Photography changes our understanding of light

Steve Turner

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Steve Turner [ BIO ]

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Steve Turner

Steven Turner, associate curator for the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History, specializes in science education, the history of physics, and the history of astronomy. Turner—who edits the journal, Rittenhouse, and has published Instruments for Science, 1800-1914: Scientific Trade Catalogs in Smithsonian Collections, a web project—received the Smithsonian Affiliations Award of Excellence in 2004.

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Steve Turner, Smithsonian curator of physical sciences, reflects on the ways the earliest attempts to photograph light itself and the use of photographic images in scientific discourse.

This is a daguerreotype John Draper made of the solar spectrum, sometime between 1840 and 1842. Shortly after he learned about photography’s invention, Draper, who lived in Virginia, began experimenting with the new medium to make natural history images. He photographed through microscopes and took one of the first photographs of the moon (which we also have in the Smithsonian collection).

Draper was part of a group of European and American scientists who called themselves "photologists,” and were interested in light and the chemistry of photography, attempting to incorporate the new phenomena of light-sensitive chemicals into the chemical understanding of their time. He began experimenting with photographs of the spectrum, trying to understand what kinds of chemical salts would produce the most broadly sensitive photographic emulsions. What you see here is an early example of that work. It is a photograph of sunlight.

Draper worked in a room that was completely darkened, except for a narrow stream of sunlight that came through a small cut he had made in a window shade. The beam of light was directed through a prism and into Draper’s camera. What registered on his daguerreotype plate in this fifteen-minute exposure was an image of light broken up into a continuous color spectrum. This is one of the earliest photographic representations of light, itself. What’s particularly interesting is that Draper’s daguerreotype plate was chemically sensitized in such a way that not only did it register visible light, but ultraviolet light, too, something the human eye can’t normally see. But here it is, an example from the dawn of photography showing us how photography expands our senses and leads us constantly into the unexpected.

Draper made other daguerreotypes similar to this, and shipped at least one to John Herschel, a scientist and early pioneer of photography, who lived in England. Herschel was also researching light and photography, as well as color blindness and ultraviolet rays. Interestingly, at this time Americans (for all the photographic advances that they would soon become known for) were very insecure about their scientific achievements. So when an American made a scientific discovery, the evidence would quickly be sent to a leading expert in Europe to get their opinion and to ensure that the American got credit. Fragile images like this one, accompanied by letters discussing what they documented or suggested, routinely went back and forth across the ocean, and became the focus of an international and ongoing conversation about optics, chemistry and photography.

After this daguerreotype was made—and throughout the remainder of nineteenth century—light, and particularly the spectrum remained an object of scientific fascination. Physicists were obsessed with the mysteries of spectra, which they believed to hold the “master keys of science.” They wondered about the physical nature of light, if it was a wave or made of particles, whether it had weight or might exert pressure. Draper’s image, a humble one, eventually led to later, more complex photographic images of the light spectrum, such as the large and incredibly detailed paper prints, made with diffraction gratings and spectroscopes, that were mass produced and sold for use in classrooms and laboratories around the world. The goal of all of these explorations of light was to better understand elements of the physical world. What Draper did, early on, was to use photography to ask a basic question: what can we know with what we already have? He began by making daguerreotype plates like this one, exposing them to the sun under different conditions, and using his scientific understanding of light to make sense out of the photographic images he created.

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Spectrograph by John William Draper
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  • Spectrograph, 1840
  • John William Draper
The Moon by Henry Draper
Glass Positive of the Sun by Henry Draper
Glass Positive of the Moon by Henry Draper

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