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HomeContents > People > Photographers > William de Wiveleslie Abney

Other: Capt. Abney 
Other: Captain Abney 
Other: Captain de W. Abney 
Other: Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney 
Dates:  1843, 24 July - 1920, 2 December
Born:  England, Derby
Died:  England, Folkstone
Active:  Egypt
Writer of key 19th century photographic manuals. A member of the British Army's Royal Engineers, Abney founded a course of photographic instruction in 1871. In 1874 he was charged with directing the photographic observation of the transit of Venus in Egypt, and established the expedition's observatory in Luxor. During this expedition photographs were also taken of the Egyptian monuments around Thebes. Abney's book, Thebes and its Five Great Temples, was published in 1876. Abney joined the Royal Photographic Society in 1870, was elected a Fellow in 1876, and served as President in 1892-1894, 1896, and 1903-1905.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for William de Wiveleslie Abney
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Abney, born just a year before Talbot began issuing The Pencil of Nature, at first would seem to be an unlikely practitioner of paper negative photography. He was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers serving in Bombay, an instructor in chemistry, a fellow of the Royal Society, and a prolific author. Always a keen traveler, Abney was appointed to head the expedition to Egypt to observe the 1874 transit of Venus. With wide photographic experience, he nevertheless chose to work with waxed-paper negatives on this important occasion, and for many of the same reasons that made the process appealing to British photographers in India in the 1850s. While neither wet collodion not the emerging factory-made dry plates were stable in the extreme heat, Abney accomplished excellent results with this archaic process, producing 12 x 15 inch negatives. In 1883 he was awarded the Royal Society's Rumford Medal for his achievements in spectral analysis, an effort that led to the practical development of an infrared-sensitive emulsion. Having worked tirelessly throughout his career to bring about greater practical and theoretical understanding of the mechanisms of photography, Abney was knighted in 1900. He was also instrumental in establishing the photographic collection for the Science Museum in London, now the core of the photography collection of the National Media Museum, Bradford. 
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. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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Further research

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Arthur James Melhuish
Captain W. de W. Abney. C.B, R.E, F.R.S. President of the Camera Club. 
Family history 
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Exhibitions on this website

ThumbnailWilliam de Wiveleslie Abney: Thebes and its Five Greater Temples 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. 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.

• Jacobson, Ken 2007 Odalisques & Arabesques: Orientalist Photography 1839-1925 (London: Quaritch) p.199-200 [Includes a well researched biography on William de Wiveleslie Abney with example plate(s).] 
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