The Historical Spectator.

The Future of Photography,
Seen from 1850

In January of 1850 or 1851 (by a printer’s error, both dates appear), a maga­zine with the ambitious title The Photo­graphic Art-Journal was launched, featuring a frontis­piece engraving (there was no good way to repro­duce a photo­graph directly) of the already-famous Mathew Brady. In the intro­ductory essay, the editor, H. H. Snelling, laments that pho­tography has been purely mechanical for most prac­titioners, but he pre­dicts that the future will bring a mature under­standing of pho­tography as art.

Even as the art of engraving and sculp­ture has improved under the criti­cisms of the press, so must that of Pho­tography.—At the present day it is viewed, too much, in the light of a mere mechan­ical occupa­tion to arrive at any high degree of excel­lence. In too many instances men enter into it because they can get nothing else to do; without the least appre­cia­tion of its merits as an art of exquisite refinement, without the taste to guide them, and without the love and ambition to study more than its practical application, neglecting the sciences intimately con­nected with it, and leaving entirely out of the question those of drawing, painting, and sculpture, sister arts, a knowledge of which must tend to elevate the taste and direct the operator into the more classical and elegant walks of his profession.

Daguerre­otyping is compara­tively rude to what it will be a few years hence. The pictures now produced stand in relation to those that will be executed within a quarter of a century, very little better than the ancient Egyptian paintings compared with the beautiful works of the present day, or the early copper engravings of Germany with the exquisite steel produc­tions of our own times. We look forward to a period not far distant, when our best Daguerre­otypists will wonder how they could, for so long a time, be content with the specimens of their art they now put forth, as much as they do at this day at the shadows of six and eight years ago.

But a far different feeling must exist among them than that entertained to be produc­tive of the result we predict. In all our intercourse with Daguerre­otypists we have found but two who are enthusi­astic lovers of the art; and the greatest ambition we detect is a desire to produce a good picture so far as the present process will permit—very few, if any, experi­ments are made to improve the whole system. We have never yet seen a perfect picture, and the fault lies with all the various manipu­la­tions in a more or less degree. These are to be corrected only by the most careful and intense study, more than the art has ever yet received from an Ameri­can operator. We think one fact will illustrate the cor­rect­ness of our asser­tion. We know of one of our best artists who fre­quently gets into diffi­culty from the imper­fect working of his material and is quite incapable of discov­ering the cause, and yet he pro­fesses to despise what he calls—and what is par­tially—the theory of the art; quite ignorant, probably, of the fact that it is to theo­ret­ical analysis and deduction he is indebted for his art. Had Daguerre and Niepce been ignorant of the sciences of Chemistry and Philos­ophy, they never would have discov­ered pho­tography; and as yet none can assert that the latter is per­fect, it must be conceded that a more intimate inves­tiga­tion of chemistry and philosophy in connec­tion with pho­tography will lead to new dis­coveries of the most surprising results.

The philos­ophers of Europe are daily toiling in search of the still hidden principles of the art, and every year brings forth from their labora­tories some new appli­ca­tion. But why should we wait for new develop­ments to be wafted to us across the Atlantic, when we have from our exten­sive practical knowl­edge of the business so many advan­tages for noticing its various phases, developing and applying them, and success­fully experimenting.

Since the time of Professors Morse and Diaper’s experi­ments, what new discoveries—apart from various “Quick stuffs”— have been made by our ten thousand Daguerre­otypists? None; at least none have come to light. If any have been made, we must depre­cate the selfish­ness which induces the miserly hoarding of such discov­eries. It is a great mistake to suppose that individual benefit can result from such a course; it is only by free communi­cation and inter­change that permanent advantage can be derived from them. Many may be drawn to an operator’s room by the announce­ment of a new discovery, but many more will think and judge for them­selves, and consider it a mere catch-penny affair, unless they are assured of its adoption by others. Thus we have heard numbers reason, and in this age of so much decep­tion it is quite plausible.

Photography must assume a higher sphere and main­tain it. It is a noble science, and as such it must be regarded and preserved. If personal con­sidera­tions do not now make men sensible of this, they soon will exist, for we feel assured, from the eager­ness with which our “History and practice of the art of Pho­tography” has been sought after within the last few months, that the minds of Daguerre­otypists are awakening to the importance of knowing something more than the mere mechanical portion of their art.

From The Photographic Art-Journal, January, 1850 or 1851.