Our walk through Africa’s photography history AFRICANPHOTOMAGAZINE 10
The very worn inscription on the front of the daguerrotype reads: Native woman from Sofala, Monomotapa, aged 30 years. Although still young this woman’s hair is almost entirely white. Dr. T. Jack Thompson visited the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, in May 2003 where he shared his research project on the history of photography in Africa. Below are fascinating excerpts from Images of Africa: Photography in the Nineteenth Century:. The beginnings of photography are usually dated to 1839 when Daguerre in France, and Fox Talbot in England announced different techniques for producing what today we would call photographic images. Daguerre’s technique (which became known as the Daguerreotype) at first produced higher quality images; but it had the disadvantage of being able to produce only one unique image from each exposure. Fox Talbot’s technique (known as the calotype) used a paper negative, and could be reproduced several times. Within a few months of its invention photography had reached Africa mostly, at first, in the form of the daguerrotype. Although photography itself was invented in 1839, it was not until the late 1880s, with the perfection of the half-tone process, that photographs were able to be reproduced directly in published books. Up until that time, one of two things happened. Either very small print runs of books The ‘Ma Robert’, Dr Livingstone’s ship on the second Zambesi expedition of 1858, photographed on the Zambesi by Sir John Kirk. were produced into which individual photographic prints were stuck with glue or more commonly, often, however, they were based on, and copied from original photographs. The photographs could be copied on to lithographic plates, from which skilled engravers could produce extremely accurate lithographs. The earliest surviving photographs from Africa are mostly of Egyptian monuments. At this period exposures needed to be several minutes long, and almost all photographs were taken out of doors. The earliest surviving photograph of a black African is a daguerrotype of a female chief from Mozambique, taken by the French photographer Thiesson in 1845, and now in the Eastman Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York. The march into Africa was slowed in the midnineteenth century as photographic equipment was very heavy and cumbersome to carry around. In addition exposures were long (compared to modern times) and the process of developing and fixing photographs (most commonly at this time the wet collodion process) was difficult – especially in the interior of Africa. This meant that while studio photography, and photography in the major urban areas of Africa developed from the 1850s onwards, the use of photography beyond these controlled environments developed much more slowly. It is however most interesting to note that photography was used in this era to record the activities of European explorers, missionaries, armies and administrators. It is believed that Livingstone’s Zambesi expedition from 1858 to1863 was the first major African expedition in sub-Saharan Africa to employ an official photographer. This early introduction of photography into the Continent primarily by the missionary proved to be as much of a blessing as it was a curse and deeply framed photography of all things African, creating stereotypes of Africa in the eyes of the world. To be continued Local Perspectives. African Insights.
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