Niepce, Daguerre Or Talbot? The Quest Of Joseph Hamel To Find The Real Inventor Of Photography

by Matt Damsker


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By Serge Plantureux; English translation by Suzy Firth. Published by Accademia dei Venti ISBN #2-84940-003-3; EAN #9782849400036. Information: , or CEROS, 4, Galerie Vivienne, 75002 Paris. Tel.: +33-153-29-92-00. 50 pages. Price: $5. Available in French or English.

History is slippery in the best of circumstances, but in looking backward to the watershed year of 1839, when photography emerged amidst the smoke and steam of the Industrial Revolution, the view is hazy at best. Who invented the medium? The great names attached to the beginnings of photography are familiar enough--mainly Louis-Jacques-Mandy Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot--but this short investigative essay by Serge Plantureux adds the story of Joseph Hamel to the historic mix. It describes how Hamel sought the truth in the course of seeking advantage for Mother Russia, and came to view the French "heliographer" Joseph Nicephore Niepce as the medium's true inventor

Indeed, this pleasing curiosity of a book was first published last year in French, but it comes to us now in an English translation. Firth's task could not have been easy, for Plantureux's verbal style seems sprawling and informal, and some further proofing would have caught several typographical errors, but the information is compelling. If nothing else, it limns a portrait of a man who may well have been the world's first industrial spy, sent to the West in the early 1800s by Russian Tsar Nicholas I to keep the Motherland abreast of the surging technological developments of France and Great Britain.

As the Tsar's man, Hamel--who was born of German colonists along the river Volga--was a distinguished presence, well-schooled in the sciences and an earnest observer of everything from new educational systems to the emergence of the telegraph and new methods of electrolysis. While his European hosts happily opened their cultures to him, he kept the Tsar up to date on various breakthroughs, so that by 1839 he was nicely positioned to play a role in bringing photography to Russia.

At this point in the narrative, Plantureux gets a little overwhelmed by the tide of historical cross-currents that place the likes of Talbot, Daguerre, and Niepce at the generative heart of the medium. While the verifiable truth seems a bit murky, it becomes clear to us that the invention of photography, like most technological breakthroughs, was more a shared achievement than a Promethean bestowal of fire by any one man. Daguerre, for example, is depicted as the great showman and entrepreneur who knew the value of contracting with Niepce, whose "heliographs" were important early steps in developing the process. Talbot, of course, was refining techniques in his own way.

Hamel, viewing Niepce as the true inventor of the medium, grew close with the Niepce family and was able to collect important early examples, which made their way to Russia. By then, the fledgling era of the photography collector was upon the art world, and Hamel's seminal gathering of images by Niepce is an achievement in itself. This 50-page book is enhanced by a dozen or so black-and-white plates, including a classic 1844 portrait of Daguerre, that are themselves worth the book's $5 price. So is the amusing epilogue, in which Hamel persuades the Tsar to let him journey to America. Tsar Nicholas shared the view of many Europeans that the Americas were rife with cannibals, and feared that his faithful Hamel would develop a taste for human flesh, if not be devoured himself. Thus, he made Hamel sign a pledge that on his visit to the U.S., "I shall not eat human meat."

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.