Friday, October 16, 2015

1841. And Latin. And Photography

Photography existed in 1841 -- but how long it had existed by then, is debated. Since the 1820's, or longer. As far as the use of the Latin language by photographers in the early 19th century, one might think that the term camera, from camera obscura, Latin for dark chamber, indicates a familiarity with Latin among early photographers, but no: knowledge of the camera obscura, which is not exactly the same thing as what we call a camera, is attested as early as the 5th century BC, in the works of the Chinese philosopher Mozi. Aristotle, Euclid, Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci all were familiar with the camera obscura, and Kepler gave it its Latin name. When devices for making photographs were first named cameras in the 19th century, they were merely adopting Kepler's 17th-century term. The term photography -- from Greek, not Latin -- was used by John Herschel in 1839, and possibly by others before that. It is in the nature of Western learning that those familiar with Greek tend to be very familiar with Latin, and I think we may safely assume some knowledge of Latin on the part of Herschel, who attended Eton and Cambridge and translated the Iliad into English and was a founding member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820. But Herschel's Classical education does not necessarily say anything about the linguistic knowledge of other early photographers.

I have not been able to find any published works in Latin by John Herschel. And that seems strange for a man of his time, education and achievements. Of course, my not finding Latin works by Herschel should not be assumed to indicate that he published no such works. Perhaps he did not, or perhaps my trouble in finding such has more to do with lack of linguistic interests of those of those writing about Herschel today. Much the same can be said about my finding no Latin works by the early, traditionally-educated photographers Nicéphore Niépce and François Arago. William Henry Fox Talbot, another early-19th century photographer, went to Cambridge and won a prize in Classics there for crying out loud, and still, all actual Latin works by him have been cleverly, thoroughly hidden from me.

Louis Daguerre and Thomas Wedgwood came from less upper-crusty backgrounds and more therefore have had less occasion to learn Latin, although those backgrounds certainly don't make a knowledge of Latin on their part impossible.

The earliest confirmed date of a photograph of the Khyber Pass I could find: this one from 1878.


Of the Ottoman Empire, from 1864:


Baseball, 1862:


I'm flummuxed by my inability to find Latin works by such people as Herschel, Niépce, Arago and Talbot. Is this an indication of the beginnings of that notorious split and antagonism in Western culture between science and the humanities? It was as natural as could be that Kepler both experimented with optics and wrote in Latin. There was no reason why the one would have made the other less likely. And it would have been very strange indeed for Roger Bacon, probably the leading expert of his time on the subject of optics, to compose entire works in any other language than Latin, even though he was fluent in several other languages and was a pioneer and what we would recognize today as linguistics.

It's absurd and a disaster that today, tinkering with gadgets often makes a knowledge of Latin less likely, and vice versa.

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