Wrap Your Eyes Around the First Photograph of an Eclipse, Ever
166 years ago, the first portrait of a total eclipse of the sun was taken. For its sheer minimalism, it’s intriguing even today.
Photography is a kind of magic. Its capacity to freeze any moment gives it a power never dreamed of by those who lived before its invention. And among humankind’s many mockeries of time, photography is doubtless the most beautiful. If taking a photograph is already an act of illusionism, then in immortalizing the image of something extraordinary, photography can result in a magnificent enchantment. The history of the first daguerreotype of an eclipse (already one of the universe’s most symbolic phenomena) deserves a second look.
On July 28, 1851, a total eclipse of the sun obscured the Prussian city of Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad, Russia). The Prussian Royal Observatory had commissioned the region’s most renowned photographer, Johann Julius Friedrich Berkowski, to record the event. Until that moment, precarious photographs made of previous eclipses had failed because of too much or too little exposure. The true secret to the photography of the time was, precisely, the length of the exposure.
The process of making a daguerreotype was laborious. In broad strokes, it involved the direct exposure of the desired image to a plate of copper previously treated with chemicals (halogen and iodine) to make it photosensitive. The duration of the exposure was then carefully measured – a more luminous image required the less exposure time, and vice versa. Then, the plate upon which an invisible trace of the image had been captured, a ghost so to speak, was taken into a dark room to be treated with mercury vapor. The result was a metallic portrait of the image captured in black and white.
According to the documentation at the time (including the Historical Act Astronomiae), Berkowski’s daguerreotype of the eclipse was the first to clearly record the qualities of light capable of showing an eclipse. The corona of the sun behind the lunar circumference and, in this case, some prominent solar features are all easily distinguishable in the photograph. This was something that, until that point in history, no one had ever achieved. Berkowski used a small refracting telescope to produce an exposure of exactly 84 seconds, a process which began precisely at the moment the Moon moved in front of the Sun.
Since then, capturing eclipses and other astronomical phenomena has become easier, though perhaps no less romantic. Berkowski’s feat is remembered because in his own time it was a magical act. (And it still is.) It’s still a way to immortalize one of the most memorable events any person on the planet will ever experience.
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