Hercules Florence 1833: a descoberta isolada da Fotografia no Brasil

Hercules Florence 1833: a descoberta isolada da Fotografia no Brasil

H. K. Henisch

Hercules Romuald Florence was 21 years old when he came to Rio de Janeiro in March 1824. Trained as a painter, he soon obtained employment with the Russian naturalist Baron von Langsdorff, who needed his services in connection with an expedition into the interior of Brazil. Langsdorff and his distinguished companions set off in September 1825 and did not return to the capital until March 1829. Every phase of the journey was recorded in Florence’s diary, as was much of much of his subsequent work as a researcher, e.g. on problems of musical notation and of characterizing the sounds of animals. The idea of recording images by means of the camera obscura appears to have come to him in August 1832, and he did indeed succeed to a remarkable degree during that year and in 1833. Designs of a camera and of printing frames have been found, and so have several photogenic drawings (based on silver nitrate and fixed with ammonia from what might be called ‘natural sources’), but no actual photographs made with the camera. Remarkable as it may seem, Florence also used the word photography many years before it was  ‘re-coined’ by Herschel in England. The matter has already received a good deal of publicity in recent years.

In this book the inventions are documented as far as the surviving records permit, and there is no reasonable doubt of their authenticity; it is their significance that concerns us here, and on this point there are at least two schools of thought. According to one, nothing is significant that is not influential, and this line of thought tends to confine historical studies in this  field to a few well-known figures: fox Talbot, Daguerre, Scott Archer, etc. Implicitly it urges us to ignore brilliant men like Bayard, for no better reason than that they did what they did in the wrong place at the wrong time. Underlying this outlook are the beliefs that intellectual achievement matters less to us than its practical and economic consequences, and that we are able to make general  judgements  about the world of photography by the increasingly detailed explorations of well trodden ground. Another viewpoint is that we are concerned primarily with the history of ideas no matter where formulated, that we do not really know the history of photography until we know it everywhere, and that the notion of who influences whom is rarely simple; According to the conventional  wisdom, photography was invented because ‘society was ready for it’, but the Hercules Florence episode shows that it (or something close to it) could be invented in a colonial society which was very different from that of England or France, and far from ‘ready’. In a similar way the Bayard episode proves that society may be ‘ready’ without necessarily showing itself alert to new possibilities. At this stage no sensible commentator is likely to claim that art and invention proceed in ways independent of society’s pressures (to be sure, Florence was a product of his European upbringing), but the laws which govern their relationships can never be exact laws. Mellowed by personalities and circumstances, they tend to offer more nourishment to hindsight than to prediction. When we admire human achievement, we certainly feel that we are admiring more than the achiever’s automatic response to social forces. It pleases us to think that there is room in the world not only for an intelligent response to needs, but for spontaneously inventive genius.

Boris Kossoy is an architect, writer, and photo-historian who began his researches in 1972 with the support and encouragement of Florence’s descendents. For those who (like this reviewer) do not  read  Portuguese without constant and tedious references to a dictionary, a short version of the text is available in English.


  1. Boris Kossoy, Image. Vol.20 (1977), p.12.

H.K. HENISCH. Resenha de Hercules Florence 1833; a descoberta isolada de Fotografia no Brazil, by Boris Kossoy, Faculdade de Comunicação Social Anhembi, São Paulo (1977), 144 pp. In:HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY  an  international quarterly – January 1978.