Pat here, still deep in Victorian research. I’ve had a character pop up who claims to be a photographer, and I had a bit of panic because the book is set in 1871. How much photography could my Victorian lady do in those early stages of cameras? Kodak hadn’t even come along yet!
Even after digging through research files, I can’t claim to understand the entire process of what early photographers went through to fix pictures onto paper, but photography was a booming business by 1870. Much of the history involved finding the right combination of chemicals in the photographic paper and in the developing process. I was interested in killing off a character with cyanide or mercury because these chemicals were used in early photos, but by 1870, the profession had moved on to less deadly chemicals. But aha! Cyanide continued to be used for architectural blueprints, even if daguerreotypes and their mercury backing were going out of style. That doesn’t help my Victorian lady though.
Apparently the first major breakthrough in photography happened in 1838, when a Frenchman, Daguerre, developed a silver-iodide-coated plate that he used in a camera obscura (a device that has been used for centuries.) I have absolutely no understanding of the process by which he
developed the image produced using mercury (aha, see!) but it only took thirty minutes, and the image could then be fixed with salty sea water.
I can hardly turn around in Victorian scientific research without running across John Herschel, an English mathematician, astronomer, chemist inventor, experimental photographer, and in his spare time, botanist. He’s the one responsible for discovering a way to fix images by dipping them in a sodium hyposulfite bath, a method still used today as the main component of photographic fix-baths. He also developed the cyanotype (cyanide!) process for blueprints and came up with the name of photography. If I made Herschel the hero of one of my books, readers would call him an impossibly unbelievable character.
Anyway, once photographers had the development process, they started experimenting with the size of lenses. By the time of my story, cameras were taking pretty clear black and white images that could be developed on the spot. The Industrial Revolution had produced a substantial middle class that couldn’t afford the family oil paintings that aristocrats had in a prior generation, even had there been enough artists to paint them all. But by George, they could have their photographs taken!
And lest you think this was an idle pastime of wealthy Englishmen—there were photographers in India (This is the Victorian era, remember—the English controlled a lot of countries) doing portraits as well. The part that fascinated me is that because of India’s religious laws preventing their women from appearing bare-faced in front of men—women had set up photography shops in the 1860s! I’m pretty sure this would have been seriously frowned upon in Victorian England. In fact, I went through a list of photographers in Edinburgh and couldn’t find a single female name—although I can pretend one of the initials hid my heroine.
So, yes, I think I may have a magical photographer heroine in the future!
Can you remember your first camera? Have you preserved those old photos?