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Parallel paths

Some 175 years ago Hercule Florence, who lived in up-state.

Photos from the collection of Arnaldo Machado FlorencePhotographic copy of pharmacy labels, probably from 1833: first experimentsPhotos from the collection of Arnaldo Machado Florence

The discovery of photography is one of those technological moments when the gaze of countless researchers or inventors converges on a single point of interest and leads them to achieve results at moments that are close to one another. The search for an effective printing technique using sunlight occurred simultaneously in Germany, France and England over the first three decades of the 19th century. Frenchmen Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre achieved good results, received publicity and for many years were crowned with the glory of having invented photography. At the same time, starting in 1833, Hercule Florence, who was also European, carried out successful experiments with the camera obscura and with fixing images on paper in Brazil. The difference is that he lived in isolation in up-state São Paulo, far from the spotlight and  all that that was being newly published in specialist literature abroad.

“Photography was ready to be discovered from the end of the 18th century because there was already sufficient knowledge of the camera obscura and about chemical processes”, says photography historian and researcher, Boris Kossoy, from the School of Communication and Arts at the University of São Paulo. In 1972 Kossoy began to investigate the history of the discoveries of Florence and was the one who 140 years later pointed to the scientific proof showing that the main pioneering experiments had been carried out by the Frenchman in what at the time was the village of São Carlos, currently Campinas.

In 1976 the researcher obtained the support of the traditional School of Graphic Arts and Photography of the Rochester Institute of Technology in the United States, which reproduced the experiments and confirmed the validity of what had been done by Florence, as recorded in his diaries. Kossoy’s research, which had repercussions internationally, were set out in his book Hercule Florence – A descoberta isolada da fotografia no Brasil [Hercule Florence – The isolated discovery of photography in Brazil] (Edusp, re-printed in 2006), a work that has also been translated into Spanish in an edition produced by the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.

The manuscripts of Florence, six in all, can be found in Campinas, looked after by Teresa Cristina Florence, the great-great-granddaughter of the inventor, who inherited them from her father, Arnaldo Machado Florence, an enthusiastic publisher of the work of his great-grandfather and the person who presented Kossoy with the original material. “But the drawings of the camera obscura, the polygraphy machine and the photos of pharmacy labels and Freemason diplomas were stolen from my house in 1989”, laments Teresa, who still has the diaries. As the originals have been reproduced countless times copies of this documentation exist.

Antoine Hercule Romuald Florence (1804-1879) got into photography by a long and torturous route. He was born in Nice, had a talent for drawing and dreamed of travelling around the world. In one of his journeys he landed in Rio de Janeiro, in February of 1824, and remained in the city but exactly why is not known. In 1825 he volunteered to take part as assistant illustrator on an expedition to the interior of Brazil led by naturalist and Russian consul in Rio, Georg von Langsdorff. The first illustrator was to have been Johann Rugendas, who desisted and was substituted by Aimé Adrian Taunay.

The expedition was a disaster for various reasons, with many accidents and the death of Taunay. But at least Florence managed to do some good documenting work. He recorded what happened in his diary and did drawings that, according to the specialists, reveal a certain scientific bent, without having to resort to the montage or idealization that were common resources used by foreign artists. At the end of the expedition Florence married and settled down in the village of São Carlos, where his wife’s family lived.

Once he was firmly established the Frenchman began to look for ways of printing one of his essays from the Langsdorff expedition on the sounds produced by animals. It just so happened that there was only one printing press in the province of São Paulo in 1830. It was then that the objective of his research changed to developing a different printing system that would dispense with the traditional printing presses. He called this invention polygraphy (polygraphie); in simple terms this was wooden blocks impregnated with ink that were capable of printing.

In trying to perfect polygraphy in order to make it more effective Florence started experimenting with the camera obscura. On 15 January 1833 he recorded in his diary the possibility of “printing by using light”. In his experiments he used glass as well as paper. The forerunners of photography did the same, like Thomas Wedgwood, in 1800, and Niepce, in 1822. In 1834 Fox Talbot actually told the Royal Society that he had invented a technique for copying drawings engraved on a glass support. “As can be seen the discoveries were going in the same direction in different countries, although they were ignorant of what each other was doing”, observes Kossoy.

Photos from the collection of Arnaldo Machado FlorencePhotographic copy of a Masonic diploma, probably from 1833, although the date wrongly appears as 1832Photos from the collection of Arnaldo Machado Florence

The still yet-to-be-invented photography absorbed all of Florence’s interest. In his diary he reports on the search for chemical agents that, when applied to paper, could record images when submitted to light and he writes about his experiments with silver nitrate. According to Kossoy there is no doubt that the information about silver salts was passed on in 1832 by the pharmacist and botanist, Joaquim Corrêa de Mello, who was an employee and then partner in the pharmacy belonging to Francisco Álvares Machado, Florence’s father-in-law, in São Carlos.

The French inventor built his own cameras obscura. His first photo, which was taken in January 1833 and which we still have, showed a closed window through which could be seen the window frames and tiled roof of the house opposite. At the end of this first experiment Florence discovered that paper impregnated with silver nitrate and with the image engraved on it got darker, even when rinsed with water. He also noticed that what was dark appeared light and what was light was represented by dark, in other words, he had made a negative image on the paper.

Florence would have to find a chemical agent to make the image permanent and prevent it becoming totally dark when it was once more exposed to the light. Although he lived far from the Court and had little access to information, he based his work on old books of scientists who were well-known for studying the sensitivity of substances to light. In his diaries there are statements from chemists and physicists, like Jons Jacob Berzelius, Antoine François de Fourcroy, Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Nicholas-Théodore Saussure, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Franz Joseph Muller and Claude Berthollet.

Three photo-sensitive compounds were most frequently used by the Frenchman in his experiments: silver nitrate, silver chloride and gold chloride. Silver salts were known about, but those of gold were used successfully by Florence for the first time ever, although the cost did not recommend them always being used. He also tested various types of printing paper and chose parchment from the Netherlands, which was used for letters. Finding a good fixing agent that would avoid making the already-recorded images dark was one of the other major problems to be solved by the pioneers of photography. Since merely washing the copies in water did not solve the issue Florence recommended that the original photos should be seen “at night, by candle-light and even during the day in the shade or at midnight for around half an hour”.

In his search for a fixer the Frenchman experimented with various substances. He had relative success with the most unusual of them, urine, with which he managed to dissolve the chloride that was not fixed by the light. “We can infer that the researcher knew that the ammonia that was present in urine could function as a fixer”, suggests Kossoy. It was a step towards beginning to use ammonium hydroxide.

Without realizing it Florence was paralleling the work of the other inventers so closely that he was the first to use the term “photography”. Niepce called his process heliography, Daguerre daguerreotypie, Talbot firstly photogenic drawings, then calotype and finally talbotype. Among the pioneers to use the term “photography” are the German, Johann Heinrich Mädler, Englishmen Charles Wheatstone and John Herschel and Frenchman Desmarets. All did so as from 1839, according to sector historians. Boris Kossoy, however, showed that in his first manuscript, dated 21 January 1834, Florence wrote down the following phrase: “It is very probable that one can take photographs…”. In the same diary on 19 February in the same year he wrote “photography”. Also on the photographic copy of the pharmacy labels he used the word “photographia” (“photography” in Portuguese). All the other forerunners started using the same term five years later.

With a degree of mastery over the technique of his new invention in 1833 Florence started photographing Masonic diplomas and pharmacy labels. But in 1839 he gave up his experiments with photography once and for all when news reached Brazil of the work of Niepce and Daguerre (who collaborated with one another) and the recognition by the French government of the two inventors’ technique for printing using light. In a statement to the newspaper, A Phenix, from São Paulo, in October of that same year, Florence talks about his inventions but does not claim them as being pioneering: “… I’ll not question the discoveries of anyone because the same idea may come from two people; I always thought there was a precarious aspect in my achievements and what is due to each of them”.

All the pioneers carried out their experiments between 1800 and 1839, the year that the French government recognized the invention. “The work of Wedgwood, Niepce, Fox Talbot, Hippolyte Bayard, Florence and others lay in the fortunate combination of previous discoveries”, says Kossoy. “This knowledge was free to be applied in a more or less effective way by any researcher who was seriously determined, wherever he found himself and regardless of the degree of ‘civilization’ of the environment in which he lived.”