Two of America's most successfully early photographers were born in Braunschweig, Germany. Ernst Wilhelm Langenheim was born in 1807 and his brother Friedrich followed two years later. After receiving a law degree in Gottingen, Germany, Ernst Wilhelm emigrated to the United States in 1834, eventually settling in San Antonio, Texas. Serving in General Sam Houston's army during the 1835-1836 war for Texas independence, and after being captured by the Mexican army, he languished for nearly a year in a prison at Matamoras. He was released when a truce between the warring factions was finally reached. Continuing his military service, he assisted in the Florida campaign against the Seminole Indians.
Relocating to Philadelphia, Ernst Wilhelm was joined by his brother Friedrich, and they began working for Die Alte and Neue Welt, a German language newspaper. At around this time, they decided to call themselves by the more American-sounding first names of William and Frederick. The brothers' foray into photography is unknown, but is believed to have its roots back in Germany when their sister Louisa married Johann Bernhard Schneider, an instructor at Vienna's Carolo Wilhelmina Polytechnic Institute. One of his students, Peter Friedrich Wilhelm Voigtlander, was making cameras and lenses for daguerreotype at the time, and Mr. Schneider went to Philadelphia to teach his brothers-in-law how to use them. The Langenheim brothers became the official American agents for the distribution of the Voigtlander all-metal camera " which looked like a spyglass" and his portrait lens, which was designed by Joseph Petzval.
In 1843, the Langenheims opened a portrait studio at 26-27 Exchange in Philadelphia. William was the senior partner and business manager, and Frederick was in charge of photograph production. Their success was apparent in the famous Americans who wanted to have their portraits taken, including President John Tyler. It was the eight sets of five daguerrotypes the brothers made of Niagara Falls in 1845 that earned them international prominence. They formed panoramic views by framing the daguerreotypes side by side, and being ever the promoters, they sent sets to President James K. Polk, Queen Victoria, the kings of Prussia, Saxony, and Wurtemberg, and even Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre himself.
However, the popularity of the daguerreotype faded quickly, but the Langenheims saw a viable replacement in the improved calotype process patented by William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1849, William Langenheim traveled to England in hopes of purchasing Mr. Talbot's American patent rights for the paper negative process. After working to perfect and adapt the process to their Philadelphia surroundings. They developed their own technique by following the lead of Claude Abel Niepce de Saint Victor, using albumen and replacing paper with glass, a process they named "hyalotype." The Langenheims released their version of calotypes, but Americans were unimpressed. No amount of shameless self-promotion would save this venture. Sadly, the hyalotype pictures were poorly lit with painted-out backgrounds that made even the poorest quality daguerreotypes look better in comparison.
Nevertheless, the resourceful Langenheim brothers were able to apply their process to magic-lantern slides successfully, which Robert Hunt declared to be perfection in terms of their delicacy and detail in his 1851 article, "Improvements in Photography." The siblings were true photographic pioneers, founding the American Stereoscopic Company, and becoming the first photographers to sell pictures of popular U.S. tourist attractions. After briefly dissolving their partnership, the brothers reunited in 1854. By the 1860s, they produced only lantern slides. William Langenheim died in 1874, and the lone surviving brother promptly sold the business and retired. Frederick Langenheim died in 1879.
1851 The Art-Journal (London: James S. Virtue), p. 106.
1897 The Photographic Times, Vol. XXIX (New York: The Photographic Times Publishing Association), p. 280.
1976 The Daguerreotype in America (New York: Dover Publications), pp. 49-54.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 824-826.
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