John Johnson (inventor)

John Johnson
John Johnson photo 1871.jpg
circa 1870
Born (1813-05-28)May 28, 1813
Died May 3, 1871(1871-05-03) (aged 57)
Nationality American
Occupation Mechanic
Known for
  • was first portrait picture taken
  • partner of first portrait studio

John Johnson (May 28, 1813 – May 3, 1871) was an instrument maker of dental supplies. He was a nineteenth-century pioneer photographer and an inventor. He made with Alexander S. Wolcott the world's first commercial portrait studio.

Early life

Johnson was born in Saco, Maine on May 28, 1813. His father was William Short Johnson.[1]

Mid life

Johnson lived his childhood and got his initial schooling in Pembroke, New Hampshire. After high school when a young man he worked for a watchmaker in New York City for a few years. Later he went into a business with Alexander Simon Wolcott, an instrument maker, and they formed a partnership with their photography firm in New York City.[2]


Camera light path from reflecting mirror ('C') of a person's portrait image with the rays concentrated onto a light sensitive treated plate ('B').

Johnson took to Wolcott on October 6, 1839, a detailed copy of the specifications on Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre's method of capturing a likeness of a person.[3][4] Wolcott was familiar with the mechanics of optics and experimented on improving Daguerre's basic methods of using lenses.[5] Wolcott came up with the concept that exposure time could be reduced by an improvement on the mechanical arrangement of the image focusing process.[6] This was by using a concave reflector of a 3–4 inch diameter that produced a short focus length.[7] The focused image was formed onto a chemically treated silver surface that was sensitive to light. The image stored on this chemically treated plate of about 2 by 2.5 inches could hold the picture indefinitely.[8]

Wolcott then made a camera that day with improvements on Daguerre's method.[2] The camera was a wooden box 15 inches long, 8.5 inches high, and 8 inches wide. There was a 7-inch concave mirror in the back of the camera.[9] The camera was constructed so that it had a large opening in front where the light rays of the person of the portrait passed through an aperture. The photo-sensitive 2 inch exposure plate was in a detachable frame in the center of this aperture opening, just inside the box. The operator of the camera would set up the focusing of the portrait picture on an unsensitized plate first. Then once the camera was focused with all of the mechanical items involved, then the camera operator would replace the focusing plate with the sensitized plate to take the picture.[9]

William S. Johnson (John Johnson's father) getting portrait taken at Beard's London studio in the 1840s using Wolcott style mirror camera.

Photography historians Dr. Robert Taft and Patrick Robertson stated that Wolcott took a picture of Johnson as the first portrait in the world on October 7, 1839.[10][11][12][13] On March 4, 1840, they opened the first studio in the world as a commercial enterprise for taking pictures of people.[8][14][15] The customer would sit for their likeness to be captured on a permanent medium for future viewing.[16][17] The commercial photography studio was located in New York City at Broadway and Chamber Street.[18] Johnson with Wolcott created the world's first photography portrait studio as a business.[19][20][21][22] They opened their commercial daguerreotype photography portrait studio in March 1840.[23][24][25]

Wolcott's camera technology was taken to London by Johnson's father, William S. Johnson, in February 1840. A European franchise financial arrangement was worked out by W. S. Johnson with Richard Beard, a coal merchant and entrepreneur.[18][26] They hired John Frederick Goddard, a chemist and lecturer in optics. Goddard came up a chemistry formula to make the image plate sensitive to light so that an image would develop on it much faster than the daguerreotype cameras of the time.[27] The image plate used iodine chloride to make the plates sensitive to light, which helped to shorten the camera exposure time. The concave mirror reflector improvement and the photo-sensitive plate were the key innovative features Wolcott based his 1840 camera invention on that made portraits a possibility. This made exposure time to as low as a few minutes in bright sunlight, and since a person could be still for that long it make portraits possible using this state-of-the-art photography.[28][29] Beard then opened the first public portrait studio of Europe in London in March 1841,[27] the Daguerrean gallery at the Polytechnic Institute.[30] Beard developed franchises of portrait studios throughout England.[31]

Later life

Johnson died on May 3, 1871, in Saco, Maine.[32]


  1. ^ Rinhart, Floyd; Rinhart, Marion (April 1977). "Wolcott and Johnson; Their Camera and Their Photography". History of Photography. Benezit Dictionary of Artists (Oxford University Press): 99–109, 129–134.
  2. ^ a b Heathcote 2002, pp. 87–89.
  3. ^ "Next Year Will Be Celebrated The Centennial of Photography". The Times-Independent. Moab, Utah. November 24, 1938 – via open access.
  4. ^ Simkin, David (2005). "John Johnson (1813–1871)". Derbyshire Photographers' Profiles. Retrieved August 14, 2017.
  5. ^ Watson, Elmo Scott (June 13, 1940). "Again is Raised the Question of Who Made the First Camera in the U.S." The Times-Independent. Moab, Utah. p. 2 – via open access.
  6. ^ Watson, Elmo Scott (November 25, 1938). "The First Portrait". The Pleasant Grove Review. Pleasant Grove, Utah. p. 7 – via open access.
  7. ^ Taft 2008, p. 33-35.
  8. ^ a b Robertson 2011, p. 580.
  9. ^ a b Gernsheim 1955, p. 91.
  10. ^ Taft 2008, pp. 33–35.
  11. ^ Watson, Elmo Scott (November 25, 1938). "Photography and the American Scene". The Ironwood Times. Ironwood, Michigan. p. 10 – via open access. On October 7, 1939, Wolcott made a successful portrait of Johnson and this Taft calls the first.
  12. ^ Watson, Elmo Scott (November 24, 1938). "The First Portrait". The Cambridge City Tribune. Cambridge City, Indiana. p. 2 – via open access. On October 7, 1939, Wolcott made a successful portrait of Johnson and this Taft calls the first.
  13. ^ Watson, Elmo Scott (June 14, 1940). "Took The First Photographic Portrait". Piute County News. Junction, Utah. p. 6 – via open access. Wolcott, who was an instrument maker and manufacturer of dental supplies, took a daguerrotype of his partner, John Johnson, on October 7, 1839, according to Taft, and this was the first photographic portrait.
  14. ^ McGraw-Hill 1969, p. 459.
  15. ^ Neblette 1949, p. 12.
  16. ^ Kane 1997, p. 414.
  17. ^ Glenner 1990, p. 11.
  18. ^ a b SPSE 1957, p. 6.
  19. ^ "Timeline". The History of Photography Archive. 2017. Retrieved August 14, 2017.
  20. ^ "America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839–1862". Library of Congress. 2017. Retrieved August 14, 2017. In 1840, the first commercial portrait gallery, New York's Wolcott and Johnson, used large mirrors mounted outside the studio to project as much sunlight onto the customer as possible, in a sitting that could last for as long as eight minutes.
  21. ^ Karad 2014, p. 49.
  22. ^ "Early Portraiture". The Central News. Perkasie, Pennsylvania. December 30, 1897. p. 4 – via open access.
  23. ^ Marzec 2004, p. 49.
  24. ^ Martin 1988, p. 34.
  25. ^ PJA 1868, p. 175.
  26. ^ Chaudhuri 2007, p. 64.
  27. ^ a b KodakMuseum 1989, p. 21.
  28. ^ Coe 1978, p. 18.
  29. ^ Rosenblum 1997, p. 196.
  30. ^ "Beard's Coloured Photographic". The Guardian. London, England. May 18, 1850. p. 4 – via open access.
  31. ^ "New York Correspondence". Photographic Journal of America. 5 (49): 175–177.
  32. ^ Heathcote 2002, p. 87.


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