Old lenses: unknown objects?

It is difficult to day find books that describe and illustrate the lenses that made history in 19th century France.

Many books are written about photographic lenses, but few illustrate them in detail. These lenses were famous in their day, and there was probably no reason to show pictures of them since they were quickly replaced by newer lenses and were eventually forgotten. Photography was practiced only by professionals and relatively few amateurs who had the expertise to develop plates until George Eastman invented his cameras. The newsletters of the various companies catered exclusively to this professional audience and saw no need in showing pictures of the lenses as they came out on the market. Etchings, as opposed to photographs, were the primary form of illustration in newspapers of the time, and therefore things and events were written about rather than shown. In fact, the success of the large expos of that period was also because they showed these new things to a public that until then had only read about them. Consider Lerebours' incredible intuition in the Excursions Daguerriennes of 1840, depicting landscapes that most people otherwise would never had a chance to see. Ironically, this was achieved by engraving the images, but with the intent of offering the same fidelity that the daguerreotype promised. Consider also the incredible success of albumen stereoscopic images, which were in wide circulation from the 1860's onward, much more than Lerebours' elitist images and the expensive stereoscopic images on daguerrotype.The extraordinary success of stereoscopic images on albumen paper can be attributed to their relatively low cost. After the introduction of the collodion process, it became possible to create a negative of the twin images that could be used to duplicate high quality positives at low costs. The modest price made it possible for every middle class family to purchase a stereoscope with which to admire the boulevards of Paris with its carriages; other favorite subjects were churches, palaces and monuments of far away countries, interiors of royal residences, typical middle class scenes in the home, scenes in brothels, and all this in a surprising three dimensional effect. From the 1850's onward there was hardly any aspect of life that went undocumented in stereoscopic images; nevertheless, in an effort to save money, things continued to be mostly described in newspapers and 19th century periodicals rather than illustrated. Illustrators and engravers were called upon only as a last resort. Hence, upon examining texts and photography manuals from that period, one sees just how few and simple are the engraved illustrations of lenses. Enthusiasts will be delighted when looking at the few schematic etchings of Traité d'optique photographique of Désiré van Monckhoven of 1867 and the Traité général de Photographie of 1889 by the same author, where they will find three real (splendid) photographs of various subjects glued to paper card. The situation wasn't any better in the volumes written by Charles Fabre, although it is true that there are many etchings of lenses in the Traité encyclopédique de photographie, they are mostly drawings and not representative of how the lenses really looked. One might ask what need there is to see a picture of a lens, when it is in fact the lens that was made to allow us to see. Perhaps the answer lies in the incredible fascination these objects in copper and glass hold for a person interested in the history of 19th century photography. Holding a Verres combinés in one's hand, which was probably carefully looked over by Charles Chevalier himself, gives one the feeling of coming into contact with Niépce and Daguerre, the mythical fathers of photography. Holding one of Jamin's Cône centralisateur, with its unusual coffee pot shape, one almost feels like he is breathing the air in an atelier. Fantasies... The long and bumpy evolution of optics in 19th century photography represents an important page in the history of scientific research. The way technology evolved from Niepce's makeshift lenses to Chevalier's achromatic doublets and finally to the anastigmats built at the end of the century is extraordinary. Scholars will find themselves on an exciting journey tracing the transition from lenses made in the 19th century, essentially similar in technology and usage to the lenses that had been perfected at the end of the the 17th century by Giuseppe Campani in Rome, to the barium lenses which allowed for the design of anastigmatic triplets at the end of the century, lenses that fathered in the lenses still used today. Science and charm blend in these objects, as is the case with other scientific instruments of that period. This charm is increased all the more by the scarcity of the lenses.Where in the 1980's it was possible to find various pieces of real historical value on the market in Paris and in other countries, currently it is almost impossible to discover an interesting piece outside of what two or three auction houses may have to offer. Perhaps scholars and collectors have gathered and kept to themselves these documents on the history of photography; therefore, it serves a purpose showing these lenses as well as their technical specifications, as they represent milestones in the history of art. Naturally, there is a focus in this book on the most important manufacturers, as it wouldn't be possible to consider the thousands of lenses built by dozens of opticians. For this reason, some brands have been discussed more extensively, while other brands, that may have only become famous in the 20th century, are only briefly mentioned......

From page 19…

Social and Professional Context

The predominance of the English industry in the field of optics was undisputed in the 18th century. English manufacturers and opticians enjoyed prestige, were admitted to the highest level academic institutions and were not subject to any type of corporatist limitations.The situation was different in pre-revolutionary France. Manufacturers were subject to limitations imposed by the professional guilds, which limited its members to specific activities, aiding but also hindering the development of techniques that required various skills (8). For example, an optician could not build an apparatus that required a precision mechanical construction without meeting with grave sanctions imposed by he precision mechanics guild. Two events changed this situation: the Revolution and the the Napoleonic Wars. Professional guilds were in fact abolished during the Revolution, while the isolation that characterized the country during the war until 1815 highlighted both the backwardness in technology with respect to England as well as the fact that precision instruments were an English product until that time. The Napoleonic government found that it had to stimulate technological progress which had previously been hindered by the guilds. It accomplished this by founding academies and scientific institutions. The Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers was instituted in 1794, the Bureau des longitudes in 1795, the Société d'Encouragements pour l'Industrie Nationale in 1801. Post-revolutionary freedom of thought quickly positioned the country so that an immense quantity of talent could be expressed in a short few decades, raising France to a level of technological excellence. It was in this context that the birth and evolution of optics, as applied to photography, would develop. The rapid development of Lerebours' optical production was significant in this atmosphere. Beginning with a line of telescopes that were a substitute for Dollond's (9) English telescopes and were indispensable to the army, Lerebours became one of the major players in photographic optics staring in the 1840's. Just as the Lerebours brand had always been principally connected with the production of telescopes and astronomic telescopes, so the Chevalier brand, which had received an extraordinary boost from the production of microscopes at the time of enormous progress made in the field of medicine, and despite fundamental contributions made to the birth and development of photographic optics by Charles Chevalier, remained mainly tied to the production of microscopes and precision instruments until the end of the century. For several decades in the early part of the century, until universities and other research institutions were fully consolidated, ateliers of manufacturers who built scientific instruments were the meeting place for intellectuals and scientists who found in these an ideal place for expressing their intuition. It is significant that Niépce, who was far from Paris, was never able to make Vincent Chevalier understand his requirements in lenses (which he himself was not able to explain very clearly) while Daguerre, who frequented Charles Chevalier's atelier, was able to obtain from Chevalier in 1832 optics that did meet his needs (10). Even when returning from London in February, 1828, when Niépce was able to make very specific requests in an order made to Vincent and Charles Chevalier (11), the two lenses did not meet his needs. He was probably so preoccupied with keeping his invention a secret, that the experience of the two opticians did not prove useful to him in the end. The two lenses that he ordered were a periscope based on the model that William Hyde Wollaston had presented and described in June, 1812 in a memoir published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and which was widely used by painters in the camera obscura of that period (12), and an achromat with three lenses. Starting in 1763 in London, Peter Dollond had invented achromats with three lenses for telescopes which were considered the most correct lenses in existence (13). It is likely that Niépce expected the Chevaliers to build something for him that was as up to date as the production in England (14). The events surrounding the birth of photographic optics start with Charles Chevalier not only because Daguerre used his lens to create the first daguerreotypes or because Chevalier was entrusted with the task of producing the lenses for the first camera ever sold, the Daguerre-Giroux, but more importantly because in 1840, upon the request of the Société d'Encouragements pour l'Industrie Nationale, he built the first lens created specifically for photographic use: the l'Objectif double à verres combinés (15). In a short time, a whole rank of opticians were building photographic lenses side by side with Chevalier; among them was Nicolas Marie Paymal Lerebours. While Chevalier was decidedly oriented toward the Verres combinés, Lerebours dedicated a great part of his production to the Verres combinés's rival, Petzval's lens, which had been renamed Systém allemande in France. The first photographic lenses created images where the blue component of the visible spectrum, to which the daguerreotype plate was sensitive, focused on a different plane compared to the brighter component, which appeared in focus on the frosted glass.

So called chemical focus was another obstacle that had to be dealt with in the already complicated operation of capturing images. By 1846 lenses produced by Lerebours were designed in such a way so as to be free of chemical focus (16). Long posing times continued to cause major problems for photographers. The larger the plate was, the longer the posing times, keeping in mind that it wasn't easy to make larger lenses which could maintain the same relative aperture as a lens for a smaller format. In order to try to shorten posing times, Lerebours and Soleil were the first to reduce the format of Daguerre's camera and build lenses with a shorter focal length and a larger aperture (17). French optics, characterized by continued creativity expressed in products of great conceptual and formal elegance, reached its highest splendor with Chevalier and Lerebours, as well as with other important figures: Berthiot, Jamin, Darlot, Derogy, Hermagis and many other more minor opticians (18). Construction and aesthetics were most carefully considered in practically every model. Gasc e Charconnet (19), Alexis Millet, and Victor Ninet built examples of extraordinary beauty and charm, products that met the demands of a society with good taste that had reached a high level of well-being under Napoleon III. As with scientific instruments, the elegance of a lens was of utmost importance. This was a viewpoint in line with the spirit of refinement and elitism which characterized Paris in those years and was also shared by those who bought these objects abroad. The made in Paris label was synonymous with excellence. The fact that one could find lenses made in France on antique markets across the world during that period, is further proof of the international prestige which brought a large part of the production to be exported abroad. The period between 1839 and immediately following 1886, when new Jena glass with a high refraction index was first sold in Germany and was fated to give a boost to the German optical industry, represents the period of highest brilliance as proven by the prizes won by French opticians at the universal expositions between 1851 and 1889. This level of attention to quality would again be proven at the Expo of 1900 and up until the time of WWI, but the capacity for innovation seems to fade in this period.


(1) The times are confirmed by Eder (History of Photography. Pag 439.) Arago's account is interesting, stating that aside from the actual exposure time, it took 30-40 minutes to create a daguerreotype, from the time the plate was placed inside the camera, to the moment developing was complete. (Arago F. Rapport fait a l'Acadèmie des Sciences de Paris. 19 aoùt 1839.)
(2) On this subject we have the photo “Healing the Wounded” from 1855 or “The Kitchen from the Camp of the 8° Hussars” from 1855. (3) An example of this is the photo “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” from 1855.
(4) B. Newhall. 1984 pag 344.
(5) Ibidem 1984.
(6) Ibidem. pag 344.
(7) Ibidem. pag 350.
(8) Brenni P. 2006. In a detailed article, P. Brenni fully illustrates the evolution of the precision industry in 19th century France. (9) See chapter on Lerebours granting the Parisian optician a military contract. In that period, Dollond practically had a monopoly on the manufacture of telescopes and binoculars.
(10) “The combination that works the best is an achromat with two lenses, which when joined and glued together, form non other than a periscopic meniscus; ” Letter from Daguerre to N. Niépce, 3 October, 1832. In Kravets T. P. pag 403.
(11) In March 1828 Niépce received for the first time a letter signed "Vincent Chevalier père et fils ".
(12) Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 1812 102, 370-377.
(13) H.C. King. 1955. pag 156-160.
(14 ) "...J'ai fait construire par l'opticien Vincent Chevalier un objectif achromatique qui donnera infalliblement dans la chambre noire plus de champ et plus de netteté aux images représentés. Il m'a confetionné pareillement pour le même object un verre périscopique d'après le systeme du Dr. Wollaston..." (I had the optician, Chevalier, build me an achromat lens which will undoubtedly give images created in the camera obscura a wider field of view and greater sharpness. He also prepared for the same object, a periscopic lens based on Dr. Wollaston's system...) (Letter by Nicéphore Niépce 4 May, 1828. In Kravets T. P. pag.256).
(15) It is a known fact that the l'Objectif double à verres combinés was created by reworking the design by the same Charles Chevalier in 1834. The French Société d'Encouragement de l'Industrie Nationale had instituted a prize for the fastest lens ever invented. The contest was announced in the spring of 1840 and the deadline was set for December that same year. Chevalier participated and won the contest. (16) Lerebours, N. M. Paymal. Du foyer chimique et du foyer apparentdans les objctifs du daguerréotype. 1846.
(17) Lecuiyer R. 1945. pag 37.
(18) There were 38 companies in Paris in 1860 manufacturing instruments for photography. (Chambre de commerce et d'industrie. Statistique de l'Industrie à Paris pour l'année 1860. Paris, 1864.).
(19) In L. Gioppi's essay, (1893) the company is referred to as: “delight of the daguerrotypists”.

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