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A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy

May 8, 2015

This is the first in a series of historical vignettes about the intersections between photography and philanthropy. From time to time I'll explore both well-known and lesser-known stories that highlight the importance of these connections.

 

Part 1: It All Started When It Started

 

“Blessed be the inventor of photography!
I set him above even the inventor of cholorform!”

~Jane Welsh Carlyle, writing in 1859

 

The invention of photography is filled with intriguing sidebars. The three men who contributed the most to what we now call photography were Frenchmen Nicéphore Niépce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot in England. Niépce is recognized as having created the oldest surviving permanent photograph in 1826, but the process he created required an exposure of several hours in order to record a single image. Unable to improve upon his process, Niépce entered into a partnership with Daguerre, who had made important discoveries on his own.  Unfortunately, Niépce died before any significant advances were made, and Daguerre moved ahead by combining some of the work Niépce had done with that of his own.

 

Fox Talbot, working separately in England, had created a stable image in 1835, but he inexplicably failed to let anyone know about his invention. Four years later he succeeded in devising a key improvement in his process ‒ an effective chemical stabilizer that assured prints would not fade or discolor. Unbeknownst to Fox Talbot, Daguerre made a similar discovery at the same time (or perhaps he learned about Fox Talbot's improvement through a mutual friend).

 

Regardless, on January 7, 1839 Daguerre was the first person to make a public announcement about a permanent photographic process. He is still acclaimed as the inventor of the first viable permanent photographic process, and his eponymous Daguerreotypes became the most widely-used method in photography for the next twenty years.

 

Daguerre was also well-known figure in France due to his previous creation and popularization of the Diorama, an artistic and theatrical experience that for several years was a "must-see" experience in France. His prominence gave him access to high officials, and when he announced his new invention he immediately sought to have the French government acquire it for the significant sum of 200,000 Francs (about US $1 million in 2015). The government balked at the steep price but the politicians recognized that this new invention had enormous ramifications, not the least of which was a giant boost in national pride for the country claiming to be the birthplace of this miracle process.

 

After some intense negotiations, the government finally agreed to give Daguerre "une juste récompense" – 6,000 Francs (about US $30,000 in 2015 currency) annually for life, and, at Daguerre's urging, an additional 4,000 Francs (about US $20,000) annually to the estate of Niépce. Technically, Daguerre's payment was called a pension, but since he hadn't been employed by the government they were under no obligation to provide him with a pension. At the same time, Daguerre insisted that his invention be available freely to the world, unconstrained by any patents. In order to accommodate Daguerre's wishes but to assure that France would lay claim to being the birthplace of photography, the gift of the pension was approved by Parliament.

 

While Daguerre's pension might be viewed as a payment in exchange for the claim to fame rather than a philanthropic gift, the money given to Niépce's estate was different. Niépce had been dead for six years at the time the gift was awarded, and due to a contract that Daguerre and Niépce had previously signed there was no obligation of a direct payment for Niépce's ideas. Daguerre, however, with prodding by Niépce's son Isidore, pushed the leaders in Parliament for the additional funds for Niépce's estate.  In early August 1839 the payments were finally authorized by Parliament, and the bill by signed by King Louis–Philippe on August 7th.

 

I believe the compensation to Niépce's estate may be considered the earliest interesection of philanthropy and photography, and it helped set the course for all future recognition of the importance of photography in our lives. 

 

Tim Greyhavens

May, 2015

 

Read more in the series A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy

 

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