Janez Puhar

The First Slovene Photographer and Inventor

Janez Puhar: self-portrait, after 1853 (kept by the National Museum of Slovenia)

Janez Puhar was the first Slovene photographer who in 1842 – only three years after the declaration of Daguerre’s invention, the daguerreotype, in Paris in 1839 – developed his own unique process and succeeded in execution of photography on glass. With this invention he put Slovenia on the world map of earliest photography achievements.

 

ARTIST, RESEARCHER AND INTELLECTUAL

Janez Puhar was born on August 26th 1814 in Kranj in Slovenia (at the time, Slovenia was a part of the Austrian Empire). Puhar’s ancestors are known to have lived in Kranj since the beginning of the 17th century. He died in his hometown on August  7th 1864, sick from his experiments with toxic substances.

In school Puhar was an outstanding child: curious, intelligent, interested in natural sciences, art, languages, astronomy, and especially, chemistry and physics. He wanted to study art, but – as it was usual for that time – he obeyed his mother’s wish and became a priest instead. He was extremely gifted. Besides fulfilling his duties as a priest, he experimented in photography and art – he was attracted by fine arts, poetry, music and he even produced his own instruments. He spoke several European and Oriental languages. Janez Puhar became a versatile artist, researcher, intellectual and a cosmopolitan.

OBSESSED WITH PHOTOGRAPHY

Janez Puhar was instinctually drawn to photography. When the French Academy announced the invention of daguerreotype in August 19th 1839 it didn’t take long for him to master the process. Its disadvantages – inverted image, inability to copy, long-lasting exposition, expensive ingredients – and his investigative spirit led him to his own different approach. He soon developed his own way of taking photographs, using sulfur (typical for Puhar), mercury, bromine, iodine, alcohol and glass.

LATE PATENT APPLICATION

Attempts to get photos on glass were also made by others. The Frenchman Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor reported his invention on glass to the French Academy of Sciences in 1847, while Janez Puhar succeeded with the recognition in Paris no earlier than in 1852. Janez Puhar’s invention was born five years before Niépce’s and was of better quality and time of exposure. But, naturally the French backed their own compatriot. In the 19th century it was hard to win recognition when one came from a remote village. Unfortunately, Puhar is still quite unknown beyond the borders of Slovenia.

Diploma from the French “Académie nationale agricole manufacturière et commerciale”, 1852 (kept by the National Museum of Slovenia)

FINAL SUCCESS AND CONFIRMATION

However, in January 1851 The Vienna Academy of Sciences acknowledged Puhar’s invention and published an expert report. After the recognition, news of Puhar’s invention flew across Europe. He received the highest recognition in June 1852: The French Academy “Académie nationale agricole manufacturière et commerciale” declared Janez Puhar as the inventor of photography on glass and awarded him honorary membership.

In the 1850s he attended three world fairs:
1851 – The “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” in London. Puhar was one of only three representatives of the Austrian Empire. He exhibited his glass photographs and received the bronze medal.
1853 – He was invited by a committee in New York to attend the world exhibition.
1855 – The “Exposition Universelle des Produits de l’Agriculture, de l’Industrie et des Beaux-Arts de Paris”. Puhar was presented as the inventor of photography according to the new procedures.

Puhar 0012

Puhar 0010

PUHAROTYPES: PUHAR’S INVENTION

On April 19th 1842, Puhar invented photography on glass.

He called it “hyalotype” or “svetlopis” in Slovenian. His photos are also called  “puharotypes” in his honor. His first success was reported by the newspaper Carniolia in May and June 1841. Later on he improved on his discoveries and succeeded with the glass photo, documented to have been made on the April 19th 1842.

On April 28th 1843 he published an article “Neu erfundenes Verfahren, banners Heliotypen auf Glasplatten darzustellen” in the regional newspaper Carniolia. On May 3rd 1843 an article about Puhar’s invention was published in the newspaper “Graz Innerösterreichisches Industrie und Gewerbe Blatt”. With the announcements in Carniolia in 1841 and 1843, Janez Puhar indisputably and eternally proved his pioneering work regarding glass photography.

Janez Puhar: self-portrait, 1850s, original lost (copy kept by the National Museum of Slovenia)

THE ESSENCE OF THE PUHAR’S PHOTOGRAPHY

Janez Puhar: Double Portrait, after 1853 (kept by private owner)

The advantages of the puharotypes are:
– previously unattainable short time of exposure (only 15 seconds), which allowed Puhar to make portraits;
– positive image;
– reproduction possibility.

Janez Puhar left us a script of his original procedure. Nevertheless, the experts have not yet completely succeeded in repeating his mysterious process.

 

THE EVIDENTIAL PHOTOGRAPHIC HERITAGE

The evidential photographic heritage of Janez Puhar consists of five photographs, puharotypes and three photo-reproductions. Some of them are very well preserved, even after more than 160 years. They are carefully kept in the National Museum in Ljubljana, in the Museum of Architecture and Design in Ljubljana and one in a private collection. There is a possibility that other Puhar’s pictures are scattered around elsewhere (they are still the subject of research).

Other recorded photographic inventions of Janez Puhar:
– platinum print (awarded by a medal in London)
– Moser process touch print
– photos on paper and glass transferred from elastic plates
– helio-engraving
– overprinting of pictures using printing ink
– photography on paper using sulfur and mercury
– photo-reproduction on salt paper
– “laterna magica” wall picture projection

Puhar’s Process of Making Photograph

Janez Puhar left us a script of his original procedure.

He used small ordinary glass plates. He first coated a piece of glass with a layer of light-sensitive sulfur. The rising sulfuric steam covered the glass plate that he held over a flame. The plate was then exposed to iodine vapors.

Afterwards he inserted the prepared glass plate in the back of the camera. After he set the motif he poured mercury into a metal container and placed it at the bottom of the camera. He then heated the mercury from the below. The prepared plate was exposed to light for 15 seconds. Mercury vapors coated the exposed places on the picture. Puhar then strengthened his picture with bromine steam.

He fixed the picture by wiping it with alcohol. Finally he preserved the photo with varnish … and coated it with another glass plate.

PUHAR’S EXHIBITION ON TOUR

The unveiling ceremony of the monument in Kranj, by the President of Slovenia Mr. Borut Pahor (right) and the Major of City Kranj Mr. Mohor Bogataj (left)

Considering his contribution to the Slovene cultural identity and the development of photographic science, Puhar’s 200th Birthday Anniversary in 2014 was declared as “Puhar’s Year” bringing a yearlong program of events in Slovenia and abroad. The honorary patronage of the jubilee was approved by Slovenia’s President. Since then, we have been promoting Puhar with an exhibition that has already stopped more than 20 times across Slovenia, Croatia, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.