Thursday, 30 December 2010

Charles Edward Kenneth Mees 1882-1960

As 2010 draws to a close it is fitting I should commemorate another key player in the history of infrared photography, who died 50 years ago: CEK (Kenneth) Mees.

Mees had a doctorate in photographic theory from the University of London and was joint managing director of Wratten and Wainwright, who had produced the first commercial panchromatic photographic plates in 1906.

Mees had joined the Croydon-based firm in 1906. The father and son team of Frederick Charles Luther Wratten and Sidney Herbert Wratten brought him in as co-owner and joint managing director when they incorporated the company on the elder Wratten's retirement (before that it was a partnership with Henry Wainwright). When George Eastman set up the Kodak research laboratory in Rochester in 1912 he brought Mees over from England to run it. In order to do so he bought the Wratten and Wainwright business. RW Wood wrote to Mees on hearing the news, hoping he had "held 'em up for a king's ransom", asking whether Kodak were going to "close up every plate factory in the world" and hoping that Kodak would now turn out "uniform plates for scientific work". Mees wrote back to reassure Wood, saying that "we shall be able to make even better plates for scientific research than we can make at Croydon".

It is possible that Wood and Mees were acquainted by letter before Wood's European sabbatical in 1910-11, but they clearly became friends and corresponded until at least the early 1950s. In 1910 Mees was an ordinary member of the council of the Royal Photographic Society, and he chaired the Traill-Taylor lecture meeting where Wood presented his Invisible Rays paper. Wood's contact address was listed as c/o Wratten and Wainwright in the RPS exhibition catalogue and it would have been Mees who provided Wood with the infrared-sensitive plates he used on his Italian travels in 1911.

Mees also made use of infrared-sensitive plates himself. The Kodak Research Laboratory archive at the University of Rochester contains thirteen photographs (negatives and prints) taken in Portugal in 1910 by Mees using Wratten and Wainwright infrared sensitised plates (one of which was included in the Infrared 100 Exhibition). The images were taken through a Wratten 88 red filter with five-minute exposures and some show the characteristic dark skies and bright foliage that we now recognise in infrared photographs. However, in his 1936 book 'Photography' Mees credits Wood with taking the "earliest photographs of landscapes by infra-red rays", presumably referring to the images from Wood's 1910 publications.

I won't go into further biographical details on Mees as I can point you to two good sources. One is from the Croydon Camera Club, of which he was a member (explore the Who is Dr Mees item in the menu), and the other is the Image, the bulletin of George Eastman House.

Finally, and nothing whatsoever to do with infrared photography, George Eastman House archives hold a 1922 note from Wood to Mees, affording a written introduction to one Leopold Mannes ...
who has worked out a system of color-photography which appears to me to have some novel features which I think will interest you and perhaps interest your company. It occurred to me that you might offer him the facilities of your laboratory for a few days ... The process is quite simple, and the results which I have seen look promising.[Ref]
Mees did indeed provide facilities to Mannes and his colleague Leopold Godowsky Jr to work on their colour process, which eventually became known as Kodachrome. This iconic slide film was discontinued last year and the last-remaining development facility closes its doors today, at the end of 2010. So it goes.


  1. Regarding the link between Mees and "Kodachrome", here's an interesting newspaper article on colour photography from 1915 which beings:
    Some examples of "Kodachrome," a new process of photography in colours, were shown at the Royal Photographic Society(says "The Times"). The process is the discovery of Mr. Kenneth Mees, an Englishman living in the United States...

  2. Thanks Kent. That's an interesting item. This turns out to be an earlier incarnation of Kodachrome to the one we all know and love and is listed in the timeline in the Kodak Museum catalogue I have. It says: 1914: "Kodachrome" two-colour portraiture and 1915: "Kodachrome" two-colour 35mm subtractive cine film. This was already demonstrating that a subtractive process could avoid the patterning associated with three-colour additive processes.

  3. The early, first version of Kodachrome was an invention of John Capstaff. Like Mees, he also was formerly working at Wratten & Wainright, and had followed Mees to Rochester.
    The later Kodachrome was called after Capstaff's product, because in its working form, it too was just a two colour process. It was that until the very last minute when shortly before it would have been launched as such by Mees/Kodak, inventors Mannes and Godowski managed to complete the three colour version they had been working towards under the patronage of Mees.

  4. The Wikipedia entry on Kodachrome notes Capstaff's early work.