Sir John Herschel: Biography & Photography

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the life and work of Sir John Herschel, a British scientist who contributed to the art of color photography. Learn about relations between astronomy, chemistry, photography, and printing.

Photographer, Astronomer, Chemist

When gazing up at the sky, whether through a telescope or with the naked eye, Sir John Herschel must have pondered the nature of light and color. Herschel (1792-1871) answered a question of his age that had mystified many others: How would it be possible to 'fix' an image on a surface, using the hand of Nature herself? Soon after Herschel perfected the photographic process in the late 1830s, his colleague Henry Fox Talbot published a book called The Pencil of Nature (1844) in which he described how photographs were 'impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil.'

From an early age, Herschel was exposed to the world of science. His father was an eminent British astronomer credited with the discovery of the infrared radiation in sunlight. Inspired by the invisible forces that heat and illuminate our universe, Herschel built upon his father's work in experimenting with effects of different wavelengths of light. Herschel was a polymath in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry. He is best known for his contributions to the scientific development of photographic processes.

Portrait of Sir John Herschel (1867), photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron
john herschel

Pioneer of Photography

In 1839, Herschel coined the term photography, which means light-drawing, or sun-writing from the Greek roots for 'photo' (light) and 'graph' (to draw). While many early experimenters contributed to the developments in the art of photography, including Frenchmen Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre, and Englishman Talbot, Herschel brought his background in the hard sciences. His broad foundations in astronomy and chemistry made him adept at recognizing the role of chemical compositions, as well and the importance of light of different spectra in the processes of fixing images on surfaces.

Herschel introduced the concept of the positive and negative image. Darkroom photography, as opposed to digital photography, is founded on the idea that light impresses itself on a sheet of sensitive film. That film is then treated with a chemical process to 'fix' the image into a negative. The photographic negative, in which the lightest parts of the image appear to be the darkest and vice versa, becomes the basis for a positive print. The negative is then 'developed' in a second chemical process to become the final photographic print.

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