Stephanie Hood recently finished an MSc in Science and Technology Studies at UCL. Part of her 2013 Masters dissertation “Science, Objectivity and Photography in the Nineteenth Century: Photographs from the voyage of HMS Challenger 1872-1876” used collections from the National Maritime Museum. Here’s what she discovered during her research:
Preparing to set off on a scientific expedition around the world, the officers and crew of H.M.S. Challenger 1872-1876 gathered on board the ship for a photographic portrait (fig. 1). It was one of the first photographs of the crew on a scientific voyage of exploration ever taken. Completing an MSc in History of Science, Medicine and Technology at the London Centre for the History of Science, Medicine and Technology (UCL/Imperial College London) enabled me to spend time researching the significant yet largely unstudied collection at the NMM of over 800 such photographs acquired on the expedition.
From these few photographs it is possible to read further into the history of the Challenger and the significance of photography for nineteenth-century science. Photography has been claimed to have achieved success on account of its perceived objectivity compared to other means of visual depiction such as drawing and painting. In fact much photography on the Challenger expedition was limited in its ability to function as objective evidence. Photographic practice was varied and often produced poor quality images (fig. 2). Many of the photographs continued aesthetic traditions that gave them an epistemic authority as art (figs. 2 and 3), particularly through their portrayal of the exotic such as icebergs (fig. 4).
Nevertheless photography was a successful practice on the Challenger expedition in conjunction with drawing and painting. Although drawing was maintained for the scale depiction flora and fauna - with the use of a camera lucida - and to depict colour, photography was implemented for scientific evidence on account of its functional benefits of speed, replicability, and as a ‘printing-press-in-the-field.’ These were advantages that other visual strategies could not offer. Photographs of scenery were used in the official Report of Scientific Results (fig. 5). Further still photographs of drawings of Euplectella subarea made by the official artist J.J. Wild were printed in Nature (fig. 6), demonstrating the use of photography as a printing press for replicating and disseminating other types of images. Others were used for inspiration for drawings such as in naturalist Henry Nottidge Moseley’s On the Inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands (fig. 7), demonstrating the benefit that photography’s speed had for visual depiction for later use.
Such benefits of photography also applied to personal, public and economic contexts, where the photographs acquired additional meanings and uses. Challenger crew, including Assistant Paymaster John Hynes, acquired multiple copies of the photographs for their own use in personal albums (fig. 8). Photographs of Wild’s drawing of Euplectella subarea, as shown earlier, were included in several personal albums. Such photographs of drawings also reached the public during the voyage, including the Illustrated London News. 
Even after the expedition the advantages of photography are evident. Once again the Challenger photography functioned as a speedy method of capturing scenes to be used as templates for later depictions. Artist Wild’s popular account of the voyage, At Anchor (1878), included drawings of King George and Queen Charlotte of the Friendly Islands which were unmistakeably copied in pencil from the Challenger photographs (fig. 9A-D).
Fig. 9A-D: Photographs and drawings of King George and Queen Charlotte in At Anchor (drawings A, C from Wild, At Anchor, 90; photographs B, D ship nos. 247 and 248, originals in original in Album two of Assistant Paymaster John Hynes 1872-1876, n.p.).
The Challenger photographs’ depiction of scenes of the picturesque and exotic also enabled them to function as saleable ‘commodities’ through the Edinburgh photographic company J. Horsburgh and Sons by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1885. From the Horsburgh catalogue the photographs could be purchased in a range of formats including single 8” x 6” unmounted copies, as a set of ‘any 50’ unmounted copies, and a complete set of 350 either unmounted, mounted on linen with alphabetical index bound in French morocco, or bound in Turkey morocco with ‘extra finish.’ Purchasers also had the option of buying ‘outside size’ copies of 15” x 11” and any photograph in platinotype for 25 per cent extra, in carbon for 33½ per cent extra, as enlarged or reduced copies, ‘or any special fancy’ requested. The photographs came at a cost of £0.1.0 for single copies, up to £18.18.0 for the complete set, or could be purchased as transparencies ‘for Lantern Exhibitions’ at an unspecified cost. In being sold for economic means, the Challenger photographs fit the earlier tradition of sketches and paintings being sold as prints to accompany scientific works and illustrated books of travel.
Upon their commercial circulation through the Horsburgh catalogue, the Challenger photographs were still used in scientific contexts. Some of the Challenger photographs reached publication in scientific books, including as plates in Alfred Russel Wallace’s Studies Scientific and Social (1900) in which they were used to illustrate racial ‘types’ of people (see fig. 10 and 11 as examples). In addition photographs appeared in museum exhibitions in London in the early twentieth century, with many more uses likely remaining to be uncovered.
From these images it is clear that photography on the Challenger achieved success not only on account of its objectivity, but owing to its flexibility as a visual strategy. This project has considered only a handful of the Challenger photographs, establishing a foundation for research on the hundreds more remaining to be studied.
1 Moseley, Henry Nottidge. "On the Inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands, &c." The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 6, (1877): 379-429. pl. XIII.
2 Anon. "The Challenger at St. Paul's Rocks." Illustrated London News, (1 Nov. 1873): 412-414. Photograph corresponds to ship no. 136, original in Album one of Assistant Paymaster John Hynes 1872-1876, n.p.
3 Wild, John James. At Anchor: A Narrative of Experiences Afloat and Ashore During the Voyage of HMS ‘Challenger.’ London: Marcus Ward and Co., 1878. 90
4 Horsburgh catalogue of the photographic negatives taken during the challenger expedition, 1885, Natural History Museum Library and Archives, London, Murray Col. Section 5, No. 47, ff. 1-12.
5 Horsburgh catalogue 1885, ff. 1-12.
6 Horsburgh catalogue 1885, f. 12.
7 Horsburgh catalogue 1885, f. 12.
8 Jacobs, M. The Painted Voyage: Art, Travel and Exploration 1564-1875. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1995.16.
9 Wallace, Alfred Russel. Studies Scientific and Social. Volume 1. London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1900. Including front and profile portraits of men and women on Tahiti, and a man from Api, New Hebrides corresponding to ship nos. 405, 403, 295 respectively.