There are many interesting things in the Afrikaans Language Museum, such as in the lounge where a beautiful daguerreotype picture of SG Malherbe and his wife can be seen, a photograph created by one of the earliest photography techniques in South Africa.

Before the camera was developed, it had been known for some time that some substances, such as silver salts, become darker when exposed to sunlight. In a series of trials published in 1727, German scientist Johann Heinrich Schulze had shown that the darkening is caused by light. The Swedish pharmacist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, proved that in 1777 silver chloride was likely to discolour in relation to the light to which it was exposed. The silver chloride could then be dissolved in an ammonia solution without wiping out the darker or lighter parts.

The first permanent photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 with a sliding wooden box camera. Niépce called his process ‘heliography’, and he and Louis Daguerre entered into a partnership to improve the process. Daguerre managed to create a sharp image with high contrast on a plate covered with silver iodide before being exposed to mercury vapour. By 1837 he managed to fix images with an ordinary saline solution. He called this the ‘daguerreotype’ process. The first camera manufactured for commercial use was a daguerreotype camera built by Alphonse Giroux. It was a double-box design with a landscape lens on the outer container as well as a focus screen and image plate on the inner container. By moving the inner container, objects could be brought into focus. A wheel with grooves that had a copper flap in front of the lens served as a shutter. The lighting time in 1839 was between 5 and 30 minutes per photo!

The first experiment with photography in South Africa was carried out by Charles Piazzi Smyth, an employee of the Cape Observatory. His first photographic experiments were done as early as November 1839. It was a few months after Daguerre announced his discovery of photography to the world. In South Africa, the earliest photography studio was opened by Jules Léger in Port Elizabeth in October 1846. The examples of the earliest local photographers are daguerreotypes, but photos on paper soon followed. The best-known major historical collections of individual photographers in South Africa are probably those of Arthur Elliott (1870-1938) that are housed in the Cape Archives and James Gribble jnr (1863-1943), which is preserved at the Drakenstein Heemkring.


Die rol van neëntiende-eeuse fotografie in eietydse bewaring: William Roe en Graaff-Reinet
Malherbe, Johanna Francina (2014-12), Tesis (PhD), Universiteit Stellenbosch, 2014.