Light is the very essence of photography and its capture, as an image, taxed the minds of many in the early years of the 19th century. By the late 1840s after many experiments with chemically coated surfaces, developers and fixatives etc the prize was in sight. Images previously only captured by artists began to appear on glass plates as Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes. Contact copies on paper, coated with albumen, soon followed and photography as we know it had finally arrived. Before long, the processes by which the “Pencil of Light” created permanent images became a fruitful means of earning a living. Photographic studios appeared, first in London prior to spreading inexorably the length and breadth of the British Isles and indeed the world.
Studios and ateliers sprang up everywhere positioned high up in buildings where natural light could flood in through large windows. This arrangement is illustrated in the trade card of Mr J.Kattern of Northampton, showing his studio with its many windows above with his premises down at street level. In the case of Vandyke and Brown of Liverpool, potential clients had to climb four flights of stairs to reach the light-filled studio. Only then could their images be captured for posterity .
Images of the sun were often included in the design of earlier photographer’s trade cards, as for several decades daylight was the only reliable source of light. The trade card of J. W. Culverhouse illustrates this dependence, along with a nod to his artistic and photographic abilities (see below).
From the mid-19th century sunlight had a rival as electricity gradually lit up the Victorian world. The photographic fraternity was not slow to capitalise on this innovation, as can be seen in the trade cards below. Albert Day of Hackney advertised the use of both natural and artificial light while Mr Percival of London seemed to abandon sunlight altogether. At the Electric Light Studios on the Edgware Road in London, Percival advertised electric light as this “successful speciality”.
As with all things, photography had to keep abreast of the times. By the end of Victoria’s reign, the photography business faced more competition as cameras became available to an ever wider public market. By 1900 the day of the carte de visite photograph, drawn with the pencil of light, was almost over. However, we still retain a remarkable archive by which to view the work of 19th century photographers to this day.