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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Robert Hunt

Dates:  1807 - 1887
Born:  Great Britain, Plymouth
Active:  UK
British scientist who published the first significant English-language manual on photography in 1841.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Robert Hunt
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Even if Hunt had never taken a photograph, he would engage our interest as the first historian of photography, for he was both a documenter of that history and an active creator of it. Huntís early life was a tangled struggle against adversity, and this shaped his later response to success. His father, a shipís carpenter, died before he was born. Unhappily apprenticed to a surgeon at the age of twelve, Hunt fell into the frozen Thames in 1827 while trying to see the funeral procession of the Duke of York, compromising his health. He alternated between London and Penzance throughout his youth, somehow preserving his true ambitions as a poet and lover of literature. His widowed mother remarried into the family of Sir Humphry Davy, the pioneering English scientist, and through this connection Hunt was able to establish himself as a chemist in Penzance. He was an active member of the Penzance Literary and Scientific Society, but his chemistís business failed. Hunt returned to London, trying his hand at playwriting, but by the time of the invention of photography was employed as a druggist again, this time in Devonport. Hunt contributed articles to diverse publications, including the Philosophical Magazine and the Art-Journal, and began a correspondence with Sir John Herschel. In 1845, through Herschelís influence, Hunt obtained the position of Keeper of the Mining Record Office, and from here on his career blossomed. This diverse background, an awkward mixture of literature, science, and poverty, informed all of Huntís actions and helped to secure for him a unique if controversial role within the photographic community. After attending a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Glasgow in 1840, Hunt published his Popular Treatise on the Art of Photography, the first of several engagingly written and ever-more sophisticated books on the interaction of light, physical objects, and aesthetics. His 1844 Researches on Light went through several editions. Hunt made it a personal challenge to master every photographic process before including it in one of his publications. Most of the processes were on paper, but Hunt was also a confident master of the calotype. He invented a wide range of photographic processes, few of which attained widespread use; but the totality of his practical efforts and his theoretical understanding of the new art gave him great credibility and stature in the field. In 1847 Hunt joined the Calotype Club, and in 1854 he was elected vice president of the fledgling Photographic Society in London. However, as he advanced further and further from his difficult beginnings, Hunt became increasingly estranged from old friends and benefactors, including Herschel. He became deeply involved in mining and in 1854 was named a fellow of the Royal Society. When Talbotís patents were first challenged in the early 1850s, Hunt became a vicious (and often anonymous) critic of the inventor, once his friend and correspondent, alienating himself even more from his early supporters. Nevertheless, Huntís professional reputation continued to grow until his retirement in 1883. He was a prolific and widely published author on many subjects, scientific and not. By 1865 Hunt was confident enough of his professional standing to return to his earliest interests, publishing the first of his Popular Romances of the West of England, which preserved the stories and folktales of his childhood. Huntís massive 1884 British Mining is perhaps his most substantial and today best-remembered work; but his role as an active participant, not only in shaping the progress of photography but in recording its earliest history from the standpoint of a contemporary, remains an unparalleled achievement. 
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Robert Hunt.] 
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