Petzval Interview Series: Dr. Anton Holzer on the Birth of the Petzval Lens

In this first interview, the Vienna-based photographic historian Dr. Anton Holzer talks about the invention of the first Petzval lens and its maker.

The original Petzval lens was developed at a time when photography was such a novelty that portrait photographs were considered nigh impossible. Daguerreotype was the first photographic process and involved a lengthy exposure time that made portraits unthinkable — for who could sit still for a grand total of 30 minutes? Hence,
by designing the first portrait lens, Joseph Petzval helped write photographic history.

Dr. Holzer elaborates on this period of early photography. He is a leading specialist in the history of photography and has conducted extensive research on the original Petzval lens. He also co-curated an exhibition dedicated to Joseph Petzval and his work, exhibited at the Technical Museum Vienna from 2003 to 2004.

The original Petzval Lens. Credits: Antique Cameras

Please tell us about your work on the Petzval lens and its maker Joseph Petzval?

The name Petzval resonates in photographic history. He is internationally recognized as a pioneer of early photography. Thanks to his scientific calculations, a lens was developed on the basis of a strictly scientific methodology. This occurred soon after the invention of photography in 1839. Prior to this, the lenses were designed according to the empirical values and experiences of the opticians. What fascinated me was that, unlike so many inventions from the beginning of photographic history, this lens did not get lost in time. A few years ago I, together with Elisabeth Limbeck-Lilienau, Manuela Fellner and Carla Camilleri, began to research and shed new light on the Petzval collection. The catalog titled Die Schärfung des Blicks. Joseph Petzval: Das Licht, die Stadt und die Fotografie (The Sharpening of the Gaze. Joseph Petzval: Light, the City and Photography) (2004) was a product of this research.

How did Petzval react to the news of daguerreotypes coming from Paris?

Petzval was positively electrified by the news coming from Paris in the summer of 1839: after years of experimenting, the Frenchman Louis Daguerre had succeeded in creating and fixing photographic pictures on metal. The prototypes of these new pictures were shown in Vienna very soon after their invention. Already in September 1839, the first trials to produce Daguerreotypes were attempted in Vienna.

The Technical Museum Vienna is located in the city’s 15th district. Credits: Technisches Museum Wien

Joseph Petzval was a Professor of Mathematics and an educated engineer. Why, then, did he develop an interest in photography?

It was a time of great advancement in the sciences. Particularly natural scientists saw the time as ripe for uncovering all the hidden wonders of nature. Photography played a crucial role in this endeavor. Photomicrographs and longshots were made in order to capture the minutest and the furthest objects in photographs. And precisely here Petzval comes into play. He was originally from Hungary and an educated mathematician who was also very interested in physics and mechanics. He taught in Vienna since 1837.

Following the news from Paris, what were Petzval’s next steps?

In late autumn, 1839, following the news from Paris, Petzval began to make extensive calculations for the design of a new lens with a significantly higher speed. His aim was to enable the sharpest possible reproduction of portraits as well as landscape pictures. This was an immense undertaking for the time. He was assisted by 12 specialists in his calculations and the work for the lens was completed in May 1840. Petzval now had the formula to create a lens with incomparable precision and speed.

One of Louis Daguerre’s earliest daguerreotypes from 1838 depicting the Boulevard du Temple, Paris. Credits: Nicholas Jenkins at Stanford University

Dr. Anton Holzer (* 1964) is a historian who specialized in photographic history. He is the editor of the journal Fotogeschichte and the author of numerous publications on the history of photography, such as on early photography, war photography, and photo journalism. In 2014, Dr. Holzer’s volume Rasende Reporter. Eine Kulturgeschichte des Fotojournalismus (Rushing Reporters. A Cultural History of Photo Journalism) was published by Primus Verlag in Darmstadt, Germany. He lives in Vienna, Austria. You can follow Dr. Holzer’s work on his professional website

*Anton Holzer (2004) ‘Die Zähmung des Lichts: der militärische Blick auf die frϋhe Fotografie’, in M. Fellner, A. Holzer, & E. Limbeck-Lilienau (eds.) Die Schärfung des Blicks. Joseph Petzval: Das Licht, die Stadt und die Fotografie, Wien: Technisches Museum Wien.

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written by pripri2000 on 2015-05-30 #news #people #history #petzval #anton-holzer

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