Becoming Photography: The American Development of a Medium

Michelle Smiley is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. She is a 2016-2017 Consortium Dissertation Fellow. 


When, where, and through whom was photography invented? During my year as a Dissertation Fellow at the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Philadelphia I have endeavored to answer some of these questions while confounding their very premises. My dissertation, “Becoming Photography: The American Development of a Medium,” considers the scientific and technological development of photography in the United States from its origins to the present, charting how advancements like the shortening of exposure times and the creation of faster lenses revolutionized the very notion of what a photograph is. My decision to write an invention narrative that begins in the United States expands the typical geographic borders of the accepted origin story for photography. Many historians of the medium trace its beginnings to early-nineteenth-century Europe with the work of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) in France and their invention of the daguerreotype, as well as to William Henry Fox Talbot’s (1800-1877) salted paper process developed in England. By contrast, my research has shown that it was in the United States where artisans and scientists carried out key mechanical and chemical developments that ultimately shaped the medium into a commercially viable art. 

Photography has long been considered both an art and a science, but historians have yet to fully utilize the field of science and technology studies in order to write the history of the medium’s invention. Instead, many of the earliest histories of photography favored an art historical narrative—one that worked to legitimate the medium as a fine art at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—privileging the pictorial capacities of the medium over its technological and material qualities. Perhaps for this reason the United States has yet to be examined as a site of photographic origin. During my year as a Dissertation Fellow, the collaborative community of scholars at the Consortium helped me to bring the methodologies of the histories of science and technology to my study of early photographic experimentation, crucial to illustrate a more accurate and complete narrative of the medium’s invention and subsequent development. In my dissertation, I meld my commitment to the study of visual culture with the concerns and methods of the history of science in order to write a history of photographic practice as opposed to a history of photographs.
My dissertation begins by making an argument for the United States as an alternative site of origin for photography. Whereas some historians have shown that Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) may have been conducting experiments to fix the fleeting shadows in the camera obscura as early as 1810, little attention has been paid to the chemists conducting research without the aim of fixing a permanent image. Chemists like Robert Hare (1781-1858) at the University of Pennsylvania and John William Draper (1811-1882), first at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and later at New York University, conducted crucial research into the nature of the imponderables—light, heat, and electricity—that laid the groundwork for rapid photographic development after news of the invention reached America in the fall of 1839. Through the generous funding of the Consortium, I was able to visit the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library as well as the archives of the National Museum of American History to explore the writings and experiments of Hare and Draper. Draper’s notebooks contain swatches of test papers, demonstrating the sensitivity of various materials to light, illustrating his interest in process over product. In addition, the Robert Hare Papers at the American Philosophical Society contain copious correspondence and notes by the chemist describing spectacular chemical demonstrations that produced plumes of smoke and blinding sparks, further expanding the realm of photographic imagery to include ephemeral visual displays seen in the laboratory. 
In October 1839, following Daguerre’s disclosure of his process to the press, the Philadelphia mechanic Joseph Saxton (1799-1873), best known for his invention of the standard set of weights and balances for the U.S. Mint, took what is now the earliest-surviving American photograph. While at the Smithsonian, I was also able to examine Saxton’s notebooks housed at the Institutional Archives. The Consortium’s location just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Mint where Saxton’s photograph was taken made it the perfect site from which to conduct research on the mechanical arts in Philadelphia and their role in photographic development. Mere weeks after Saxton’s success, Paul Beck Goddard (1811-1866), a former student of Robert Hare, discovered the use of bromide as a chemical accelerator in the daguerreotype process, making possible the production of photographic portraits. In collaboration with local metallurgist Robert Cornelius (1809-1893), these Philadelphia artisans opened the world’s first commercial photographic studio in the winter of 1840. These events illustrate how skilled artisans and scientists reinvented the nascent medium, transforming it from a slow, developmental image, into a tool for commercial portraiture. Many member institutions of the Consortium including the Franklin Institute, the American Philosophical Society, as well as the University of Pennsylvania, house some of the earliest daguerreotypes made by these practitioners, as well as the equipment they used to do so. 
My insistence on a narrative for the history of photography that privileges collaborative networks over solitary inventors was reflected in my experience as a Dissertation Fellow at the Consortium. The weekly meetings of brown bag lunches and monthly working groups provided an open, interdisciplinary atmosphere crucial to the development of my research. The many archivists at the University of Pennsylvania’s special collections, the Dibner Library, the American Philosophical Society, and the Franklin Institute have also played a crucial role to the formation of this project, guiding me through dusty papers and boxes of uncatalogued materials. I am extremely grateful to the Consortium’s support of my research, as well as to its vibrant community that continues to inform and reinvent this project.
Michelle Smiley