Calling all history buffs...
Hello there everyone,
Does anyone know what camera and lens combo Robert Howlett used in 1857 to take his famous photograph of Brunel?
I know he used a wet plate collodion process on albumen paper, but I am trying to find out the actual, or at least likely, equipment used.
Many thanks for all and any help
Only info I have is mentioned in 'A World History of Photography' third edition by Naomi Rosenblum page 157... a GREAT book which I suggest anyone get.
"From the 1850s on, the mechanical-image maker frequently was called upon to record other feats served up by the age of mechanization. The usefulness of such records was demonstrated by the documentation of Isambard Kingdom Brunels British steamship Great Eastern, an enormous coal-driven liner capable of carrying 4000 passengers. The vivid handling of light, form, and volume seen in views by Robert Howlett and Joseph Cundall of this "leviathan"-made for The Illustrated Times of London and The London Stereoscope Company-was praised because it embraced real rather than synthetic situations."
My best guess, or future place to research would be to look up Joseph Cundall... though, maybe not for that specific photo but its possible it may have been photographed using a stereoscopic camera, though I doubt that for a portrait. It likely was being used in other photos of the visit...
"Where is beauty? Where I must will with my whole Will; where I will love and perish, that an image may not remain merely an image."
That is indeed a great book, unfortunately not so useful for this query.
I guess I will have to go with 'most likely camera and lens'
i have that portrait in a collection of images from the national portrait gallery in london. you might contact them, they have the image, and maybe the curator would know specifics ( lens-camera &C) and what process was used to make it ...
Here's a page from the NPG
These were albumen prints, and Howlett is believed to have died from poisoning from his own chemicals, so that might point to wetplate negatives processed with mercury vapor.
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In 1857 there wouldn't be all that many choices. Chances are the picture was taken with a Petzval type lens (although a Ross Doublet might also be possible), since these were the only lenses available in the middle of the 19th century which were fast enough for portraiture. Camera? Well, it there weren't too many design choices, it was probably either a sliding box camera or a Tailboard Bellows camera.
They are outdoor portraits, so a slower lens might have been a possibility. Edge softness, though, might suggest a Petzval, but maybe not.
I am thinking Petzval definitely, which in turn will dictate the size/type of camera I imagine. what is the imaging circle of one of those lenses? How much are they? I am trying to recreate the aesthetic for my city's Brunel celebrations.
I am having no luck finding one for sale anywhere.
Could be a "landscape lens" as well, I guess. The edge softness isn't very obvious, nor would it be in an outdoors setting (smaller aperture = greater all-over sharpness).
-- Ole Tjugen, Luddite Elitist
Neat question, great image.
Looking into my Kingslake, it seems Ross and Dallmeyer are out of the running: prior to 1859 there were no adequate lenses from Ross. After the elder Ross died, young Ross and Dallmeyer parted ways, and each manufactured their first great objectives. But all came after Howlett had died.
A meniscus lens with a stop, or a Grubb aplanat, might be possible lenses. They were both slow, according to Kingslake. But the Petzval or Voigtlander portrait lenses were fast and good, and common. Voigtlander made a variety of focal lengths, and Petzval was nearly out of business at this time.
My own playful shots with a short Voigtlander show that stopping down improves the corners, but speed was a real issue at the time, and the use of a longish lens reduces the amount of fuzzy corners in the final image. If Howlett was shooting outside, and had to haul around all the wetplate stuff anyhow, carrying a big lens wouldn't have broken his back if it wasn't already broken.
If we can assume the image wasn't an enlargement, which was DONE, but not common ( according to Towler, in The Silver Sunbeam ) the plate of Brunel was about 300cm x 250cm; a little larger than the image as presented. The image looks like it was made with a longish lens, a lot like an 8x10 image from a 360mm - 400mm.
I'd guess, then, a 300 x 250 plate, with a 450 mm Voigtlander made Portrait lens.
As for the type of camera, I'd guess something like Frith's or Fenton's. Maybe the BJP archives would have a clue. Something this large, I'd bet it was made to Howlett's design by a cabinetmaker.
It has to be speculation, unless there are some primary sources. He left some 14" prints, a lot of smaller ones ... did he use a couple cameras, or several ? There are many cropped versions of the Brunel that date from the time... too many questions.
Are you planning an elaborate dress-up party ?
"This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last."