperial Library) of Paris is in preparation, in which a photographic fac-simile of the title-page of each work, in miniature, will be registered – one of the most remarkable means of obtaining rigorous accuracy in catalogues that could possibly be conceived. A biblopolist could then tell at a single glance which edition of a celebrated work he would select, by looking at the miniature photographic portrait of its title-page. An Antiquarian Photographic Society has just been started, in which each member is to give all others copies in photograph of any objects interesting to all – a gift too costly by any other mode of engraving or drawing.
In science, too, photography has done strange things. It is one among the many unexpected ties of union in natural agencies and processes, that that very sun which has so much to do with temperature, and atmospheric pressure, and dew, and rain, and terrestrial magnetism, should now be called upon to assist in registering all these phenomena – he achieves the great results of his own natural powers, and he then makes a record of his results at the bidding of man. This is no exaggeration of what has been developed by the ingenuity of Mr. Brooke. Every one will at once see, that to obtain a perfect record of the barometer, the thermometer, the hygrometer, the anemometer, the dipping needle, the declination needle, and other meteorological instruments, so that the whole state of the atmosphere might be compared with that at any other time, it would be requisite that an observer should be stationed at each instrument night and day continually, to note down the frequent and often unexpected changes. It is the purport of Mr. Brooke’s invention to save all this trouble; to make the phenomena register themselves; and moreover to do this more accurately than any observer could accomplish this. A delicate piece of mechanism it is.
If we are ever to know what the Man in the Moon is doing, how he lives, what sort of a house he possesses, what kind of weather he meets with, whether he has any dogs and cats and hares around him, and armies to fight, and steam-engines to work for him, - if we are destined ever to know these things, assuredly the photograph will take a great part in eliciting the information. Even now the photographic portraits of the moon are wonderful achievements. A careful astronomer thought that if, for the nonce, he converted the object-glass of his magnificent telescope into a camera, he might, perhaps, procure a photograph of the moon’s visible surface. A lens, three inches in diameter, catches a hundred and fifty times more light than the pupil of the eye; and one fifteen inches in diameter catches twenty or thirty times as much as the smaller lens; so that the moon, which yields to the naked eye too small a quantity of light to photograph its own image, may yield amply sufficient by aid of a large and powerful lens. This is the secret of what has been effected. The astronomer placed a prepared silver plate in the focus of a large telescope; he directed the telescope towards the moon, and made it follow the moon’s course in its daily arc: he left the moon’s light to do the rest. There was produced as exquisite miniature of the moon, about as large as a crown piece; with the peaks, and ring-shaped elevations, and round and oval patches, and dark and light spots, and serrated shadows, and mountain peaks, separated by cavities and craters; and the more closely this little miniature was examined by a microscope, the more clearly did the minute details of the lunar surface become developed. Other astronomers may have done this also; but the honour is due to an American, Professor Bond, of having been the first to surmount the difficulties of this delicate experiment.
Nay, the photograph itself may be an astronomical discoverer: it may tell us something of asteroids and distant planets which we wot not of. When the astronomers of England and France were busily searching the heavens for the far distant planet, which two bold mathematicians had predicted, one of them actually saw the wished-for stranger, but without knowing what it was a stranger. It has been suggested, that if there had existed photographic maps of the stars, taken at a few evenings apart, there might have been something to show that one of these stars was the remote Neptune. And it is also considered that, as the stars emit different kinds of light, and as different kinds of light affect photographic surfaces differently, we may by and by obtain some new and highly curious information concerning stars and planets and their light. One of the stars in the constellation Lyra has already presented a photographic portrait of itself; and it has been calculated, from the supposed, but almost inexpressible distance of that star, that the light took more than twenty years in traveling from the star to the prepared silver or paper surface. If so, this is perhaps the slowest example of portrait-painting on record. But let us now say a little concerning commerce and manufacturers, in connection with photography.
The commercial world becomes every now and then a little alarmed, and not unreasonably so, at the startling strides made by science: fearful lest the necessary caution observed in trading matters should be occasionally over-dazzled by the brilliancy of modern discoveries. Thus, as photography is copying all sorts of productions, why not copy a Bank of England note? In the autumn of eighteen hundred and fifty-three, there was a little stir in this matter. Certain paragraphs appeared in the London newspapers, stating that fraud had been practiced on the Bank by means of photographic counterfeits of bank-notes. The alarm elicited many suggestions: among which, one was that the notes should be printed on white paper, as usual, but that the paper should be covered with a tasteful design, printed in colours, and so beyond – **
* Vol. vii p.54; vol. viii, p.37.
** The rest of this article is missing from the printed version of the edition held by UMKC Libraries Special Collections.
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