Derbyshire Photographers Profiles : John Johnson (1813-1871) Derby's First Photographer
Derbyshire Photographers' Profiles
by Brett Payne, of Tauranga, New Zealand
John Johnson (1813-1871)

Derby's first photographer
by David Simkin

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John Johnson was born at Saco, Maine, U.S.A. on 28th May 1813, the son of William Short Johnson.  He was brought up in New Hampshire and for a time worked as an assistant to a jeweller and watchmaker in New York.  Johnson formed a business partnership with Alexander Simon Wolcott (1804 -1844), a New York instrument maker.  On 6th October 1839, John Johnson took a written description of Daguerre's method of photography to Wolcott, who immediately designed a camera for making daguerreotype portraits.  Johnson claimed that Wolcott made a tiny daguerreotype portrait of him with the camera the same day.  Alexander S. Wolcott invented a camera which used a highly reflective concave mirror instead of a lens.  This cut exposure times to about 90 seconds in bright sunlight, thereby making daguerreotype portraiture a possibility.  In March 1840, Wolcott and Johnson opened a daguerreotype portrait gallery in New York, probably the first commercial photographic portrait studio in the world.  Johnson perfected the technique of polishing the silvered copper plates used for daguerreotype portraits and later claimed to have discovered the use of iodine chloride to sensitize plates and reduce camera exposure times.
Image courtesy of David Simkin
John Johnson (1813-1871)
Derby's first photographer

In February 1840, John Johnson's father Wiliam S. Johnson travelled to England with details of Wolcott's mirror camera, intending to take out an English patent on Wolcott's invention.  Johnson had a meeting with Richard Beard, who was planning to open a daguerreotype portrait gallery in London, and Beard agreed to purchase the exclusive rights to Wolcott's camera.  In the autumn of 1840, John Johnson also travelled to England in order to provide technical assistance to Beard, who was about to construct a photographic studio on the roof of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London's Regent Street.

Johnson worked with the English scientist John Frederick Goddard (1795-1866) on chemical techniques for accelerating camera exposures to provide Beard with a practical method of making daguerreotype portraits.  Beard opened England's first photographic portrait studio to the public on 23rd March 1841.  Johnson continued to provide technical assistance to Beard at the Regent Street studio.  In 1841, Johnson filed a patent in the United States for his method of polishing metal plates for photography.  On 9th November 1842, John Johnson obtained from Richard Beard the patent rights for the daguerreotype process in the counties of Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire and took control of Beard's Photographic & Daguerreotype Portrait Gallery in Manchester.

In July 1843, Johnson opened a daguerreotype portrait studio next to the Athenaeum on Victoria Street in Derby.  While based in Derby, Johnson arranged for daguerreotypes to be made of the farm animals and agricultural implements on display at the Royal Agricultural Society's show being held in the town in July 1843.  A couple of month's later, Johnson opened a daguerreotype gallery in Blackpool, Lancashire.  In 1843,together with his former business partner Alexander S. Wolcott, Johnson filed a British Patent on a camera and apparatus designed for copying daguerreotypes.  In 1844, Johnson sold the Manchester studio to William Akers, passed the daguerreotype licence for Derbyshire to Thomas Roberts, a local bookseller and newsagent, and returned to the United States.
On his return to America, John Johnson continued his interest in photography and pursued his scientific interests. He was an early member of the American Photographical Society and became the society's first Treasurer.  In the early 1860s, Johnson conducted chemical experiments and gave lectures on scientific topics such as the influence of light on the growth of plants.  By 1866, Johnson had returned to his native town of Saco in Maine where he became the first President of the York Institute, a society which aimed "to promote the study of Natural History and encourage Science and Art ." John Johnson died in Saco on 3rd May 1871 at the age of 57.

Heathcote, Bernard & Pauline (2002) A Faithful Likeness - The First Photographic Portrait Studios in the British Isles, 1841 to 1855, publ. by the authors, 27 Plough Lane, Lowdham, Nottinghamshire, NG14 7AT, England, Courtesy of David Simkin.

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