The First Photographs of a Solar Eclipse

Photographers have attempted to document the solar eclipse since 1842, but it took years of experimentation to capture the elusive moment of totality.

William and Frederick Langenheim, “Eclipse of the Sun” (1854), daguerreotype (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In a series for the first day of each month, Hyperallergic is exploring some firsts in art, from the earliest known depictions of things to pioneers in the visual fields.

On this August 21, a total solar eclipse will be viewable across North America, a rare occurrence that will likely be greeted by a wave of iPhones and digital cameras raised to the sky. Although photographing an eclipse relies a bit on luck, timing, and preparation, our ability to document the celestial event is more accessible than ever. In the 19th century, it took years of experimentation with the newly invented photographic medium to successfully capture a fleeting eclipse.

Johann Julius Friedrich Berkowski's eclipse daguerreotype (July 28, 1851) (via Wikimedia)
Johann Julius Friedrich Berkowski’s eclipse daguerreotype (July 28, 1851) (via Wikimedia)

Attempts at solar eclipse photography are recorded going back to 1842, including Gian Alessandro Majocchi’s photograph of a partial eclipse taken on July 8 in Milan (an image which has not survived). Stefan Hughes, author of Catchers of the Light on the history of astrophotography, writes on his blog that Majocchi’s daguerreotypes only caught the before and after of the totality (or total obscuring of the sun), with the ultimate eclipse just a big blank. It wasn’t until the eclipse of July 28, 1851 that the moment of eclipse was successfully photographed. At the Royal Prussian Observatory in Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad in Russia), a daguerreotypist named Johann Julius Friedrich Berkowski carefully exposed a plate through a small refracting telescope attached to a heliometer. The daguerreotype revealed the moon perfectly positioned over the sun, exposing the solar corona for the first time in photography, hovering like a halo around the darkness.

Eclipse documentation continued to progress in the 19th century, with greater sensitivity on photographic plates resulting in more detailed images. On May 26, 1854, William and Frederick Langenheim of Philadelphia created a series of daguerreotypes documenting the phases of a North American annular eclipse. These images, made with a small camera that needed little light, are now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which states this was “the first total eclipse of the sun visible in North America since the invention of photography.” The Met notes that “six other daguerreotypists and one calotypist are known to have documented the event.” Solely the Langenheims’ work survives, showing a mirrored eclipse on the uncorrected daguerreotypes.

William and Frederick Langenheim, “Eclipse of the Sun” series of daguerreotypes (1854) (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Victorian-era photographers and scientists often made expeditions to predicted viewing paths rather than wait for an elusive eclipse. As it sometimes goes, these best laid plans could go awry. Heather Goss at Air & Space Magazine described how American astronomer David Todd spent a full year planning his photograph of the 1887 eclipse in Yokohama, Japan “only to have a nearby volcano erupt the day before, filling the sky with ash.” Ahead of the July 18, 1860 total solar eclipse, British astronomer Warren De la Rue led an expedition to Rivabellosa, Spain, and there constructed a darkroom laboratory and adjacent building with a retractable roof. De la Rue was already an astronomical photography pioneer, using the wet collodion process to create incredible images of the lunar surface, and he intended to use this technique to better understand solar physics.

Anthony Aveni in his recently published book In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses, describes the herculean effort to build De la Rue’s Spanish eclipse station: “To put it all together, he lugged 113 pounds of carpenter’s tools, along with lanterns, lamps, several smaller telescopic instruments, a barometer, a thermometer, three synchronized chronometers, glass cutters (to size the photographic plates to fit in the camera), 139 pounds of water — and an undisclosed quantity of wine.”

As De la Rue would later write, he was “fortunate” he had built his station at Rivabellosa instead of the previously considered Santander, “as many of those astronomers who selected the former place were prevented by the state of the atmosphere from observing the eclipse.”

Two photographs by Warren De la Rue of the July 18, 1860 total solar eclipse, observed at Rivabellosa, Spain (via Wellesley College Library/Internet Archive)
Two photographs by Warren De la Rue of the July 18, 1860 total solar eclipse, observed at Rivabellosa, Spain (via Wellesley College Library/Internet Archive)

His photographs are recognized as the first to confirm that the corona radiating around the moon during a solar eclipse was light from the sun, not the moon, something which was still under scientific debate. There would be future landmarks in eclipse photography, such as Arthur Eddington’s shots of the May 29, 1919 eclipse that tested Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, but in the mid-19th century, De la Rue’s images were groundbreaking in understanding a once arcane event.

If you’re lucky enough to view this month’s solar eclipse, it’s likely no photograph be as awesome as the experience, so take a moment to witness the strange sensation of day turning to dark.

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