15 February 2019

A snapshot of history: exploring photographic material within the Miscellaneous Reports

Join Project Conservator Aimée Crickmore as she discusses some of the milestones in the history of photography and their context within the Miscellaneous Reports collection.

Correspondence and images in the collection

The 771 volumes within the Miscellaneous Reports collection cover a period of history from 1850 to 1928. They provide an important record of the research efforts of many people who worked within the global botanical science profession and give contemporary accounts of interactions with countries worldwide - particularly those under control or influence of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries.

In any collection, some of the most visceral and effecting items are photographs. Their main use within the Miscellaneous Reports was to highlight elements in correspondence, which were usually architectural or botanical. Typically, they complement the information presented as a documentary tool, but several images demonstrate a keen eye for composition and a hint of artistic flair.


Photo of book.
A silver image process of the Generating Station of Toronto Power Company in 1910 from within the volume MR616 ‘Canada. Miscellaneous’.

The images recorded in the collection work with the accounts provided to create further depth of understanding. In MR 322, we encounter this in an unexpected way – through bananas. In this volume, a series of letters between two correspondents in Sri Lanka and London documents the discussion of problems in transporting several varieties of banana stock, which lead to a visit to Kew gardens and culminated in a dinner meeting. Through the photographs, we can see the bananas which were being so thoughtfully debated those many years ago.

Photo of book.
One of the many varieties of banana recorded in MR322.

Photographic history and the Miscellaneous Reports

Historic photography utilised a variety of materials, which were refined in response to experimental findings. The first ‘photograph’ is accepted to have been taken in 1827 by the inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833). Unlike more modern photographs the images he produced were taken using a method termed ‘heliography’ – the support was a thin pewter sheet, which was coated with a thin layer of asphaltum and exposed for several hours to produce an image – this image was then revealed when the asphaltum layer was removed with a mixture of solvents.

Metal sheet supports are common to several early photographic processes including the Daguerreotype (1839-1860), which utilised a copper sheet coated with fine particles of silver, and Tintypes (1853-1930) which were produced on sheets of lacquered iron. The 19th century was a great period of scientific advancement and experimentation, and many of the processes were discovered simultaneously by inventors across the globe.

Early photographic images are often more susceptible to deterioration or damage, particularly those which utilise experimental components or processes – one of the common problems which inventors tried to negotiate was attaining a clear image, which remained at that level of clarity. Silver Chloride had been identified as a material with desirable properties, but these photographs which used it were known to blacken entirely over time. 

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) is widely considered one of the first inventors to identify that the quantity of silver compounds was key to producing a clear image, and utilised a nitrate treated paper in reaction with silver chloride to form some of the first stable images. Photographic methods continued to be refined based on this reaction, initially by ‘printing out’ on sensitised paper which was predominant from around 1870 until 1940. 

The ‘printing out’ method relied on a negative exposed to full sunlight which was then passed through several baths. This is contrasted by the later ‘developing out’ technique popularised from 1880 which has lasted to the present day; this method required a shorter exposure time, less intense light, and in most cases eliminated the need for a toning bath. This made it a popular choice for discerning 19th and 20th century photographers! 

Photo in book.
Photograph of a group in the Seychelles, c.1918-1928. Within volume, MR564 ‘Seychelles. Miscellaneous’.

Images in the Miscellaneous Reports

By and large the photographic prints preserved in the Miscellaneous Reports are silver images on paper supports, though different materials were used as the binder applied to the paper. Within this collection, the images are generally positives mainly created through the ‘developing out’ method, with albumen or gelatine binder layers, though there are some exceptions to this.

The features of historic photography and their processes of manufacture all have an impact on the preservation needs which the images have and are indicated in many different (occasionally subtle) ways, which I look forward to discussing further in an upcoming blog.

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