Today, as the art and science of making photographic images slowly shifts from one of chemistry to digital electronics, we marvel at the speed and versatility all those little zeros and ones display in creating the luminous pictorial art seen on our computer screens. In that chemical photogaphy is now about 160 years old, we've long since stopped marveling at how all those little silver halide ions were able to do the same thing so long ago. We've even stopped marveling at how light-sensitive dyes have brought color photography from the miraculous to the mundane in as little as seventy-five years. Who knows what the next fundamental change in the area of image documentation might be? Brain implants maybe, enabling us to mentally "see" moving virtual images without need of photographic paper or computer monitors either one?
The "snapshots" we have become so accustomed to that we no longer even taken them for granted, didn't come easy. We forget just how crude the first photographic images from the 1840s really were. We forget how "medieval" the first descendants of the truly medieval camera obscuras really were. We can't imagine the ancient, convoluted chemistry that made even these crude images possible. Moreover, most of us have never heard the names Victor Regnault, Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evard, Alphones Poitevin, Hippolyte Bayard, Olympe Aguado, or Phelix Tournachon, all early photographic pioneers. We may know the name Louis Daguerre or even his English counterpart and rival, William Henry Fox Talbot, but both these men barely started the ball rolling. It was left to the "forgotten ones" to perfect this crude science so that it might become an art medium. One of those who did, was Louis Robert.
Louis Robert (pronounced ro-BARE) was born in 1810 into a Paris family of artist and artisans involved in painting on glass and china at the famed Manufacture de Sevres. It was a tight community of workers, artists, scientists, and businessmen. Louis was an acomplished portrait painter even before photography made its debut. It was only natural that as such, he should take an interest in the new science that seemed a potential threat to his livelihood. He was also in the unique position of having access to the laboratory facilities to experiment not just with TAKING photographs, but in DEVELOPING them too. And whenever art and science meet in the person of a single individual, expect greatness.
Robert's surviving portfolio is not great in number--less than a hundred images--forty of them newly discovered. No, the greatness we see in them comes from the discreet blending of an artist's eye and a scientist's curiosity. We see his trials, his errors, and his triumphs. In viewing his work, we can almost watch him discover what worked and what didn't both artistically and chemically. We watch him experiment with paper calotype negatives, salted paper, coatings of wax, whey, and albumen, exposing them wet, dry, and somewhere in between, forever trying to overcome the eternal 30 second to four minute exposure times needed, while all the time, working to translate the traditional arts of portraiture, landscape, and still-life to a new, expressive, yet demanding medium.
The irony of all this is that while the names of these pioneers in the art and science of photography are shrouded in the foggy mists of "ancient" history, today, even as most of them are still alive, we have little or no knowledge of the pioneering artists and scientists that have brought us the amazing feats of DIGITAL photography we are all coming to know and love daily. Who are they? These incredible geniuses of digital art and science, far from being forgotten, are not even KNOWN in the first place.
(My thanks to Anna West for the material on Louis Robert.)