10 useless but exceedingly interesting facts about 19th-century photography

A portrait of Alexandre Dumas by the French photographer Félix Nadar, taken in 1855
A portrait of Alexandre Dumas by the French photographer Félix Nadar, taken in 1855 Credit: Beetles+Huxley

1) The first underwater photograph was made in 1856 by William Thompson. He wanted to assess the damage to bridge piers during floods. He made a picture of the sea floor of Weymouth Bay by lowering a box containing a 5 x 4 plate camera 18 feet, on a rope.

2) Félix Nadar was not only the most sought-after photographer in Paris during his time, but also a pioneering hot air balloonist. During the Siege of Paris (1870-1) he organised balloon flights to take post from the city to the outside world, thus establishing the world’s first airmail service. 

3) Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were major early patrons of photography. They both learned how to produce calotypes and had a darkroom built at Windsor Castle. Prince Albert had a standing order to Henry Peach Robinson for a copy of every photograph he produced.

When the day's work is done, 1877, by Henry Peach Robinson Credit: Beetles+Huxley

4) Founded in London in 1892, the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring was an elite late-19th-century society that aimed to promote fine art photography. The name of the society originated in the gimmel ring, which could be worn by two people with linked hands. Members of the society were known as Links and new Links could only join when the existing Links unanimously approved new members. Known as the ‘High Executioner’, Henry Peach Robinson was the vice-president and arranged the Brotherhood’s annual Photographic Salon in London. Alfred Stieglitz became a Link in 1894.

5) Part of the same wealthy Bohemian set, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson were great friends. Cameron went to visit Tennyson at his home on the Isle of Wight and, on a whim, bought a cottage adjoining his land. When she moved in, Cameron had a gate built between the two houses to allow Tennyson access to her property without encountering autograph hunters.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, then poet laureate, by Julia Margaret Cameron, taken in 1869 Credit: Beetles+Huxley

6) In 1863, The Photographic Times reported a photograph in which a murder victim’s iris seemed to show the outlines of the murderer’s face. Reports of supernatural occurrences appearing in photographs were not uncommon at the time. The glass plates used for photography were expensive, and often plates were wiped clean and reused, so a faint residue image might produce a ghostly image. Many charlatan photographers used double exposures, too. 

7) The first photograph of the moon was taken in 1851, a collaboration between astronomer George Phillips Bond and daguerreotypist John Adams Whipple, using a Great Refractor Telescope. The photographs were shown in the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. 

8) The first Impressionist exhibition, in 1874, was held at the studio of the photographer Nadar, 35 Boulevard des Capucines, Paris. Nadar had recently vacated the premises, and the modern design of the cutting-edge studio suited the avant-garde artists to a tee.

The Reichenbach Falls, Switzerland, circa 1870 Credit: Beetles+Huxley

9) French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne wanted to test the popular idea that the face was directly connected to the soul by photographing the effect of applying electric shocks to damaged muscles. One of Duchenne’s patients was a shoemaker suffering from Bell’s Palsy. Duchenne subjected the shoemaker to more than 100 sessions; Paul Tournachon, son of Félix Nadar, took photographs. Duchenne’s experiments proved that when a person expresses a genuine smile, particular muscles are used. In physiology, the authentic smile is called the ‘Duchenne smile’.

The French fleet at Cherbourg, 1858, by Gustave Le Gray Credit: Beetles+Huxley

10) The world’s first national campaign to prevent the export of artwork was launched to keep an album of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs. In 1974, the descendants of Sir John Herschel, one of Cameron’s friends and sitters, decided to sell the album of 94 photographs that she had presented to him on 26 November 1864. The album sold at auction in Britain to an American for the record price of £52,000. A campaign to save the album secured donations from more than four thousand institutions, corporations and individuals.

Seizing the Light: photography in the age of invention is at Beetles Huxley gallery until June 18