Janez Avguštin Puhar, Self-portraitThe first Slovenian photographer and inventor
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Janez Avguštin Puhar, Self-portrait

The pictures taken by the first Slovenian photographer and inventor Janez Puhar – including his full-figure Self-portrait – belong to the pioneeringperiod of world photography. This is how the Slovene priest inscribed himself in the history of this art medium and made a valuable contribution to its early experimental stage.

In the spring of 1842, he invented a process of photographing on a glass surface. This achievement went on to improve, simplify and lower the costs of what was an expensive and demanding photographic method at the time. He developed his original technique shortly after the first inventions by the French, English and American photographers, and even surpassed many of them as a portraitist.

Self-portrait is not one of Puhar’s first successes – it was produced in the 1950s or early 1960s, after he had already presented his process to the academic circles with a nearly ten-year delay. In 1850, he disclosed it to the scholars of the Austrian Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna. He also added some photographs to the description. This was followed by a publication in the periodical publication Sitzungsberichte der mathematisch-naturwissenschaftlichen Classe der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften (VI/1, 3. jan. 1851). The article triggered an avalanche of related publications in a number of professional publications across Europe and America (in Germany, Austria, France, England, Pennsylvania). The following year (1852), the French Academy of Agriculture, Handcraftsand Commerce in Paris (Académie nationale agricole, manufacturière et commerciale) issued him with a diploma for the invention and named him “the inventor of photography on glass” (Inventeur de la Photographie sur Verre).

The modest photographer from Slovenian countryside was thus promoted in the world of science, and the wider international public was able to see his photographs at three world exhibitions: in London (1851), New York (1853) and Paris (1855).

Puhar’s photographic technique

Like all his shots, Self-portrait was also created with a very short exposure and an inventive technique of initially treating the glass base with sulphur vapours. Before warming up the sulphur, Puhar added natural resin – mastic – to it. This was followed by exposing it to iodine and then – in the camera – also mercury vapours. In order to speed up evaporation, Puhar warmed the bottom of the camera from the outside with a flame. He intensified the image created by the light on the photographic emulsion with bromine vapours and fixed it with alcohol.

The diploma awarded to Puhar by the French Academy of Agriculture, Handicrafts and Commerce in Paris for the invention of photography on glass.
The diploma awarded to Puhar by the French Academy of Agriculture, Handicrafts and Commerce in Paris for the invention of photography on glass.

The excellence of Puhar’s photography

Puhar’s own image is presented in its correct position. By deciding to use a transparent support to the image, he avoided the reversedimage of the photographed object. Having to swap the left and right sides of the scene was the disadvantage of most of the photographic techniques of the time,including the most popular one of them, the daguerreotype. With a simple turn of the transparent base – the glass plate – Puhar attained the correct position. In addition, he shortened the exposure time to just a few seconds and thus opened the door to the world of portrait photography. For most of the early photographers, portraiture was unattainable due to long exposure times. The excellence of Puhar’s photography is also its reproducibility. As negatives that could be lit through, his footage contained a potential reproductive capacity. This was also made possible by the basic property of the glass – transparency. Puhar did usually not take advantage of this asset. Like most photographs, he darkened his Self-portrait from the back, thus creating the appearance of a uniquepositive, typical for daguerreotype and all concurrent techniques on metal, or on any other opaque ground.

Name of object: Self-portrait
Author: Janez Avguštin Puhar
Technique: Photograph on a glass plate – Puharotype
Dating: 1850s or early 1860s
Brief description: The first known photographic self-portrait in Slovenia, produced during the pioneering period of the history of photography. The original photographic technique on a glass plate is the invention of the Slovenephotographic inventor Janez Puhar.
Material: Glass, photographic emulsion
Dimensions: Height: 120 mm, width: 100 mm
Inv. no.: F–60
On view: The Graphics Cabinet of the National Museum of Slovenia, by prior arrangement

Further reading

  • Blaženka First, Puharjeva šifra. Zagonetni izum prvega slovenskega fotografa / The Puhar code. The enigmatic invention of the first Slovene photographe. Exhibition catalogue. Narodni muzej Slovenije, Ljubljana 2014.
  • Blaženka First, Puharotipija – zagonetni izum prvega kranjskega fotografa: ob 200. obletnici rojstva Janeza Puharja, izumitelja fotografije na steklu, SLO: časi, kraji, ljudje: slovenski zgodovinski magazin, No. 3 (Sept. 2014), pp. 40–45.
  • Damir Globočnik, Janez Puhar (1814–1864): prvi slovenski fotograf in fotografski izumitelj, Celje 2014.