Botanist and mathematician Henry Fox Talbot produced his first successful photographic images in 1834, without a camera, by placing objects onto paper brushed with light-sensitive silver chloride, which he then exposed to sunlight. By 1840, Talbot had succeeded in producing photogenic drawings in a camera, with short exposures yielding an invisible or ‘latent’ image that could be developed to produce a usable negative. This made his process a practical tool for subjects such as portraiture and was patented as the ‘calotype’ in 1841. Talbot’s negative-positive process formed the basis of almost all photography on paper up to the digital age. His work was certainly not a solo effort. Major inventions rarely are.
Nicolaas Henneman was born in Heemskerk in the Netherlands on 8 November 1813. Having worked in Paris for a while, he arrived in England around 1835. He was employed as valet to Fox Talbot at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, where he assisted the photographer in preparations and printing, and he took many photographs himself. He accompanied Talbot on expeditions around Britain, and in 1843 the pair ventured into France, securing important photographs later published in The Pencil of Nature (1844/6: the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs).
Later that year, Henneman left Talbot’s employ to set up the world’s first dedicated photographic printing works at no. 8 Russell Terrace in Reading. Unable to sustain that operation he moved to London in 1847, this time in a business largely owned by Talbot, but called Nicolaas Henneman’s ‘Sun Picture Rooms’ at no. 122 Regent Street. In 1848 he was joined by the young chemist Thomas Augustine Malone, and by the next year Henneman & Malone were billing themselves as ‘Photographers to the Queen’. While Henneman taught many successful photographers, he never achieved true artistry himself. In the increasingly competitive world of the 1850s he lost out. By 1859 financial difficulties forced him to shut down his business.
His lasting claim to fame is his involvement in the publication of the first photographically illustrated book on art. To the three volumes of text of William Stirling’s Annals of the Artists of Spain (1848) was added a limited edition volume of sixty-six photographic illustrations. These were the first photographs ever published of Spanish paintings, drawings, sculpture and prints, by artists including El Greco, Velázquez, Murillo, Zurbarán, Ribera and Goya, in addition to examples of architectural designs and book illustrations. The photographs were taken by Henneman who used the Calotype process invented by Talbot. The book has become extremely rare. Only fifty copies of the Annals were produced, and their deterioration, due to daylight, chemicals and other factors, began immediately.
Henneman was not the only immigrant from Northern Europe who made an impact on the history of the photography book in Britain. Oscar Gustaf Rejlander was born in 1813 in Sweden, but nothing is known about his early life. He apparently studied art in Rome in the 1830s and supported himself there by working as a portrait painter and copyist of old masters. He was in England by 1841.
In 1845 he had settled at no. 42 Darlington Street, Wolverhampton, where he opened a painter’s studio. He took up photography in 1853 and two years later began to exhibit his photographic compositions consisting of portraits, landscapes, nudes, anatomical studies, and subject pictures. His genre photographs earned him the reputation as one of Britain’s leading photographers. His ‘Night in Town’ (also known as ‘Homeless’), depicting a child in rags huddled on a doorstep, was used by the Shaftesbury Society for over a hundred years to highlight the plight of homeless children.
In the spring of 1862 Rejlander moved to London and settled in Malden Road, Chalk Farm. On the relationship between photography and painting, he insisted that artists had as much to learn from photography about observation and draughtsmanship as photographers had to learn from painting about composition and expression. Contemporary critics described him as ‘the father of art photography’. As a portraitist Rejlander photographed several illustrious sitters, including Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Henry Taylor, Charles Darwin, Gustave Doré, and Prince Albert.
In 1868 he opened a richly furnished studio opposite Victoria Station. It was soon after this move that Charles Darwin entered his shop and asked for his cooperation. Rejlander was commissioned to supply Darwin with nine illustrations depicting people in various emotional states for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).
The photograph illustrating ‘mental distress’, that of an agitated infant boy dubbed ‘Ginx’s Baby’ by critics, became a best-seller after Rejlander also created versions on cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards. The title for the photograph was taken from a popular satirical novel about an orphaned boy by radical Victorian author John Edward Jenkins. The striking image of this helpless working class child soon became part and parcel of the Victorian social and political debate on poverty, charity and social justice. Photography took on a new relevance. It suddenly dawned upon critics and observers that certain photographic images have the power to influence public opinion and determine or change its course. A single shot can strike deeper than a million words.