Photography and society in the Victorian Era - based on Jens Jäger's book 'Gesellschaft und Photographie - Formen und Funktionen der Photographie in Deutschland und England 1839-1860'

by Monika Rusek (Author)

Term Paper 2005 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography




I The History of Photography

II Set of Settings in which photography arose

III Development of Photography as a Business

IV Application and Reception of Photography

V Was photography considered to have an artistic function?

VI Conclusion



This essay mainly refers to the society in which photography arose. We shall look at the economic and social situation when photography appeared and how photography was perceived by the Victorians. Also some aspects of the problematic discussion if photography can become an art are considered in this essay. These aspects are concerning only the nineteenth century[1] and what people thought in that time about this topic.

The first chapter tells the history of photography. It doesn’t cover a detailed outline but an overview how photography developed and what advantages each development involved. It begins with the first description of a Camera Obscura and ends with the first public showing of a film in 1885.

The second chapter deals with the initial situation when photography was first publicly announced in 1839. That means that we will come across cultural and scientific institutions and the infrastructure of the means of communication in that time. This is important for an understanding of the context in which the invention of photography took place. And therefore to see the reasons why photography was perceived by the Victorians as it was perceived; and additionally why it developed so fast and powerfully in that century.

The third section is about photography as a business, concerning its economical and technical expansion. It illuminates the fact that photography was on the way to become a mass media but was still too expensive to reach all social strata. Moreover, we will have a look at the middle class which is held responsible for supporting photography the most, being the bearer-class and upholder of photography.

The fourth chapter tries to highlight the functions photography had. It explains which social requirements and conventions photography had to obey to survive. Furthermore, we will pay attention to some reactions that were written down in newspapers and magazines about the new phenomenon. This section, additionally, concentrates on the thesis Jens Jäger had formulated in his book Gesellschaft und Photographie (Opladen 1996), namely that photography’s function was steered and defined by the people’s views and values. It says that photography served for capturing things which were considered to be worth getting a photo of. The question we will look at is: Which objects were considered to be worth to take a photo of and why?

The fifth chapter concerns itself with the artistic status of photography and with its discussions and debates that were led in the Victorian time when photography was classified mainly as a scientific (mechanical and optical) process. In this section I will write, as well, about some photographers who are said to have been artists and to have produced some important artistic works.

The conclusion finally gives a short summary about what has been discussed previously in the chapters, and additionally answers the question what photography was in the nineteenth century.

I The History of Photography

It is surprising that photography was not invented earlier than the 1830s because its principles were known much earlier than 1839, the time when it was finally announced. To be precise, ‘the first description of the principle of the Camera Obscura appeared in the year 1000 by the Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan (also known as Ibn al Haitham). His manuscripts of his observations are to be found in the India Office Library in London’ (Leggat, online: Camera Obscura). The Latin name “Camera Obscura” means “dark chamber”, and its earliest versions, dating to antiquity, (Aristotle also spoke of such a phenomenon in c. 300 BC) consisted of small darkened rooms with light admitted through a tiny hole. The result was that an inverted image of the outside scene was cast on the opposite wall, which was usually whitened. ‘Even the chemical processes had been already observed by Aristotle. He described how parts of a plant not exposed to light remained white, and how other substances which were exposed to light got darker as time went on’ (Koschatzky, p.43). ‘Later on in 1659 the German Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens described a “Laterna Magica”, which was a primitive projection system whereby sunlight reflected off a mirror was projected through a lens on a white wall’ (de Luikerwaal, online). This was an early form of our today known overhead projector which throws an enlarged image of a transparency on a white screen. ‘At that time the “Laterna Magica” was used for artistic purposes, e.g. for painting landscapes truthfully and accurately’ (Koschatzky, p.42).

In 1826 then, Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce succeeded in making the first photograph. He used a pewter plate and bitumen, material that hardened on exposure to light.This way the picture could be fixed for the first time but the difficulty was that the picture required an exposure of eight hours. The improvement came with Louis Daguerre in 1839. This man discovered a way to reduce the exposure time from eight hours down to half an hour, using a copper plate with silver iodide and a solution of common salt to fix the picture. The process delivered sharp and detailed pictures but was competing with the “Calotype” process which was announced almost by the same time (1841) by William Henry Fox Talbot. In this technique a sheet of paper coated with silver chloride was exposed to light in a Camera Obscura. Those areas hit by light became dark in tone, giving a negative image. Compared with Daguerreotypes the quality of the early Calotypes was inferior and the exposure lasted longer but the production was much cheaper and the photo could be copied several times. Then in 1851, a new process named Collodion process was introduced by Frederick Scott Archer. This method was much cheaper and reduced exposure time to two or three seconds and thus was much faster than the other two processes. It also paved the way for the mania of André Disdéri’s carte-de-visite photographs; although the fashion lasted only for a short time (Leggat, online: BEGINNINGS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, The).

“The next major step forward came in 1871, when Dr. Richard Maddox discovered a way of using Gelatin (which had been discovered only a few years before) instead of glass as a basis for the photographic plate” (Leggat, online: BEGINNINGS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, The). That process was called the Dry Plate process and it made the dark room unnecessary. “Dry plates could be employed without any chemical preparation on the spot on the part of the photographer, and they were far more sensitive to light than […] [wet] plates” (Briggs, p.112). Another important phase in the history of photography was the invention of motion pictures. Everything started in 1882, when Étienne-Jules Marey developed the chronophotography which involved a camera with magazine plates that recorded a series of photographs, and which opened the way for the cinematograph. ‘Five years later Eadweard Muybridge photographed a horse in motion to prove that all his feet leave the ground at one time during the gallop. He photographed with 12 stereoscopic cameras and he improved the chemistry and the shutter on the camera to catch the motion’ (Lucassen, online). In the end, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière succeeded in showing the first public film in Paris in 1895. The cinematography was invented.

Theses stages in the history of photography can be considered as the most important ones. Various innovations and a rapid development kept the people’s interest in photography alive. And this technical progress falls into the Victorian Age, the time when industrialization took place and many other movements occurred. Now, we should go on by illustrating the initial situation when photography became prominent.

II Set of Settings in which photography arose

It was the time of the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, the age of Reform Bills (1830s) and pauperism (1840s), and the time of the Industrial Revolution and of prosperity (1850s/ 60s). Due to the Industrial Revolution the infrastructure of communication improved a lot, e.g. ‘print and reproduction techniques spread rapidly; railway and post networks expanded enormously and telegraphic connections were built up’ (Jäger, p.36). Of course, photography belonged to that category. Aristocracy was ruling the land but the middle-classes more and more could push through their rights of political power. ‘Besides, cultural institutions like museums, theatres and many associations were essential elements of the English middle-class. Education in arts and the knowledge about masterpieces were integrating means of the middle-class. The idea of a meaningful and fulfilled life of the middle-class was orientated by work, education, diligence and respectability’ (Jäger, p.36). As a result, scientists gained a higher reputation, as well. And, scientific associations began to rise steadily. ‘By the 1840s hundreds of such unions and organizations had existed, and the scientists gradually were becoming professional’ (Jäger, p.37). Another aspect well worth mentioning of the Victorian culture was the people’s attitude towards religion. ‘Like science and art represent two ways of understanding the world, the church, as well, saw itself as an agent for giving people insight into the deep principles of the world. Faith and science weren’t in contradiction since science proved the history of god’s creation (Jäger, p.37). And although Darwin caused an evident split in the Christian world view in the middle of the 19th century, ‘religion belonged to the foundations of middle-class education’ (Jäger, p.38).

There remained only a few words to say referring to the middle-class in Victorian Britain. As I already have said in the introduction, the middle-class is considered the bearer-class of photography, the class which is responsible for its rapid development. Jens Jäger defined the middle-class. He said that it doesn’t involve the aristocracy, landed interest and the working-class but entrepreneurs, scientists and businessmen. Other criteria were: sufficient means, employment of personnel in the own household and public activities at the state and at the church; but also very considerable was the concentration on the home and family (p.41, 42). At this point it is significant to mention that these aesthetic, scientific and religious conditions, under which photography became known, are central to understand the reception of photography. Still, before we are going to look at the reception we should have a glance at the development of photography as a business.

III Development of Photography as a Business

“Not that photographers flock especially in the metropolis; they are wanted everywhere and found everywhere. The large provincial cities abound with the sun’s votaries, the smallest town is not without them; and if there be a village so poor and remote as not to maintain a regular establishment, a visit from a photographic travelling van gives it the advantages which the rest of the world are enjoying” (qtd in Jäger, p.46).

This quotation gives a really good idea of what the expansion of photography must have been in those days. And actually Jens Jäger says that photography developed to a new business within just twenty years, which is not a matter of course (p.46). The reasons for the fast progress were the technical improvements which advanced at an enormous speed. ‘In addition, there was a rise in national income between 1844 and 1860. That explains why people asked for more elevated consumer goods and luxury goods like photography’ (Jäger, p.49, 50). Furthermore the General Report’s publishers noted in 1863:”Photography has interfered with engraving; for we have at the two censuses [1851 and 1861] photographers 45 and 2,534; engravers 4,948 and 4,715 [both England only]; but, while the decrease of engravers is inconsiderable, the increase of artists in photography is enormous” (qtd in Jäger, p.51).[2] An extra help was that it wasn’t difficult to become a photographer for a middle-class member. ‘To set up a photographic business one needed first of all enough starting capital, some suitable rooms, easy access to chemicals and right equipment, and of course some knowledge about the current licences. But what one didn’t need necessarily was exact knowledge about photography since the shop owner had not to be the one who photographed at the same time’ (Jäger, p.54, 55). ‘By 1861 in consequence, Britain was covered by 2,534 photographers and 30% of them were occupied in London. The business mainly concentrated in two or three centres of a county. The seaside resorts and country or leisure towns were much more attractive than industrial cities. For instance Bradford, an industrial town, had 4.5 photographers per 100.000 inhabitants in 1857. In contrast to that, Brighton, a seaside resort, had 20 photographers per 100.000 inhabitants in 1859’ (Jäger, p.58, 59).

‘Except for the twelve patents, Britain’s market was quite free. But there seems to be a causal relationship between the expiry of Daguerre’s (1853) and Talbot’s patents (1854) and the belated but quick increase of photographic studios from the middle of the 1850s on. However, as Jens Jäger said it was possible to evade both patents by using the Collodion process by Frederick Scott Archer. Considering this fact, an upswing of the business would have been also possible around 1852. And what is more, Scotland for example had no patent law for the Daguerrian process. Nevertheless, its upswing came also in the middle of the 1850s and had its climax in 1857/ 58’ (Jäger, p.60-62, 64). Of course, this upswing had consequences, namely: it led to a dramatic drop in prices. Jäger says that the first Daguerreotypes (portraits) cost about 1% of the people’s annual salary (p.56). That was roughly £1 1s[3] for a photograph. Then, already in 1847 some photographers offered 15s for a portrait and in 1852 the price had fallen to 5s-1s per portrait. Compared to the farm-hand’s average income which was circa 9 to 11s per week, this was still relatively expensive (p.66, 67). In 1860 finally, the lowest price was 6d for a photo (p.68).


[1] This essay is based on Jens Jäger’s book Gesellschaft und Photographie, and it is therefore strongly concentrated on the period of time between 1839 and 1860.

[2] ‘At the census of 1881 there were 7,614 photographers (1,606 women); at that of 1891 12,397; and at that of 1901 17,268 (4,933)’ (Briggs, p.114).

[3] 1 pound (£) = 20 shilling (s) = 240 pence (d)


  • Monika Rusek (Author)

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Title: Photography and society in the Victorian Era - based on Jens Jäger's book 'Gesellschaft und Photographie - Formen und Funktionen der Photographie in Deutschland und England 1839-1860'