Naples:life,death &
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entry Nov 2014      

arly Photography in Naples

This is a stereograph of the Posillipo coast; a stereograph displayed two images, one slightly off-set from
  the other, giving a left-eye and right-eye image of the same scene. When viewed through a hand-held binocular
viewer, they presented a 3-D image. The photo is from 1861.

  Daguerreotype Camera, 1839

The daguerreotype process (after Louis Daguerre [1787 -1851], French artist and photographer) is generally regarded as the first “true” photographic process; thus, Daguerre is often referred to as one of the “fathers of photography.” The process involved buffing a silver plated sheet of copper to a mirror-like finish, then exposing the silver surface to iodine fumes which made the surface light-sensitive. The plate was then put in a holder in a modified camera obscura for a period of time and developed with heated mercury fumes to create a visible image. Later, a second exposure to bromine fumes was found to greatly reduce the exposure time required and eventually led to the use of the daguerreotype as a means of portraiture that made the process popular world-wide; it dominated the earliest period of photography for 20 years. Daguerreotype photography came into widespread use in the 1840s. (Thanks to Bruce Erickson and Aaron Dygart for their assistance with that paragraph!)

Photo: Giorgio Sommer, 1872                   
News of Daguerre's invention reached Naples almost immediately. The February 13, 1839 issue of Il Lucifero, a scientific journal, announced it, and it was picked up right away by more popular sources. The first actual photo produced by the process in Naples was by physicist and mathematician Gaetano Fazzini. The first presentation in Italy of the new process was made at the Naples Academy of Sciences on November 12, 1839, by Macedonio Melloni (1798-1854), the first director of the Mt. Vesuvius geological observatory. (It was a good run-up to 1845 when Naples hosted the Congress of Italian Scientists.) Melloni presented Fazzini, some of his photographs and explained the process.

They were mostly scenes of still life since the exposure times could be as long as 10 minutes. The presentation and subsequent demonstrations were successful—that is, Fazzini's daguerrotype photos were oohed and aahed over for their fidelity—but there was no great rush to open up commercial photography studios using either the daguerrotype process or the slightly later one called calotype or talbotype (for the inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), which, unlike the daguerrotype, produced photographic negatives from which one could make copies. Some onlookers even gloomily predicted the “end of painting”. (Hardly. They say that even as late as the 1860s in the United States, many photographic glass plates of the Civil War were so little valued that they wound up as panes of glass in greenhouses!) Photography was still a complex professional activity, decades away from the personal camera. (That was probably the Kodak Brownie in 1900, a very inexpensive user-reloadable point-and-shoot box camera. You shot a roll of film and then had to send the camera with the film still inside it (!) to Kodak and wait for them to send you back your camera and developed photos!) By the 1860s, daguerrotype technology had largely been abandoned in favor of techniques that took advantage of advances in lenses and chemistry to shorten exposure times greatly.

photo: Giorgio Sommer, 1865
The first active interest in commercially photographing the city and environs of Naples came from foreign photographers. Alexander John Ellis went on a photographic campaign in 1840-41 to make daguerreotypes of Naples, Paestum and Pompeii with the aim of inserting them in a book to be called Italy Daguerreotyped that would be published in 20 monthly parts. That plan fell through, but the plates still exist and are held by the National Media Museum at Bradford in the UK. (Ellis was an amateur photographer. His real job was in mathematics, musicology, phonetics and philology. He was acknowledged by George Bernard Shaw to be the prototype of Professor Henry Higgins of the play Pygmalion in 1913 which later became the musical My Fair Lady in 1956.)

In the 1850's Frenchman Aphonse Bernoud and Alfred Nicolas Norman produced both daguerreotypes and calotypes, Bernoud largely of landscapes, while Normand used his photographs for his architectural projects. The history of early photographer in Naples as capital city of its own kingdom (that is, before the unification of Italy in 1861) was, thus, largely in the hands of foreigners, many of whom were attracted by the kingdom's important standing on the so-called Grand Tour. There are countless etchings and paintings—indeed, entire schools of etchings and painting from 1800-1860 of Vesuvius, the Bay, Pompeii, Herculaneum, etc. This new thing called 'photography' eventually stimulated both locals as well as foreigners. By the 1860s and 1870s, with newer advances in technology, photographing Naples had arrived, as the images on this page show. Both large photos are by Giorgio Sommer (see that link for information on him). The stereograph at the top is anonymous.

[Also see related entry: Photchrom lithography 1880-1900]

Recine, Francesca (2006). La documentazione fotografica dell'arte in Italia
dagli albori all'epoca moderna. Sciptaweb, Naples, 2006. ISBN 8889543477.

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