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HomeContents > People > Photographers > John Benjamin Dancer

Other: J.B. Dancer 
Dates:  1812, 8 October - 1887, 24 November
Born:  Great Britain, London
Active:  UK
Optician, photographer and inventor. He took Daguerreotypes with the aid of microscope and one was of the founders of photographic microscopy.
The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge has a "List of Microscopic Photographs", Prepared by J.B. Dancer, Optician, 43 Cross Street, Manchester
The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin houses a collection of 315 items related to John Benjamin Dancer (Accession No(s): 983:0037:0001- ?).

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John Benjamin Dancer

The inventor of microphotography and father of microfilming.
A prolific inventor of scientific and optical apparatus and an enthusiastic microscopist. The announcement of the Daguerreotype process led him to attempt the production of miniature photographs utilising the microscope as the means of reduction (microphotographs as opposed to photomicrographs which utilise the microscope to produce enlarged images). His earliest attempts made perhaps in 1839 or 1840 seem not to have been entirely successful, doubtless due to the limitation of the daguerreotype itself. Although capable of very high resolution it was not transparent and had therefore to be viewed by reflected light. What Dancer really needed was a photographic medium which was transparent; the reduced image could then be recorded and viewed by transmitted light.
Fox Talbot's Calotype process, announced in 1841, was not of much use as the paper base of the negatives severely restricted definition. In fact Dancer was obliged to wait for eleven years from his earliest experiments in microphotography until 1851 when Frederick Scott Archer announced his wet-collodion process. Scott Archer was a sculptor who, with a number of other artists, was a member of the Calotype Club. This club had been formed to utilise the Calotytpe process perfected by Fox Talbot and when, in 1848 Niepce de St. Victor published his Albumen method Scott Archer was among those who used it. The albumen process was extremely difficult to work and Scott Archer attempted to find an alternative technique whilst still maintaining the process's most notable feature - the glass base or emulsion support. Successful experiments using wet collodion encouraged Scott Archer to publish his method in 1852. Apart from its transparent support the collodion process allowed considerably shorter exposure times to be used, thus solving two of Dancer's most serious problems in the making of miniature photographs. Dancer immediately experimented with the new process and the Chapman Collection contains examples of microphotographs signed and dated by Dancer in 1852.
Verification that the process used by Dancer was indeed wet-collodion came when Newman and Stevens conducted an analytical investigation of two Dancer microphotographic slides in 1978. Dancer's method involved a two-stage reduction in which a small negative intermediate was used to produce the final reduction positive. In 1853, shortly after Dancer's collodion opaque microphotographs were produced, Dr Hugh Welch Diamond (1809-1886) succeeded in making the earliest microphotographic transparencies. Diamond, an amateur photographer and subsequent editor of the Photographic Journal, went on to become the founder of clinical photography.
About this time a controversy arose as to who had actually produced the very first microphotograph. In 1857 a well-known photographer and editor of the Photographic Journal, George Shadbolt, published a method of making extremely minute photographs and claims were advanced on his behalf as the originator of the technique. These claims brought an irate response both from Dancer himself and from those who knew of his work. Shadbolt finally conceded to the overwhelming evidence of Dancer's claim. Shadbolt is, however, rightfully credited with coining the word 'microphotography' - a word which even today is still confused with the totally different technique of photomicrography.
In 1851 James Glaisher first made the suggestion that microphotography might be used to produce reduced versions of ancient manuscripts and rare printed books. Glaisher's statement, made in the context of his report to the Class X jury (Philosophical Instruments and Processes including photography) of the Great Exhibition was echoed two years later when, in 1853, Sir John Herschel proposed the publication of "concentrated microscopic editions of works of reference - maps, atlases, logarithmic tables and manuscripts, etc., etc.", a clear reference to micropublication which would ultimately lead to the separate but related field of microfilming.
The first book devoted to the practice of microphotography was published by James Nicholls in 1860. The work was illustrated with diagrams showing contemporary equipment.
A portrait of J.B. Dancer as well as his microphotographic slides and microscopes is among the Dancer Collection now in the Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin (formerly held by the Northwestern Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester).
ARDEN, L.L., John Benjamin Dancer: The Originator of Microphotography, The Library Association, London, 1960.
British Journal of Photography, "Microscopic photography" by J. Sidebotham, 1859:91.
British Journal of Photography, "The first microphotograph controversy" (letters from Sidebotham, Dancer and Binney) 1859: 104, 118, 125, 126.
British Journal of Photography, December 20, 1971, p.604.
GUNN, Michael J., Manual of Document Microphotography, Focal Press/Butterworth Scientific, London and Boston, 1985.
MARTON, H.B., J.B. Dancer, Northwestern Museum of Science and Industry Handbook, n.d.
McLEOD, A., "John Benjamin Dancer, originator of microphotography", British Journal of Photography, 1973, pp.138-141.
MILLIGAN, H., "New light on J.B. Dancer", Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, No.115, 1972-3.
NEWMAN, G. and STEVENS, G.W.W., "Analytical identification of process used for Dancer microphotographs", Microdoc (Journal of the Microfilm Association of Great Britain), Vol.17, No.1, 1978, pp.26-34.
STEVENS, Guy W.W., Microphotography: Photography and Photofabrication at Extreme Resolution, 2nd. edit., Chapman and Hall, London, 1968.
STIRLING, J.F., "John Benjamin Dancer", Newnes Practical Mechanics, No.59, August, 1940, pp.479-480.
© Michael J. Gunn (2006) - Used with permission  

Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.133 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on John Benjamin Dancer.] 
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