A History Of Photography

Table of Content

The term photography originates from the Greek words for light and writing. In 1839, Sir John Herschel was the first to use the term photography. He successfully preserved images by utilizing hyposulphite of soda. Herschel defined photography as “The application of the chemical rays to the purpose of pictorial representation”. He also introduced the terms “negative”, “positive”, and “snapshot”.

However, a man named de la Roche (1729 – 1774) penned Giphantie, an imaginative story where he depicted the ability to capture images from nature. This process involved utilizing a canvas coated with a sticky substance, which would result in a mirror image when applied to the canvas and allowed to dry in the darkness.

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Photography is made possible by combining two scientific processes that have been in existence for centuries. The first process, known as the Camera Obscura, has been around for at least four hundred years. The second process involves chemicals. For centuries, people were aware that the sun could bleach certain colors, but they did not distinguish between heat, air, and light until these processes were merged to form photography.

The Camera Obscura, also known as the Dark Room, was a room or box with a small hole on one wall that projected an upside-down image onto the opposite wall. This concept was understood by philosophers since Aristotle in around 300 BC. In the 10th century, Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan described something similar to a camera obscura in his work “On the form of the Eclipse”. He stated that “The image of the sun during an eclipse, unless it is total, shows that when its light passes through a narrow, circular hole and is cast on a flat surface opposite the hole, it takes on the shape of a crescent moon…”. Leonardo da Vinci’s writings and drawings (1452-1519) provide some of the earliest evidence of using a camera obscura. During this time period, Venetian Daniel Barbaro recommended using the camera obscura as a drawing tool. He advised closing all shutters and doors to allow only light through the lens and then moving a piece of paper back and forth until sharp detail appeared. On this paper, one could see the entire view with distances, colors, shadows, movement, clouds, twinkling water, and flying birds just as they actually were. In the mid sixteenth century Giovanni Battista della Porta constructed a large “camera” where guests could sit and observe images projected on the wall by actors performing outside.The panic caused by upside down images at Battista’s exhibition led to accusations of sorcery. Despite the common use of camera obscura among artists, few openly admitted to it due to its association with the occult and a perception of cheating. The development of lenses began in 1764, deriving its name from the Latin word for lentil due to its convex shape. In the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle observed that silver chloride darkened when exposed, attributing this effect to air rather than light. Angelo Sala later noticed that powdered silver nitrate turned black under sunlight during the early seventeenth century. Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered in 1727 that certain liquids change color when exposed to light.

In the early 1800s, Thomas Wedgwood conducted experiments to capture silhouettes, but faced the challenge of preserving the images. Joseph Niépce achieved the first successful permanent picture in June or July of 1826 using Heliography. This process involved using Bitumen of Judea, which hardened when exposed to light. The picture required an unusually long exposure time of eight hours.

On 4 January 1829, Nipce and Louis Daguerre agreed to partner together to perfect the process of photography. Unfortunately, Nipce passed away four years later. Despite this setback, Daguerre continued to experiment and made significant discoveries. He found a way to develop photographic plates, which greatly reduced the exposure time from eight hours to just thirty minutes. Additionally, he learned that immersing an image in salt could make it permanent. In July 1839, the French government purchased the rights to Daguerre’s invention after it was reported on by renowned scholar Paul Delaroche. The process, now known as the Daguerreotype, was publicly unveiled on 19 August 1839. The invention quickly gained popularity because it allowed individuals who lacked drawing skills to create images. However, not everyone embraced this exciting innovation. The Leipzig City Advertiser published a newspaper report expressing doubts about the possibility of capturing fleeting reflections and called the desire to do so blasphemy. The report questioned whether God would allow a Frenchman to introduce such a invention, referring to it as the work of the Devil. Artists of the time viewed photography as a threat to their profession, with some even believing that painting would become obsolete.

The Spectator (2 February 1839) referred to daguerreotypes as the “self operating process of Fine Art.” Carl Dauthendey, the first professional daguerreotype photographer in St. Petersburg, noted that people initially hesitated to look at the pictures for extended periods. The clarity of these figures was overwhelming, and viewers believed that the tiny faces in the pictures could see them. The unprecedented detail and truth to nature in the first daguerreotypes amazed everyone. One challenge with early daguerreotypes was the lengthy exposure time required, which could be up to 15 minutes under bright sunlight. A chapel daguerreotype specifies that it was taken between 4:40pm and 5:30pm on 19 April 1840. For portrait photographs, headrests were used to keep subjects still, and one photographer even applied flour on their faces to increase reflected light and reduce exposure time! Daguerre’s patent expired in 1853, leading to an increase in the number of daguerreotypists. At that time, all photographs were monochrome, so artists found work coloring the images. Coloring kits, such as the Newman kit with thirty-six colors, allowed painters to apply color with a fine brush onto the plate and fix it by breathing on it.

The Daguerreotype process was expensive and resulted in unique pictures. Each image was considered an original piece of art that could not be replicated. The fragile surfaces and mirror images created posed challenges, as the bromine and chlorine fumes, as well as the hot mercury used, were highly toxic. Additionally, the images were difficult to view at certain angles. As a result, there was a need for a method to copy these pictures. William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention, the Calotype, provided the solution. Talbot described it as a process where natural objects could depict themselves without the artist’s pencil. In August 1835, Talbot created his first paper negative, featuring the renowned window at Lacock Abbey, his residence. This negative, measuring 1″ square, was of poor quality compared to Daguerreotype images. By 1841, Talbot had perfected the process. The Calotype’s significant advantage was its ability to produce an unlimited number of positive prints. Today’s photography is based on the same principle as the Calotype. Unlike the Daguerreotype, Talbot’s method involved directly printing onto paper, which included any imperfections on its surface when making a positive print. Some individuals experimented with using glass instead of paper; however, they faced difficulties in making the silver solution adhere to the shiny glass surface.In 1848, Abel Nipce de Saint-Victor perfected a process involving coating a glass plate with albumen – a mixture of white of egg and potassium iodide – and washing it with an acid solution of silver nitrate. This technique, known as albumen, resulted in high-quality images with fine detail. However, it was slow and limited to capturing architecture and landscapes; portraiture was not feasible.

In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer introduced the Wet Collodion process, which significantly improved the speed of photography. This method reduced exposure times to just two or three seconds, making photography more versatile. While daguerreotypes cost around a guinea (1.05), which was equivalent to the average weekly wage for many workers, the collodion process allowed prints to be produced for as little as one shilling (5p).

The collodion process required the coating, exposure, and development of the image to be completed while the plate was still wet. As a result, it necessitated a considerable amount of equipment on location. Attempts were made to preserve exposed plates in the wet collodion process for later development, but these preservatives reduced the sensitivity of the material.

In 1871, Dr. Richard Leach Maddox made a significant breakthrough in photography by discovering a method that utilized Gelatin, a newly discovered substance at that time. This innovation replaced the conventional use of glass for photographic plates. The introduction of Gelatin led to the development of the dry plate process, which offered quicker development compared to previous techniques. Although initially less sensitive, it underwent refinement and enabled the production of factory-made photographic materials. With the introduction of the dry-plate process, the need for cumbersome wet-plates and darkroom tents was eliminated. In 1884, George Eastman further revolutionized photography by introducing flexible film. Additionally, he introduced the box camera four years later, democratizing access to photography. Another significant advancement was made by Herman Vogel, who developed a method to make film sensitive to green light. Stereoscopic photography, which reproduced three-dimensional images, was popular during the Victorian era and experienced fluctuating popularity over time.

Dr. Peter Henry Emmerson, a British artist, was among the pioneers in the field of photography. Contrary to using special effects or copying paintings, his work reflects a complex philosophy that emphasizes the existence of reality only when observed. Man Ray, a co-founder of the New York Dada Group established in 1917, was influenced by the New York Camera Club (founded in 1902), which served as a standard for new photography. Both Paul Strand, a dedicated photographer, and Alfred Steiglitz, a painter and photographer, were members of this club. In 1920, Steiglitz became the first to open a gallery showcasing paintings and photographs together. His intention was to use prints to explain and describe artistic concepts. Paul Strand’s approach had a profound impact on Ansel Adams, who was part of the f64 group and utilized precise large-format (5″x4″) photography with extensive depth of field. Imogen Cunningham, regarded as the grandmother of photography, also belonged to the f64 group and presented challenges to P.H. Emmerson’s photography approach and philosophy.

Documentary photography gained popularity through the work of photographers like Walker Adams and Dorothy Lange, who captured images of people affected by the stock market crash. Another renowned documentary photographer, William Eggleston, also practiced fine art photography. In the 1950s, with the emergence of Abstract Expressionism and successful painters like Jackson Pollock who painted from their subconscious, contemporary photography came into existence. It continues to thrive today. During the 1960s, photography was accepted into mainstream culture and began being taught in higher education institutions. Esteemed photographers became professors in these institutions, while art gallery curators played a vital role in the selection and presentation of exhibits to the public. These curators began recognizing photography as a legitimate art form, granting it equal status with paintings for the first time.

In 1963, Dwayne Michaels created a collection of surreal photographs inspired by his dreams. Meanwhile, fashion and applied photography experienced a surge in popularity with the emergence of photographers like David Bailey. Irving Penn, on the other hand, captured images of tribespeople in a studio setting, removing any distractions from their surroundings and directing all attention to the subjects. Diana Arbast, who tragically took her own life in 1971, also delved into unconventional photography with her self-portraits. Similarly, Penn ventured into unique and unconventional photography. Additionally, Andy Warhol experimented with art-inspired photographs, utilizing repetition and incorporating found photographs rather than capturing his own images.

Beschers view objectivity is truthful and real photography, a visual record of an event. Mundane and everyday photographs show an honest view objectivity, with no comment or statement, using the photographic way of seeing. Jenny Holtzer utilized photography to document writing on peoples’ arms. In 1992, Gillian Wearing created “Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say And Not What Someone Else Wants You To Say,” a collection of photographs depicting people holding up boards with statements from the subjects.

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A History Of Photography. (2019, Jan 21). Retrieved from


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