Taking highlights from our current Photographic Memories exhibition at Bankfield Museum, this online exhibit takes you on a journey through the history of photography. Using images from our collection, we will tell the story of our love for photos, from the first permanent image made in 1826, to the estimated 14 trillion we take each year across the world today.
With a click and a flash, photographs allow us to capture the world around us. Whether it is a holiday snap, a social media selfie or an image accompanying a newspaper headline, we use photos to create powerful visual memories.
We have selected photographs from our collection to look at the role photography has played in our lives past and present, and share images capturing the people and places of this region. We will explore various types of historic images, from the daguerreotype to colour photography. Many of these pictures are being displayed for the first time.
Capturing an image
Today, we take for granted that we can snap a photo in an instant. But, where did it all begin? How did we get to the point that a photograph like this one was even possible?
One of the key inventions that led to photography was the camera obscura, which means ‘dark room’ in Latin. Dating back to ancient times, the earliest of these were simply dark rooms with a pin-sized hole in one wall. Light shining through the hole projected an upside-down image of the world outside. Portable versions were invented in which the inside of a box was painted black – the image was projected onto a sheet of paper. This device was used in early experiments that led to the discovery of the photographic process.
In 1826 French amateur scientist, artist and inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833) succeeded in making the first permanent photographic image. In early experiments with camera obscuras and light sensitive materials, Niépce managed to capture images on paper coated in silver chloride. These pictures faded almost immediately. In later trials, he built on key discoveries in chemistry, using a sheet of pewter coated in oils to create a lasting image of the view from his window. This technique needed an exposure time of several hours. He called the process ‘Heliography’, which means ‘writing with the sun’.
Some of the oldest photographs in our collection are daguerreotypes, the first commercially available photographic images. They are easy to spot, as they often come in a protective frame lined with velvet, silk or leather.
Daguerreotypes are named after French artist Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787 – 1851). He discovered a simple chemical process for producing permanent images. Daguerre learned that a silver-plated sheet of copper could be made light sensitive by exposing it to iodine vapour. The plate was then placed inside a camera and tripod and exposed to light. After exposure, the plate was treated with mercury vapour to produce a visible image. Finally, the image was fixed by washing the plate in a salt solution.
Portraits were popular subjects in early photographs. This is a daguerreotype portrait of James Hartley (1842-1926). James was a resident of Kendal House in Heptonstall.
A cheaper process, the collodion positive, emerged as a rival to the daguerreotype in 1853. Collodion positives were made, somewhat confusingly, by exposing photographic negatives on glass. The back of the glass was then covered with a black cloth or paint to produce a positive image.
Daguerreotypes and collodion positives were popular with the middle and upper classes during the 1840s and 50s. Both were expensive processes and were only available to those who could afford it. This is a portrait of James Illingworth (1834-1924), the son of a labourer who lived at 42 Mosley Carr, Low Moor. For a time, he worked in the ironworks. In 1875, he married Sarah Nicholl at St Mark’s Church in Low Moor. By 1911, Illingworth was listed as having no occupation and living off ‘private means’. We aren’t sure how he had managed to afford expensive photos like this.
Collodion positives are often confused for daguerreotypes, as they were both housed in protective cases and frames. Although they look similar, daguerreotypes were made with more expensive materials. Regardless, commissioning a photograph using either method was still a costly affair. Most commercial photographers adopted simpler, more cost effective processes by the 1860s.
In the 1850s, there was appetite for a cheaper alternative to daguerreotypes and collodion positives. People also wanted to be able to make copies of photos, which was proving difficult with existing techniques. Daguerreotypes, for example, produced unique images every time. Enter the carte-de-visite, which was introduced to England in 1857.
In the early 1850s, French portrait photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri had the idea of taking several photographs on one glass negative. When they were printed, four copies of the same image were obtained in one operation. The portrait prints were the same size of visiting or ‘calling’ cards. Visiting cards or cartes-de-visite, as they were known in France, contained your name and address. During the 18th and 19th century, it was common to leave these at the household of friends or associates who were not at home when you visited. Disdéri patented photographs taken in this size, which also came to be known as cartes-de-visite.
Printing more than one image at a time sped up the process and made the images cheaper to buy. This made photography more accessible and encouraged a Victorian love affair with photos.
In 1860 John E. Mayall took cartes-de-viste portraits of Queen Victoria and her family. He published these as The Royal Album, creating a trend for collecting cartes of friends, relatives and celebrities to create an album, dubbed ‘Cartomania’. The demand for cartes-de-visite created competition for better and cheaper products, such as hand-coloured cartes. Elaborately designed advertisements were also printed on the reverse.
Cartomania also reached Calderdale. Photographer Jeremiah Alexander, for example, had a photographic studio at 8 Horton Street, Halifax. In 1868, he advertised that he had ‘discovered’ a process known as cartes-de-visite. Other photographic studios, such as J. Haigh Greenwood’s in Brighouse and E. Gregson’s in Halifax, probably produced thousands of cartes-de-visite locally.
Although we know quite a bit about the photographers and their studios, we often have very little information about the subject of the photos. We do know that the carte-de-visite was very affordable and opened photography up to many more people in the region.
In the 1870s the ‘cabinet card’ became a rival to the carte-de-visite. Cabinet cards are easy to identify, as they are usually mounted on a piece of card with the name of the photographer marked on the front. They were often displayed in household cabinets, hence the name. The larger size of the cards made them a popular choice for consumers, as it was easier to see the details in the photo.
We have a number of cabinet cards in our collection and many of them are on display at Bankfield Museum. Local photographers in Halifax, Sowerby Bridge, Todmorden, Brighouse and Triangle produced many of the cabinet cards we hold. This image was taken between 1899 and 1912 at Arthur Vincent Wild’s studio on Waterhouse Street in Halifax. Sadly, we know very little about the sitters in this photograph, as personal details were rarely recorded.
One of the women in this cabinet card photo is smirking. That might not seem unusual, but if you look back at many old photographs you’ll notice that most people wear a very serious expression.
Today, we can snap pictures in an instant. This photo was taken around 1870. Back then, photographic technology was much slower, making it difficult to capture movement and fleeting gestures like smiles.
Early cameras had a very slow shutter speed, as they needed to expose the image to light for longer. People posing for photographs had to stay very still or the picture would blur, ruining the photo. As a result, photographers might have discouraged smiling, as it’s difficult to hold a beaming grin for 20 seconds or more. Give it a try. Is your face aching?
The Victorian and Edwardian subjects of these photos might also have worried about respectability. Throughout art history, smiles were often used to portray disreputable and drunken behaviour. Upper class patrons of the photography studio would not want to be perceived in this way, as these photos were distributed to friends, business associates and other family members. Do you have a favourite family photograph? Or one where you wish you'd smiled more?
Many of us store our photographs in digital albums on our phones or computer. We might also have leather bound photo albums sat on the shelf – a visual history of our childhoods and the lives of our family and friends. Most of the time, we think of these albums as an archive, something to dig out when we want to reminisce or remind somebody of times past.
When photo albums became a trend in Victorian Britain, they had a slightly different purpose. Victorian photo albums were intended for display. Some contain beautiful hand-illustrated or printed pages. Unlike many of the photos we take today, professional studio photographers took most of these pictures. The albums in our collection are a rich resource and contain hundreds of images taken by local photography studios. Do you have any photo albums? Or are most of your images now digitally stored?
Britain’s first photographic portrait studio opened in Regent Street, London in March 1841. It was owned and run by Richard Beard, a coal merchant. Other studios started to spring up in London and a number of provincial towns. During the 1850s, the number of studios in Britain grew rapidly. In London, for instance, there were 66 studios in 1855. Ten years later, there were nearly 300. The 1861 population census lists 2,534 photographers and photography assistants working in the UK.
There were many photographic studios in Halifax, Brighouse and Todmorden, amongst other places in the region. This child’s portrait was taken at Palace Studio in Halifax. Maud Hilda and Clement William Greaves established the studio in 1908. We don’t know too much about the studio. If this image is anything to go by, perhaps they were experts in embarrassing generations of children for years to come?
19th century photographic studios relied on daylight to illuminate their images. To capture as much light as possible and to keep exposure time to a minimum, they often had glass roofs and walls. They also had moveable blinds and curtains that allowed the photographer to control the direction and amount of light. Like the Palace Studio in Halifax, many used props and backdrops in their portraits. Earlier photos had more elaborate painted scenes, such as ornate furniture, natural landscapes and ivy-covered tree stumps, which mimicked portrait paintings. What background would you choose for your studio portrait?
This photo of Old Market and part of Crown Street in Halifax was taken in 1886. Busy town centres were brimming with independent businesses during this period, including a number of photographic studios. Amateur photography was beginning to take off in the 1880s, but studios still thrived.
Edward Gregson, for example, opened his Electric and Daylight Studio in Lister Lane in 1865. In 1874 his business, Central Portrait Rooms was established at 12 Waterhouse Street, Halifax. Gregson also had a studio in Talbot Road, Blackpool.
Others, such as Crossley Westerman, opened a photographic studio in a toyshop that had been run by his mother until 1882. He made a large collection of photographs of the life and times of the district. He opened another studio in 1917 at Victoria Road, Todmorden. In 1918 the business passed to his daughter Ada, and when she married in 1923, her apprentice Alice Longstaff took over the business. Alice became a renowned photographer and her photographic collection is displayed in the Alice Longstaff Gallery Collection in the Pennine Horizons Digital Archive. Click the link to see more local photographs.
Photo of Old Market and part of Crown Street in Halifax, 1886
Calotype: two steps forward, one step back
English scientist and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) made a discovery that would revolutionise photography. Through experimentation, Talbot learned that even a brief exposure was enough to produce an invisible or ‘latent’ image. With a chemical treatment, the photographic negative could be made visible. He named this technique ‘calotype’, after the Greek kalos, which means beautiful. Talbot’s negative-positive method became the most widely used photographic technique until the invention of the digital photo. Images like this street scene in Halifax used a refined version of this process.
However, Talbot’s technique took a long time to catch on. In part, this is due to a patent that the inventor took out in the 1840s. After witnessing the public interest in the daguerreotype, Talbot patented his own processes. He was trying to protect his intellectual property and commercial interests. In 1843, Talbot set up a printing businesses to mass-produce photography for publication. However, his patent prevented others from adopting this method. Arguably, Talbot hindered the early popularisation of photography in Britain.
View of Brackenbed Lane in Halifax c.1910
The trouble with Talbot
Despite Talbot’s efforts to restrict the use of his calotype method, there were moves to democratise photography in the UK. In the 1840s and 50s, a group of amateur photographers banded together to force Talbot to revoke his patent. They also formed the Photographic Society of London in 1853 to spread information on photographic techniques and popularise the new art. By 1895 there were 256 photographic clubs and societies.
Initially only the aristocracy and leisured middle classes had the time and money for photography. As technology advanced, the processes became easier and cheaper, such as the introduction of dry plates in the 1870s, enabling more people to take up photography as a hobby. By the 1880s tripods were no longer essential, as exposure times were now short enough to allow cameras to be handheld.
These technological developments led to changes in the subjects of photos and people’s reasons for taking them. Shorter exposures and portable devices made it easier to capture moments in time. This energetic crowd scene in Churchfields, Brighouse is a long way from the static posed portraits we saw earlier.
A crowd on Churchfields, Brighouse with St. Martin’s Church in background, c.1880-1910
Picture postcards or ‘real photo’ postcards, as they were sometimes known, were a revelation. Photographic negatives were developed onto photo paper with a pre-printed postcard backing. Like cartes-de-visite before them, they were very cheap to produce. With their postcard backing, they were also convenient for writing and sending messages.
Photography studios and amateurs alike could create limited print runs of a series of photos. This street scene of North Bridge in Halifax from around 1906 was probably photographed and sold by a local studio. Urban photos like this one became very popular during this period.
Picture postcards were a major breakthrough for amateur photography. Companies such as Kodak invented a series of cameras that took postcard size images, which could be easily printed in the studio. This equipment would still have been expensive for many people though.
Picture postcard of North Bridge, Halifax c.1906
Sending photo messages
Scrawled notes and brief messages are recorded on the back of many picture postcards. We have hundreds of picture postcards in our collection and they offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of people who lived in the Calderdale region and beyond. Hastily written postcards allow us to imagine something about the people who wrote them. They also hint at how people were using photographs and the relationship between the sender and recipient. Like photography, these messages capture a brief moment in time.
This message is the reverse of the previous photo. It was postmarked in Halifax on 16th August 1906. The sender is writing to her sister in Lancashire to apologise for not buying some beads. She tells her that she will come “early next month” with a promise of a present then.
People sent picture postcards for many reasons. Some of the cards in our collections are used as invitations for tea, to update friends on their health (there is one rather detailed description of somebody’s troubles with indigestion) and as declarations of love. We don’t know if the choice of photo on the front was significant to the people who sent and received them, or if they were simply bought or chosen in haste. Have you sent postcards from holidays? Have you any favourite ones you have kept?
Reverse of picture postcard, c.1906
Handheld cameras: photography for the masses
Cheap, handheld cameras put the ability to take photographs in millions of hands. Businessmen, such as George Eastman, the founder of Kodak looked for ways to produce affordable photographic equipment. If cameras were available to everyone, he reasoned, his company would have a wealth of new users that would require their Kodak film and other products.
Whatever the motivation, Kodak designed and manufactured the Brownie camera – we have several examples in our collection and on display. The very first model, introduced in 1900, was a basic cardboard box with a simple lens. The camera could take 117 images onto a roll of film. There was no built-in viewfinder, but a clip-on one was available as an optional extra for one shilling (5p). Over 150,000 sold in the first year alone.
Camera technology developed to such an extent that almost everybody could be considered a photographer. Companies like Kodak continued to develop their products, adding new features such as plastic film cartridges and flashes to improve images in low light. Cameras were bought in their millions in the mid-20th century.
Photograph of people playing tennis. The words ‘Dakin’ Mytholmroyd are printed on the reverse
Colour photography began in the mid-1930s with the introduction of Kodachrome and Agfacolor slide film. It was still expensive and didn’t take off until the 1950s. It was not until the 1970s that colour photography overtook black and white in popularity.
Before colour film, it was common practice to add colour by hand. People used coloured dyes, usually applied with a brush, to enhance the hues in their image. To our eyes, the effect is a bit strange. The colour pops off the image in contrast to the subtle blacks, whites and greys. This practice continued well into the 1930s.
This picture postcard of the Royal Halifax Infirmary May Queen (a woman chosen to walk at the front of a May day parade) was coloured in by hand. So, if you’re unhappy with your black and white photos, you know what to do.
Hand coloured photograph of the Royal Halifax Infirmary May Queen, Halifax c.1933
Now that photography was open to all, the style of the photos people took began to change. Rather than austere portraits, people were free to take more personal snaps, documenting their daily lives and reflecting their personalities. The selfie is of course the latest manifestation of our ever-changing relationship to photography.
This family snap of a walk through Norland Moor is in stark contrast to the dour group portraits we find in early photos. It captures a sense of the family dynamic, in a way that wasn’t possible 100 years before. Rather than showing off wealth or status, the reason for clicking the shutter here, appears to be a wish to capture an enduring memory of an enjoyable day. I bet the people in this photograph didn’t think it would end up in a museum - if anyone recognises them, please let us know who they are!
Photograph of group on Norland Moor, possibly 1970s - 1980s
Photojournalism, using images to communicate the news, has its roots in the 1850s. Early documentary photographs and images were used to capture the horrors of war. From the 1870s onwards, photographers took an interest in the day-to-day lives of people, particularly those living in poverty in urban areas. This documentary impulse was a natural fit for newspapers and storytelling.
Developments in camera technology allowed photographers to capture rapid movement and emotions in a split-second. Innovations in printing and flash technologies led to the adoption of photographs in newspapers. By the early 1900s, many daily newspapers were able to print photos, which replaced etchings, engraving and lithographs.
Faster shutter speeds led to a popular form of photojournalism – capturing sporting events. This dynamic shot of the Bradshaw Cycle Race in 1978 would rightly take pride of place in the sports pages.
As part of our physical display at Bankfield Museum, we are also exhibiting images taken by world-renowned photographers Martin Parr and Fay Godwin. Both have used photojournalistic techniques in their work in order to sensitively portray the lives of people and places. Once we reopen, we hope you can come and see their incredible images of West Yorkshire in person.
Photograph of Bradshaw Cycle Race, 1978, taken for the Halifax Courier newspaper
With the exception of the world of contemporary art, traditional methods of photography are now rarely used. Old ways of taking photos declined with the invention and adoption of digital photography in the 1990s. Yet, photography remains more popular than ever, with trillions of images taken and shared around the world each year.
Historic archives of photographs such as the images in our collection are an essential record of the social history of different people and places. With many of our contemporary images only existing as pixels, what kind of photographic heritage will we leave for the future? With the sheer number of images we take, it’ll be more difficult than ever to determine which of our photographic memories are significant. What images will people in the future choose to represent the Calderdale of today?
The photographs we have shared here are only a small selection of those on display in our Photographic Memories exhibition. When we are able to reopen, we hope you’ll be able to come and see the exhibit and share your own memories and stories with us in person.
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Find out more
Edwards, Phil. 2016. Why people never smiled in old photographs. Vox.
National Museums Scotland. Victorian photography
Plunkett, J. 2003. Celebrity and Community: The poetics of the carte-de-visite. Journal of Victorian Culture 8(1)
West, Nancy Martha. 2000. Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia. University Press of Virginia
Online resources on the history of photography from the National Media Museum:
- The History of photography in pictures- https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/history-photography
- The first digital photos- https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/first-digital-photos