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HomeContents > People > Photographers > John Herschel

Names:
Other: John Frederick Herschel 
Other: John Frederick William Herschel 
Other: Sir John Frederick William Herschel 
Other: Sir John Herschel 
Dates:  1792, 7 March - 1871, 11 May
Born:  Great Britain, Slough
Died:  Great Britain, Kent, Collingwood
Active:  Great Britain
 
  
English scientist, astronomer, artist, writer, innovator with photographic processes and photographer.
 
The Herschel Family Papers collection at the Harry Ransom Center has created an online inventory of their holdings which include correspondence with William Henry Tox Talbot (March 2012).

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for John Herschel
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

 
  
Talbot had few important sources of support in the early days of photography on paper, but among these the commanding scientific figure was Sir John Herschel. The name Herschel was known throughout the world, not only because of the family’s achievements in astronomy but also as a model of the modern scientific man. Separated by a generation, the critical one that bridged the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Herschel and Talbot first met in Munich in 1824. It was Herschel who introduced Talbot to Sir David Brewster, and the two became fast if improbable friends. When Talbot was forced to hurriedly disclose his invention of photography in January 1839 after the announcement of daguerreotypy, Herschel was one of the first colleagues he contacted. Taking the newly laid railway out to Slough to see Herschel, Talbot discovered that the scientist had independently invented his own photographic process in less than a week! From that point on, Herschel’s immediate and far-ranging series of experiments set a pace that Talbot was only too happy to meet. Their correspondence during 1839 brims with excitement, creativity, and enthusiasm. Applying a concept he had first explored in 1819, Herschel used hypo (sodium thiosulfate) as a fixer in the photographic process, a critical advance. He was also concerned with regularizing the advance of photography, inventing not only the word “photography” but also the terms “positive” and “negative.” Herschel produced numerous paper negatives using variations of his own processes during 1839, and by that autumn he had even succeeded in making negatives on glass. Over the next few years he explored hundreds of different processes on paper, his 1842 cyanotype process proving the most influential. Herschel had little interest in actually producing images with the photographic processes he explored; his real quarry was an understanding of light. However, this did not reflect a rejection of either aesthetics or practical applications. Herschel had long been a master of the camera lucida (the instrument that had so frustrated Talbot that he was forced to invent photography). He preferred the analytical process of drawing to the extractive process of photography (but, indeed, it was also Herschel who coined the term “snap-shot” in 1860). He greatly influenced the photographers around him, including his brother-in-law, John Stewart (1814 – 1887), and especially Julia Margaret Cameron, who considered him “my first Teacher & to you I owe all the first experiences & insights” in the art. Acting on his philosophy of self-sacrifice and devotion to country, Herschel reluctantly accepted the position of master of the mint in 1851 and accomplished major and necessary reforms to Britain’s financial system, but at a cost to his health and scientific endeavors. 
  
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
  
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
  
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
  
SHARED BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION PROJECT 
  
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
 
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.
 
  

Further research

 
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Thumbnail
Julia Margaret Cameron
Portrait of Sir John Herschel 
1867
 
  
Family history 
  
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch. 
  
alan@luminous-lint.com
 
  
 
  

Visual indexes

 
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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
Grove Art Online (www.groveart.com) has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
Show on this siteGo to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography.Show on this siteGo 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.245-246 
  
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on John Herschel.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.4-5 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
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