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21.01.2004 Serge Plantureux : Niepce, Daguerre or Talbot ? Or The Quest of Joseph Hamel to Find the Real Inventor of Photography

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Niepce, Daguerre or Talbot ? Or The Quest of Joseph Hamel to Find the Real Inventor of Photography

A review was published in the iphotocentral Newsletter :

 

NIEPCE, DAGUERRE OR TALBOT? THE QUEST OF JOSEPH HAMEL TO FIND
THE REAL INVENTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY. By Serge Plantureux; English translation
by Suzy Firth. Published by Accademia dei Venti ISBN #2-84940-003-3; EAN
#9782849400036. . 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. »

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