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Talbot's "Selfie" a Composite Image?

Posted By Timothy J. Bennett CRA OCT-C FOPS, Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Updated: Friday, January 9, 2015

I’ve long been fascinated by this Calotype taken by William Henry Fox Talbot and Nicolaas Henneman. It appears in several biographies of Talbot as well as historical accounts of the early days of photography. Talbot was one of the early pioneers of photography and some historians argue that it was he, and not Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who should be credited as the true inventor of photography. Although that controversy may never be resolved, it is clear that Talbot was devastated by Daguerre’s recognition and celebrity. Talbot spent the next several years trying to balance the scales in his favor.


Soon after patenting the Calotype in 1841, Talbot invested in the Reading Establishment, a photographic studio and printing business started by his former valet Nicolaas Henneman in the town of Reading outside of London. The business operated from 1843-1846 and it was here that the photographic prints for Talbot’s Pencil of Nature were produced. This book, the first to be illustrated with photographic prints, represents an important milestone in the history of photography.


According to several descriptions of this well-known photograph, the scene depicts Talbot at work in the Reading Establishment. I’ve often wondered if this image wasn’t some sort of elaborate multiple exposure self-portrait that Fox Talbot and his assistant concocted. The individuals in the photo look quite similar in appearance. Could they be the same person? One could argue that Fox Talbot is both the photographer and subject, while the person standing both to the far left and inside the building look remarkably similar in appearance as well.


Is it possible they could have sequentially masked different parts of the scene during exposure to create a composite? Or perhaps they combined multiple paper negatives to achieve a final print. Talbot’s Calotype process resulted in paper negatives that were then contacted printed, while the Daguerrotype was a direct positive process that could not be reproduced. Talbot’s paper negative process would easily lend itself to composite printing.


Since no one from this photo is alive to dispute my theory, I choose to believe they somehow masked part of the scene and moved around during the exposure to place Talbot in multiple positions. I can imagine Talbot, still stinging from Daguerre’s fame and fortune, running from spot to spot to get into position between separate exposures muttering to himself, “Take that Daguerre, you can’t do this with your Daguerrotype…”


If, in fact, this image does depict multiple Talbots, it’s just as likely to have been compiled during printing. Combination printing evolved along with photography and goes back at least as far as the 1850’s. Oscar Rejlander and his friend Henry Peach Robinson both created well-known, but controversial, composite images using elaborate combination printing techniques. Rejlander in fact learned the craft of photography and printing from Henneman. Is it possible that Henneman and Talbot were already experimenting with combination printing when the image of the Reading Establishment was created?


In doing a little more research, I discovered that this is indeed a composite image, but not exactly what I expected. Often displayed as a single image, it is in fact one half of the composite photograph shown here. According to captions, the left hand image depicts Talbot as photographer, while the right hand image shows Henneman at work.


Long before the days of digital imaging and photo editing software a number of photographers used multiple exposures and combination printing techniques to painstakingly create composite photographs or photomontages. Reijlander and Robinson were followed by Jerry Uelsmann and others.



With the digital photo editing tools available today, it is relatively simple to combine elements of different images in composite form. In ophthalmic imaging we use auto-montage tools to create composite images from two or more fundus photos. Although it opens endless creative possibilities, digital imaging takes some the fun and challenge out of traditional multi-exposure and combination printing techniques.


I recently created a composite image (of sorts) as an homage to the early pioneers of composite photography. Taken in the Felsenkeller brewery museum in Monschau, Germany, it depicts a room filled with a vast collection of beer bottles from around the world. To me, it’s reminiscent of Talbot’s photograph of the Reading Establishment.



Although the same individual (me) appears three times in the image, it is not combined from multiple exposures or manipulated with Photoshop. The image is unaltered from the original camera file with the exception of resizing it for the web. It was created entirely in-camera, using the panoramic feature of an iPhone. During capture, panning was paused long enough for me to move into the next position before panning resumed. As I was moving from position to position, I thought again of the Talbot image and whether he had moved from spot to spot to pose as both photographer and subject. It would be pretty cool if he did. 


Photography has come a long way since Talbot invented his process in 1839. I wonder what he would do with today’s photographic tools and processes.




Pencil of Nature: 







Tags:  Composite  History  Talbot 

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Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy, Part III

Posted By Timothy J. Bennett CRA OCT-C FOPS, Thursday, September 26, 2013

Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy:
The Origins of Photography and Ophthalmic Photography
Part III, The First Human Fundus Photograph

While researching the origins of photography and ophthalmic photography for a historical presentation to the American Academy of Ophthalmology's 2011 Museum Committee Symposium, I came across several controversies as well as conflicting information and apparent mistakes between different historical accounts. But it was far more material than I would be able to use in a brief symposium presentation. This series of blog posts has allowed me to expand on some of the fascinating material I was able to uncover.

Reconstructing history is somewhat like completing a puzzle. Historians traditionally have had access to original source documents, but for those of us who haven't made a career out of reviewing history, we now have more accessible resources via advanced online search engines and extensive online collections of scanned historical journals and documents. New pieces of the puzzle may become apparent when you can access the primary documents themselves. The Internet Archives and Google Booksprovide access to digitized, publicly accessible old books, periodicals, and journals that are now in the public domain by virtue of their age and expiration of copyright. This particular story especially benefitted from reviewing available digitized documents, many of which were published over 100 years ago. /Unfortunately, some relatively recent publications have proven to be more difficult to locate, either online or as hard copy. They seem to be in the decades (60's & 70's) just prior to routine digital publication. So there are still some pieces of the puzzle I have yet to confirm. I also found that it pays to read the referenced documents that other historians have cited rather than rely on a citation of a "fact” in their historical account. Mistakes are sometimes made and then blindly repeated as fact or misinterpreted in other accounts. My hope is that this review will fill in a few more pieces of this interesting puzzle.


In the decades immediately following the introduction of photography in 1839, there were incremental advances toward the elusive goal of photographing the ocular fundus. In 1851, Helmholtz introduced the ophthalmoscope. That same year, Frederick Scott Archer described the collodion photographic process, a significant improvement over the calotype and daguerrotype. A decade later, Clerk-Maxwell demonstrated a color photography method in 1861.

In the early 1860's Henry Noyes of New York, and A.M. Rosebrugh of Toronto, both constructed fundus cameras and attempted fundus photography on animals. Although this news was encouraging, Hermann Helmholtz was skeptical and commented on Rosebrugh's technique in the correspondence column of The Ophthalmic Review, "I must confess I cannot yet believe that it (photographing the fundus oculi) will succeed in the human subject; the chief difficulty is evidently the use of sufficiently powerful sun-light, which would only be admissible with a completely blind eye.”

He was right. Early results were severely compromised by insufficient light, long exposures, eye movement, and prominent corneal reflexes that obscured detail. Spectral sensitivity of available photographic emulsions had very little red sensitivity, adding to the difficulty of adequate exposure. It would be several decades before these problems could be conquered. Even as advances were made, results were often disappointing. Lucien Howe, one of the early pioneers in fundus photography stated in 1894, "It is so easy, in theory, to photograph the interior of the eye, that it has undoubtedly been attempted many times. It is so difficult, however, in fact to accomplish this, that no satisfactory results have been obtained, in spite of the great value of this method of recording observations if it could be brought to perfection.”

The First Human Fundus Photograph

When it comes to the first successful human fundus photo, different historical accounts assign priority to different investigators. Lucien Howe, Jackman & Webster, and E Barr have all been mentioned in texts and historical reviews as being the first to photograph the fundus of a living human being. Most accounts list Jackman and Webster since they published their technique along with a reproduction of a fundus image in two photography periodicals in 1886:

Photographing the Eye of the Living Human Retina.
Photographic News, England May 7, 1886
Jackman T, Webster JD

On Photographing the Eye of the Living Human Retina.
Philadelphia Photographer, June 5, 1886
Jackman T, Webster JD

The article from the June 1886 Philadelphia Photographer described a 2 ½ minute exposure resulting in an image with a prominent corneal reflex, but a faintly visible optic disc. The Philadelphia Photographer at that time was sparsely illustrated, mostly with line drawings, along with a few low quality engravings and woodblock prints. Photogravure was too expensive a process for a periodical like this and halftone reproduction had not yet been widely adopted (First use was in 1880). The reproduction of the fundus photograph in the Philadelphia Photographer was an engraving which only simulated the original photograph. There is no doubt however that Jackman and Webster were the first to publish a fundus "image” of a living human subject.

Howe, Starr, and "Barr”

Three other names played a prominent role in early fundus photography. According to some historical accounts, Elmer Barr and Lucien Howe may have been first to photograph the human retina. In the Textbook of Ophthalmic Photography, Don Wong stated, "In the following year, 1887, E. Barr of Buffalo, N.Y., also obtained results... During that same time, still a third physician, Dr. Lucien Howe of N.Y. claimed to have made the first photographs of the human fundus. This was reported at the American Ophthalmological Society in 1887.”

A literature search for these authors turned up two articles with similar sounding titles. I was able to access them online and interestingly they are both from researchers in Buffalo NY and were released the same month.

Photography of the Interior of the Eye.
Trans Amer Ophth Soc. 23:568-71 July 1887
Lucien Howe, MD of Buffalo, N.Y.

On Photographing the Interior of the Human Eyeball
Amer J Ophth 4:181-3 July, 1887
Elmer Barr, MD of Buffalo, N.Y

Howe's 1887 report to the American Ophthalmological Society credited the work as that of his assistant, "Dr Elmer Starr of Buffalo, N.Y.”, while the name on the American Journal of Ophthalmology article was Elmer Barr. What's the likelihood that there was an Elmer Barr and Elmer Starr, both of Buffalo, working independently to photograph the living human retina? An odd coincidence? Starr's name didn't turn up in a traditional literature search of the medical journals. I was convinced that either the name Barr or Starr had to be a typographical error. Since corrections aren't indexed in journal search databases, it was a challenge to turn up any evidence of a typographic error using a search engine, but during a manual search of the next issue of the AJO, I was able to turn up this correction:

"The name of the author of the paper on ‘Photographing the Interior of the Human Eyeball,' published in our last number is not, as printed, Dr. E Barr, but Dr. Elmer Starr. Am. J. Ophthalmol. 4:240, 1887.”

Sure enough, it really was Elmer Starr, not Elmer Barr! I was also able to find another correction for an article in the Scientific American of the following year that had also been mislabeled as Elmer Barr: "In our Supplement 650, June 16, 1888, we published a paper on the Photography of the Human Eye, in which, by a typographical error, the author's name appeared as Barr, Instead of Starr. The paper was written by Dr. Elmer Starr, of Buffalo, N.Y”.

After finding the corrections of Barr/Starr, a further search of the science and photography periodicals from the late 1800's turned up another paper by Elmer Starr: "Photographing the human eye.” in the Philadelphia Photographer 1887. It was essentially the same content and technique as the Howe and Barr papers. Indeed they all came from the same lab and described the same image. At least the Philadelphia Photographer got Starr's name right! An early historical review from the turn of the century misspelled Starr's first name as Elemer multiple times, while another review mentioned the work of "Lowe in 1887” (they were referring to Howe).

Lucien Howeis a well-known name in ophthalmology. Howe was educated in the United States and abroad, having spent time studying and conducting research with Lister in Edinburgh, von Helmholtz in Heidelberg and others, before returning to the United States and establishing the Buffalo Eye and Ear Infirmary. He was a Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Buffalo, served as President of the American Ophthalmological Society, established the Howe Laboratory of Ophthalmology at Harvard University, and has had several prestigious awards and medals established in his name.

Starr was one of Howe's assistants and they collaborated on the fundus photography project in 1886-88. Howe described their results as the first "recognizable” fundus photograph, apparently a nod to Jackman & Webster being the first to "publish” a fundus photograph. Based on the written accounts, Howe and Starr's image was more "recognizable” as a fundus, but it's difficult to tell from the published illustrations which were woodcut reproductions. Interestingly, Howe's account was delivered as a third-person report, while both the "Barr” and Starr papers are written in the first person. All of this suggests that Starr was the principle investigator and actually took the photographs. I haven't been able to find a single historical account that credits Starr as being among the first to obtain a recognizable photograph of the living human retina. Starr seems to have missed his place in history simply because of a typo.

Another "publication” that has been included in historical reference lists is: "Barr E. Dr.s Jackman & Webster. Philadelphia Photographer. June 5, 1986.” As listed, it appears as if the (non-existent) Barr might have written an article describing Jackman and Webster's results. No such reference turned up in a literature search and as we now know, "Barr” was really Starr. After a thorough search, I believe the reference doesn't exist at all. It appears to be a fragment of text from the Barr article (Barr E. On photographing the interior of the human eyeball. Amer J Ophth 1887; 4:181-183), where he mentions publication of the Jackman and Webster photograph in his introduction. My guess is the listing was a historian's note-to-self to search for the Jackman & Webster reference after seeing it mentioned in Barr. Unfortunately this phantom reference was repeated by at least one additional author in a historical review, which only served to perpetuate the "Barr” mistake.

After publication in 1887, Howe didn't pursue fundus photography any further, but did present on the topic to the Ophthalmological Society of the UK in 1893. It was essentially a repeat of the same material he presented six years earlier. He was no longer investigating fundus photography but hoped to "incite others to do better work…” In reviewing the limited progress to date, he listed Rosebrugh, Fick, and Gerloff as "the only three other attempts which as far as I can ascertain, have thus far been published.” He conspicuously left out any mention of Jackman and Webster, which is curious because all of the previous Howe/Barr/Starr papers referred to the published Jackman and Webster photograph. Was this omission a mistake or done on purpose? He again thanked Starr for his assistance, but fell short of thoroughly crediting him as he had in the past. In an 1895 address to the American Otological Society Howe reported on his attempts to photograph the eardrum. In it, he again took credit for having "showed the first photographs made of the human fundus oculi.” It seems as if Howe asserted a claim of priority for being the first to photograph the living human fundus and chose to ignore the prior work of Jackman and Webster.

Howe was later embroiled in a different priority dispute with George T. Stevens during meetings of the AOS in 1909-1910. He publicly challenged Stevens' design for a tropometer, claiming it was based on a previous design by Nicati in 1876. Howe did his best to prove his point, "It occurred to me that some question might arise concerning this point of priority, and therefore I brought in the references.”

Howe and Stevens had previously authored competing books on ocular motility and the dispute may have arisen from this separate rivalry. In a final observation in his priority debate with Stevens, Howe stated, "it has occurred to us all probably, to think we have some new idea and afterward that we discover that it is old.” Howe's conclusion could easily apply to several of the priority disputes in this historical review.

Thorner vs. Dimmer

By the turn of the century there were improvements in both film and instrumentation that significantly improved photographic results. Bagneris, Guilloz, Gerloff, Wolff, Thorner, and Dimmer all made improvements in photographing the fundus oculi around this time. Tactics such as water bath immersion, corneal cover plates, and polarized light were used to reduce unwanted corneal reflexes but these techniques were ultimately deemed impractical.

In 1898 Walter Thorner of Berlin designed the first reflex-free ophthalmoscope based on the simple principle of transmitting the illuminating beam through one half of the dilated pupil and viewing the light reflected through the other half. The following year Friedrich Dimmer of Vienna showed reflex-free photographs at the Ninth International Congress of Ophthalmology that caused quite a stir, and another rivalry was born.

Dimmer continued to refine his technique and collaborated with Zeiss Jena to design and build a complex reflex-free fundus camera. It was so large and expensive that only one was ever built by Zeiss.

Thorner used a camera of his own design, but his images were smaller, had a limited field of view, and were unevenly illuminated compared with Dimmer's.

A report from the Tenth International Congress of Ophthalmology in The Ophthalmoscope from 1904 compared their images, "Professor Dimmer, of Gratz, showed twenty beautiful photographs of the fundus oculi, normal and abnormal. The photographs were so good as to allow one to recognize, literally at a glance, the conditions they depicted. The apparatus by which these extraordinary photographs were taken was also on view. It is, unfortunately, almost as big as a grand piano, and is stated to be correspondingly expensive. Dr. Walter Thorner, of Berlin, also showed photographs of the fundus oculi, but for beauty and detail they could not be compared with those of Professor Dimmer.”

Dimmer's instrument incorporated the principles introduced by Thorner, but Thorner was skeptical of the Dimmer's results and accused him of retouching the photographs to remove the central corneal reflex. This resulted in another bitter feud that lasted several years.

Keeler and co-authors recently summarized the rivalry, "By 1908 Dimmer had produced exceptional black and white images which were published in an atlas. Thorner was so impressed that he wrongly accused Dimmer, of "touching up” the results. Thorner however took comfort in the knowledge that only one instrument, the size of a small car, could take these photographs and the instrument could not be commercialised.”

Thorner later designed a stereoscopic camera and published the first stereo fundus photographs in 1909. Dimmer went on to publish an atlas of retinal images with Pillat in 1927 that is considered an important landmark in retinal imaging.

Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy

From that point on there were several milestones in the evolution of both photography and ophthalmic photography, but they are decidedly less controversial that the ones chosen for this series. It seems that the most important milestones in photography, fundus photography and stereo imaging occurred during the Victorian Era's great enthusiasm for science and invention. Several of the principles were competitive, bitter men, who craved recognition for their contributions and a place in history.

History has certainly smiled on some of them and been unkind to others.

"The camera exists because men were intrigued by the function of the eye and wished to be able to reproduce on a permanent record that which the eye enabled the brain to record. How appropriate then that ophthalmology has turned the camera into a valuable tool for recording the structures of the eye.”

Hurtes R.
Evolution of Ophthalmic Photography. International Ophthalmology Clinics. 1976; 16(2):1-22


Wong D. Textbook of Ophthalmic Photography. Inter-Optics Publications, New York, 1982

Meyer-Schwickerath, G. Ophthalmology and photography. Am J. Ophthalmol 1968; 66:1011

Hurtes R. Evolution of ophthalmic photography. International Ophthalmology Clinics. 1976; 16(2):1-22

Bedell AJ. 1935. Stereoscopic fundus photography. JAMA 105:1502-1505.

Van Cader, TC. History of ophthalmic photography. J Ophthalmic Photography 1978; 1:7-9

Saine PJ. Landmarks in the development of fluorescein angiography. JOP 1993; 15:17

Rosebrugh AM. A new ophthalmoscope for photographing the fundus oculi. Canada Medical Journal and Monthly Record of Medical and Surgical Science. Vol 1, 1865; 163-169.

Rosebrugh AM. On a new ophthalmoscope for photographing the fundus oculi. The Ophthalmic Review: A Quarterly Journal of Ophthalmic Surgery & Science Vol 1, 1865; 119-125

Helmholtz H. Correspondence. The Ophthalmic Review: A Quarterly Journal of Ophthalmic Surgery & Science Vol 1, 1865; 312

Noyes HD. A modification of the ophthalmoscope. Trans Am Ophthalmol Soc.1869;1(6):51-4.

Jackman WT, Webster JD. On photographing the retina of the living eye. Philadelphia Photographer 1886;23:340-341

Barr E. On photographing the interior of the human eyeball. Amer J Ophth 1887; 4:181-183

Howe L. Photography of the interior of the eye. Trans Amer Ophth Soc. 1887; 23:568-571

Starr E. Photographing the human eye. Philadelphia Photographer 1887; 24:714-716

Howe L. Orthochromatic plates for photographing the interior of the human eye. Trans Ophthalmol Soc UK. 1894; 14:251-255

Thorner W. A new stationary ophthalmoscope without reflexes. Amer J Ophth. 1899; 16:330-345.

Dimmer F. Die Photographie des Augenhintergrundes. 1907 Weisbaden: Bergmann 1907

Ballantyne AJ. Book Review: Die Photographie des Augenhintergrundes. The Ophthalmoscope. 1907 Jul: 140-143

Parsons HJ. The photography of the fundus oculi. Nature 1906; 74:104

Stephenson S, Oliver CA, Eds. The Ophthalmoscope. A Monthly Review of Current Ophthalmology. Tenth international congress of ophthalmology. 510-515

Keeler R, Singh AD, Dua HS. "Empowering eyes”: the Thorner Optometer. Br J Ophthalmol 2011 95:925

Keeler R, Singh AD, Dua HS. Battling with reflections: the Busch stereoscopic reflexless binocular ophthalmoscope. Br J Ophthalmol 2013 97:119-120

Vail D. Lucien Howe: the laboratory and experimental ophthalmology. Am J Ophthalmol 1963; 55: 261-279.

Ravin JG, Stern AM. Lucien Howe, hereditary blindness, and the eugenics movement. Arch Ophthalmol.2010 Jul;128(7):924-30

Cyber-Sight. Historical review of stereoscopic imaging. Project ORBIS International, 2003.

Tags:  first fundus photograph 

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Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy, Part II

Posted By Timothy J. Bennett CRA OCT-C FOPS, Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy:
The Origins of Photography and Ophthalmic Photography
Part II, Stereo Photography

The nineteenth century was an age of intellectual pursuit, scientific discovery, and invention. The Victorian Era roughly coincided with the Belle Epoch in Continental Europe and the Gilded Age in the United States. It was during this period that Darwin, Babbage, Pasteur, Maxwell, Morse, Helmholtz, and many others made important advancements in science, medicine, and technology. As demonstrated in Part I of this series, it was also a time of competition, rivalry, and controversy. The brilliant minds of the day often had egos to match their intellect. The race to be listed as the "first” to discover a scientific breakthrough could become an obsession. Eponyms were popular; just about every important new discovery was named for the person that first described it.

A classic example of this competition and controversy occurred in the feud over the discovery of anesthesia in the 1840's when American dentist Horace Wells and his former apprentice William Morton both claimed to be the first to discover the use of inhaled anesthesia. Wells had successfully used anesthesia on several occasions, but was discredited after a failed public demonstration. He then became depressed, began abusing chloroform and eventually committed suicide. Morton remained obsessed with recognition throughout his life, tried to patent ether under a different name, and eventually died penniless. TheAmerican Dental Associationhonored Wells posthumously in 1864 as the discoverer of modern anesthesia, and the American Medical Associationrecognized his achievement in 1870. Morton was similarly recognized later in life and again posthumously. This is just one of many controversies over who was first to make a great new discovery in the Victorian Era. The nineteenth century development of the stereoscope and new theories on stereo vision was another example of professional rivalry and controversy. Fortunately, this story has a happier ending than the anesthesia saga.


The disparity in perspective between the right and left eye and some of the basic principles of binocular vision have been described by various scientists, physicians, and artists beginning as early as 300 B.C. with Greek mathematician Euclid. Around 1600, Italian painter Jacapo Chimenti (1554-1640) made side-by-side drawings possibly meant to represent the different view from each eye. Giovanni Battista della Porta (1538-1615) cited Galen in his writings On Refraction and described the difference in view between a single eye versus both together. Around the same time, Leonardo DaVinci and Jesuit Francois d'Aguillon similarly describe some principles of binocular vision and the perception of "solid” figures when using both eyes together. Aguillon coined the term "stéréoscopique” from the Greek word "stereos” (solid) in a treatise on binocular vision in 1613.

Wheatstone's Stereoscope

It wasn't until the invention of the stereoscope however, that the principle of stereopsis could be more fully described and proven. In 1938, Sir Charles Wheatstone introduced a design for the mirror stereoscope and presented his work on binocular vision to the Royal Society.

"I…. propose that it be called a Stereoscope to indicate its property of representing solid figures.”

Contributions to the Physiology of Vision – Part the First. On Some Remarkable, and Hitherto Unobserved, Phenomena of Binocular Vision.

Sir Charles Wheatstone, F.R.S., Professor of Experimental Philosophy, King's College,
Presented to the Royal Scottish Society of the Arts, London 6/21/1838

Wheatstone described the results of several extensive experiments on the principles of binocular vision and stereopsis. His theories soon influenced the likes of Panum, Hering and Helholtz. Within months of Wheatstone's presentation, photography was born and the logical extension of his experimentation was to attempt stereo photography. By 1841, Wheatstone collaborated with Talbot & Henry Collen to produce the first stereo photographs (calotypes), including statues, buildings, and portraits, the first being of Charles Babbage, inventor of the calculating engine. Early daguerrotypists Armand Fizeau and Antoine Claudet provided the first stereo daguerrotypes to Wheatstone for his stereoscope. Stereo cameras had not yet been introduced so these were all sequential stereo pairs.

Brewster's Stereoscope

Sir David Brewster, a fellow member of the British scientific community and the Royal Society, was fascinated by Wheatstone's apparatus and findings. Both Brewster and Wheatstone were prominent scientists, inventors, and Fellows of the Royal Society. They were contemporaries of William Henry Fox Talbot, Sir John Herschel and the Reverend J.B. Reade, some of the principles in the controversial story surrounding the invention of photography. Both men were friends with Talbot, Brewster having stayed with Talbot for a time.

In 1849, Brewster developed the lenticular stereoscope and binocular camera. His stereoscope design was smaller and more portable than Wheatstone's mirror stereoscope. It consisted of half lenses, cut and positioned to create a prism effect separating convergence from accommodation to facilitate stereopsis of small image pairs.

There wasn't much interest in his design until it was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 by François Soleil and Jules Duboscq, the French opticians who fabricated the instrument for Brewster. The exhibit included stereo daguerreotypes and attracted the attention of Queen Victoria. From there, the popularity of stereoscopes exploded.

Figure 16 from Brewster's 1856 book, The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction shows a stereoscope design & built by Jules Duboscq. It looks like something out a of Dr Suess book!

The Feud

Brewster initially embraced Wheatstone's observations and used the Wheatstone stereoscope to conduct his own experiments which eventually led to the invention of the lenticular stereoscope in 1849. Somewhere along the way however, he became disenchanted with Wheatstone and his conclusions. Brewster arrived at some different interpretations of his experiments and started publicly disputing Wheatstone's assertions. It was not the first time that Wheatstone and Brewster had a professional disagreement. In 1832 Brewster did not take kindly to being publicly challenged at a scientific meeting by the younger and less-experienced Wheatstone.

In 1856, Brewster wrote an anonymous letter to the correspondence column of The Times criticizing Wheatstone and disputing the priority of his invention of the stereoscope. A public feud continued in several combative letters to The Times. Brewster's expertise was in optics, so he believed strongly in physical optics and the law of visible direction. Wheatstone's background was originally in acoustics and he felt that perception and the brain played an equally important role in stereopsis. Brewster openly questioned how Wheatstone could take credit for discovering something with his instrument that everyone should know to be true through the simple exercise of closing one eye, then the other. He spent almost the entire first chapter of his 1856 book, The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction trying to undermine Wheatstone. Referring to Wheatstone's discoveries, Brewster wrote, "…it is inconceivable on what ground he could imagine himself to be the discoverer of so palpable and notorious a fact as that the pictures of a body seen by two eyes — two points of sight, must be dissimilar.” Wheatstone delayed presentation of part II of his paper on binocular vision for fourteen years (1852).

Brewster insisted that Wheatstone was not the first to invent a stereoscope. He argued that James Elliott, a teacher of mathematics in Edinburgh preceded Wheatstone. Brewster wrote that Elliott "resolved to construct” an instrument in 1834 to demonstrate the disparate view between eyes in relation to distance. Elliott didn't actually construct it until 1839 (after Wheatsone had presented & published). Elliott's was just a fixed septum dividing paired drawings. There were no optics to separate accommodation from convergence and it would not have been useful in conducting extensive experiments on binocular vision. Brewster actually criticized both Wheatstone and Elliott for not having thought of using the incomplete photographic processes of Wedgewood or Davy in the early 1830's to view accurate disparate image pairs rather than simple drawings. Of course there was no way to fix a photographic image so it was permanent until 1839, when Daguerre and Talbot announced their methods. Brewster suggested that Wheatstone could have briefly viewed the unfixed images by candle-light until they faded!

When he failed to undermine Wheatstone by suggesting that Elliott was first to invent the stereoscope, Brewster went further back in history to find someone else. He then suggested that the old paired drawings (from around 1600) by Jacapo Chimenti were produced for a stereoscope, possibly one made by Giovanni Battista della Porta, who was known to have made improvements to the camera obscura. This was pure speculation and again did nothing to discredit Wheatstone.

The motivation for Brewster's obsession is unclear. Much of the feud occurred nearly two decades after Wheatstone's initial paper. Some of it may stem from Wheatstone mentioning a "refracting” stereoscope of his design in his later 1852 paper. This design used prisms and had a similar effect as the Brewster lenticular stereoscope. Wheatstone and Brewster discussed the use of prisms soon after Wheatstone's initial paper in 1838. Brewster felt the idea to use prisms was his, and that Wheatstone's "refracting” stereoscope competed with his design. Could it have been as simple as scientific jealousy? Wade and Ono write, "While Brewster's lenticular stereoscope was popularly adopted in the 1850s, it was Wheatstone's reflecting model that was used by the scientific community.” Disputes like this were a recurring theme with Brewster. He invented the kaleidoscope and defended his priority of invention in print for years. In an ironic twist, his contemporaries argued that the refraction principles it was based on had been known since antiquity. Brewster was also involved in a similar priority dispute for decades over his design of a polyzonal lens similar to the Fresnel (Augustin Fresnel) lens for use in lighthouses.

Brewster expended considerable time and energy trying to disprove and discredit Wheatstone, but ultimately failed. For his part, Wheatstone defended himself and his theories, but the dispute seemed much less an obsession.

Wheatstone and Brewster were pioneers of research on stereoscopic vision, the stereoscope, and indirectly, stereoscopic photography. Both men made important contributions that were summarized by Sir John Herschel at the time of the feud, "Wheatstone invented the stereoscope; Brewster invented a way of looking at stereoscopic pictures.” In a more recent summary (1985) in a discussion of the principles at the core of the scientific debate, Wade and Ono write, "Not only did Wheatstone and Brewster devise different models of the stereoscope, but they also provided disparate views of stereoscopic phenomena that remain unresolved to this day.”

Both of their stereoscopes remain important in viewing ophthalmic stereo images. The Brewster design is used for 35mm slides or small images separated by no more than 2.5 inches, and the Wheatstone mirror stereoscope for large prints or onscreen digital images.

After decades of acrimony the two men eventually reconciled at a meeting of the British Association held in 1867, shortly before Brewster's death. In the end, Brewster and Wheatstone finally agreed to disagree.


Brewster D. The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction.1856

Wheastone C. Contributions to the Physiology of Vision – Part the First. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 128, (1838), pp. 371-394

Wheastone C. Contributions to the Physiology of Vision – Part the Second. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 142, (1852), pp. 1-17

Newhall B. Looking Back at Stereo. In Morgan WD, Lester HM. Stereo Realist Manual. 1954

Thompson SP. Wheatstone, Sir Charles. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Morrison-Low AD. Brewster, Sir David. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

W. Le Conte Stevens. The Stereoscope: It's History I. The Popular Science Monthly XXI May 1882

W. Le Conte Stevens. The Stereoscope: It's History II. The Popular Science Monthly XXI June 1882

Wade NJ. Guest essay, Charles Wheatstone. Perception 2002; 31:265-272.

Wade NJ. The Chimenti controversy. Perception, 2003; 32:185-200.

Klooswyck A. Errors in stereo history and the Chimenti hoax.

Wade NJ. Guest editorial essay. Perception 2009; 38:633-637.

Ono H, Wade NJ. Resolving discrepant results of the Wheatstone experiment. Psychol Res 1985; 47:135-142

Wade N, Ono HJ. The stereoscopic views of Wheatstone and Brewster. Psychol Res 1985; 47:125-133

Leggat R. A History of Photography from its beginnings till the 1920s

Bennett TJ. Viewing side-by-side stereo images. Journal of Ophthalmic PhotographyVolume 34:2, pg 73-75, Fall 2012

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Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy, Part I

Posted By Timothy J. Bennett CRA OCT-C FOPS, Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy:
The Origins of Photography and Ophthalmic Photography
Part I, The Priority Debate (Who was first?)

Photography was born in the Victorian Era, a time of great discovery, invention, and advancement in science and medicine. Along with collaboration and discovery, there often came competition, rivalry, and controversy. Many brilliant minds of the day craved recognition for their scientific contributions. It was often a race to be listed as the "first” to describe or discover a new technique. The series of announcements of the discovery of photography in 1839, by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and several others became a frantic race filled with secrecy, surprise, jealousy, financial reward, political maneuvering, and legal action. To this day it's still not entirely clear who was first to invent photography, and the "priority debate” continues.

The Origins of Photography

The origins of photography can be traced to 1826 when Joseph-Nicephore Niépce produced the first permanent photographic image using a pewter plate coated with light-sensitive bitumen of Judea in a camera obscura.

Color digital reproduction of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's
View from the Window at Le Gras.
Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center

Gelatin silver print with applied watercolor of Niépce's
View from the Window at Le Gras.
Helmut Gernsheim & Kodak Research Lab, Harrow, England.
Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center.


Exposure time was believed to be 8-10 hours in sunlight. The faint lines on the plate were then incised by hand and prints from it needed to be further enhanced with watercolors to produce what was termed a heliograph. While visiting England, he tried to present his results to the Royal Society of London, but was rebuffed. He would not be the only photographic pioneer that was treated this way by the Royal Society.

In 1826 Niépce began corresponding and collaborating with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a painter, stage decorator, and celebrated inventor/proprietor of the Paris Diorama. The Diorama was a unique theater that displayed large translucent paintings illuminated by variable stage lighting to create special effects. Daguerre was experienced with using the camera obscura to assist in creating the large paintings that decorated the stage.

He had made his own attempts to capture images with a camera obscura using phosphorescent powder. The image projected on the powder would remain for a few hours before fading. Niépce and Daguerre formed a partnership in 1829. In 1832 they created a new process called the physautotype using silver plates coated with a byproduct of distilled lavender oil. Daguerre continued the research on this and other photographic processes after Niépce's death in 1833. He described a partial photographic process in Journal de Artistes in 1835.


Daguerre and Talbot

By 1837, Daguerre was able to produce a well-known still life image titled, L'Atelier de l'artiste using a silvered copper plate developed with exposure to mercury after 20-30 minute exposure time in sunlight.

L'Atelier de l'artiste, 1837 Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

The story goes that a broken thermometer, serendipitously stored near a sensitized plate exposed it to mercury vapor which resulted in development of the latent image. The process was eventually improved to the point of practical use and was first reported on Daguerre's behalf by noted French scientist and politician, François Arago, at the Academie des Sciences in Paris on January 7, 1839. Daguerre kept the specific details a secret for several months until he secured a pension for himself and Isidore Niépce (Joseph's son) from the French Government in exchange for a full description of the process. Arago, acting on behalf of the French Government (as well as Daguerre) officially announced the Daguerrotype at a special joint meeting of the Académie des Sciences and Académie des Beaux–Arts held at the Institut de France in Paris on August 19, 1839. The announcement of the Daguerrotype as France's "gift to the whole world" was met with great attention and fanfare.


Boulevard Boulevard du Temple, Paris Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

The Daguerrotype process resulted in sharp, direct positive, mirror-like images on silvered copper plates. Unfortunately multiple copies were not possible, as only a single print could be produced with this process. The images were also fragile and needed to be protected by glass or a frame. Still, at the time, the images were stunning and revolutionary.

At roughly the same time, noted British academic William Henry Fox Talbot, had been experimenting with photographic processes of his own. Talbot was a mathematician, physicist, philologist, Member of Parliament and Fellow of the Royal Society. His experimentation began in 1833 after being frustrated at his inability to accurately sketch scenery while on holiday in Italy. He employed a camera obscura to aid his drawing, but was still disappointed in the results.

In recounting the events that provided his inspiration to pursue a method of "photogenic drawing” he commented, "how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper."

Talbot devised a successful technique, possibly as early as 1835. His early work consisted mostly of photograms (objects placed directly on sensitized paper) using direct sunlight with a print-out process. He later incorporated small modified box cameras to image sunlit scenes.



The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey (1835 or 1839)
William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800–1877)
Photogenic drawing negative 3 1/4 x 4 3/16 in.
The Rubel Collection

The Race is On!

Talbot was reportedly stunned at news of Daguerre's initial report in January just as he was preparing a paper on his own methods for presentation to the Royal Society in London. His process was significantly different than Daguerre's, creating negatives on sensitized paper that were then contact printed as positives.

He immediately wrote to Arago claiming his photographic process preceded Daguerre's and hastily presented a paper on his process to the Royal Society just three weeks after the initial Daguerre report. Within weeks of the dueling January announcements there was a flurry of photographic activity on both sides of the English Channel. The race for recognition was on! The March 1839 issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine described the fast-growing rivalry, "Here is a revolution in art… for which we have so imitative a taste no sooner does one start up in Paris, but we must have one in London too. And so Mr. Daguerre's invention is instantly rivaled by Mr. Fox Talbot's.” While Daguerre bathed in the limelight of news reports in both Europe and the United States, Talbot received far less recognition. The Royal Society declined to publish his paper in their Transactions, in part because in his haste to establish priority over Daguerre, he published in the general press before submitting to the scientific literature. They were also unhappy that he withheld specific details. As early as March of 1839, photographic paper was being advertised in periodicals and sold in chemist & stationery shops in London. Cameras and boxed kits for photogenic drawing using Talbot's technique were being offered for sale to the public by April. Frenchman Hippolyte Bayard displayed the first public exhibition of photographs on June 24th. His direct-positive process was different from both Daguerre's and Talbot's and its development may have preceded them both. Several other early adopters tried to jump on the bandwagon to gain fame and reward. By June 1839, the literary & science magazine Athenaeum commented: "Hardly a day passes that we do not receive letters respecting imagined discovery, or improvement, in the art of photogenic drawing, but the suggestions are generally far too crude to be worthy of publication.” And all of these activities took place before the official announcement of the "invention of photography” in August!

Financial Rewards

Talbot remained frustrated over lack of recognition for his work but continued to experiment and improve his techniques. In 1841 he patented his "Calotype” process trying to profit from it. The patent and Talbot's attempts to enforce it prevented widespread acceptance of his process. Chemical imperfections caused his prints to fade over time, much to the delight and derision of artists that were threatened by photography. Over the next decade he was criticized in print, accused of appropriating others' work, his patents were contested and eventually undermined. Talbot self-published The Pencil of Nature, the first commercially published book illustrated with tipped-in photographs. A significant milestone in photography and publishing, it was met with critical praise but was a financial failure.

The Pencil of Nature

Talbot has at times been treated unfairly in historical accounts because of his defense of patents and insistence on recognition of priority. Daguerre also attempted to profit from his invention at the expense of others. In a shrewd maneuver, he gave just enough details of his process in the January report to prove that it worked, so that he could petition the government to pay him for it. Only then did he reveal the details. A March fire that ruined Daguerre's diorama, almost destroyed all his equipment, research notes, and photographic samples which were housed in his adjacent studio. Had he not persuaded the fire brigade to ignore the diorama to spare his studio, it might have been several more months before he could show evidence of his method to secure the support of the government. Surely, such a loss of momentum would've have given Talbot and others the opportunity to gain the upper hand. The diorama was also his sole source of income, so securing financial reward for revealing the details of his process became an urgent financial matter for Daguerre.

Arago, Daguerre's friend and advocate, also arranged a small payment to Hippolyte Bayard to support his photographic pursuits and then persuaded him to delay announcement of his competing process. This calculated move by Arago ensured that Daguerre would be the one to retain recognition as the inventor of photography. Having been duped, Bayard publicly displayed a photographic self portrait that depicted himself as a corpse as a form of protest. The caption read: "The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you… The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life....!”

Although the French government offered the Daguerrotype "free to the world”, Daguerre secured a patent in England on August 14, 1839 – just five days prior to the big announcement. Art critic and historian Lady Eastwick referred to this underhanded maneuver as "chicanery”. The motivation for the patent is unclear, but it has been suggested that Daguerre hoped to use it as leverage to gain financial compensation from the British Government or possibly profit from reselling the patent. There is also evidence that Niépce's son Isidore pressured Daguerre to pursue the patent.

The Priority Debate

In addition to Bayard, some historians have credited another photographic pioneer, Rev. Joseph Bancroft Reade with preceding both Daguerre & Talbot. Reade testified for the defense during one of Talbot's patent infringement proceedings stating he created a process prior to both Talbot & Daguerre. There is some evidence he may have influenced Talbot's Calotype process by describing the use sodium thiosulphite as a fixing agent. Unfortunately no example of Reade's work exists and the evidence is mostly based on retrospective accounts by Reade after the fact. Most historians have completely dismissed his claim of priority, but recognize him as one of the first to take high magnification images with a solar microscope.

A more recent review of historic documents suggest that Sir John Frederick William Herschel's presentation to the Royal Society in March of 1839 is more significant than Daguerre's or Talbot's initial announcements two months prior. R. D. Wood suggests that March 14, 1839 could be recognized as the birthday of photography. It's hard to argue with this well researched opinion. Herschel discussed the improved light sensitivity of silver chloride, the use of gallic acid as a sensitizing agent and the use of hyposulphite of soda (sodium thiosulphite) as a practical fixer to remove unexposed silver and render the image permanent. Herschel shared the recommendation of hypo as a fixing agent with Talbot, who (with Herschel's permission) wrote to J.B. Biot in Paris about it. This news was presumably passed on to Daguerre, who immediately incorporated it into his process as well. Gallic acid later became the developing agent in Talbot's calotype process which was patented in 1841. Herschel worked out these chemical improvements just weeks after taking an interest in photography following the initial announcements. Herschel is also credited with coining the term "photography” in his March 14 report.

Niépce's son Isidore received his father's share of the pension that Arago and Daguerre secured from the French government, yet he became progressively bitter over Daguerre's fame while his father's contributions to the invention of photography were overlooked. In 1841, Isidore Niépce published a booklet called: History of the discovery improperly misnamed daguerreotype, preceded by a note from its real inventor Joseph-Nicephore Niépce. It seems that everyone was jealous of Daguerre's fame and recognition. So who was actually first? Was it Niépce, Daguerre, Talbot, Reade, Herschel, Bayard, or someone else? Great question. Hans Rooseboom, Curator of Photography at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam writes in What's wrong with Daguerre?, "Ever since the introduction of photography in 1839, the merits of each would-be claimant to the title of ‘inventor of photography' have periodically been overemphasized by either themselves or excessively enthusiastic photohistorians.” Excessively enthusiastic photohistorians? Ouch! Some of this may be due to a nationalistic bias. Or it could simply be that photohistorians are caught in their own priority debate and crave recognition themselves as the "first”… the first to discover the true inventor of photography, or perhaps the first to discover a historical document which settles the issue once and for all.

History ultimately crowned a winner. Although Talbot (and others) made several significant early contributions Daguerre is generally given credit as the founder of photography. World Photography Day is celebrated on August 19th, the anniversary of Daguerre's announcement to the world. Whether or not this is accurate is open to debate, but Daguerre is still the name most associated with the invention of photography. One Talbot bio suggests that his legacy could have been different: "Had his method been announced a few weeks earlier, he and not Daguerre would probably have been known as the founder of photography.” The same could certainly be said of Hippolyte Bayard as well. Daguerre beat them both.

Well played Messieurs Daguerre and Arago… Well played indeed!


Although the priority debate may never be fully resolved, these pioneers of photography collectively contributed several notable "firsts”:

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

First permanent photograph 1826.

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre

First public announcement of a practical photographic process, January 1839.

William Henry Fox Talbot

First negative to positive photographic process, possibly in 1835.
First published collection of photographic works: The Pencil of Nature, 1844.

Hippolyte Bayard

First public exhibition of photographs, June 1839. First faked photographic subject matter, Self Portrait of a Drowned Man, 1840.

Sir John Frederick William Herschel

First description of hyposulphite as a fixer, March 1839
First use of the term photography, March 1839

Reverend Joseph Bancroft Reade

First photomicrographer. 1839?



Swedlund C. Photography. New York. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1974:2-6

First photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826

Maison Nicephore Niépce, The Birthplace of Photography

Leggat R. A History of Photography from its beginnings till the 1920s

Wood RD. Midley History of Early Photography

Chronomedia: A detailed chronology of media history year-by-year

Hammerstingl W. The Beginnings of Photography 2001

The Daguerreian Society. Daguerreian Texts:The first two years (1839-1840)

Ewer GW. The Daguerrotype: an archive of source texts, graphics and ephemera.

The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot. DeMontfort University

Rooseboom H. What's wrong with Daguerre? Reconsidering old and new views on the invention of photography.2010

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (Edinburgh and London) 45:281 (March 1839): 382–91.

Eastlake E. Photography. London Quarterly Review, April 1857,pp. 442-68

National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Project Gutenberg EBook of The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot

Tags:  Daguerre  history  photography  Talbot 

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