How do photographs circulate knowledge from 1750 to 1850?

The Art of Swimming

In the earliest days of photography, the accuracy of the daguerreotype was impressive. However, since the daguerreotype process only generated a single photograph, it was not well suited to disseminating knowledge. As a result, the image captured by the daguerreotype often circulated through artists' engravings that were made after photographs, such as in the example of Noël-Paymal Lerebours’s Excursions Daguerriennes, published in the 1840s. 

Paper prints such as calotypes and cyanotypes were more useful for the purpose of circulating knowledge due to their reproducibility. William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins both created early books of paper prints. Creating multiple prints and bringing them together into volumes was extremely laborious, and certainly not more efficient than any of the technologies that preceded photography.

In this section, we consider some of the media forms that circulated during photography’s early years. One well-known example is the Encyclopédie, a representative Enlightenment project that attempted to gather together and order all the knowledge in the world. Stephen Bull explains that the search for a means to “fix the image” produced by light, and the resulting discovery of photography, was marked by a similar Enlightenment desire to collect and catalogue the visible world (6-9). All of the examples included here, as well as many of the photographic materials that circulated in subsequent historical periods, participate in this effort to study, understand, and even master both visible and less visible phenomena. 

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