Photography

Development of Photography

Camera photography was invented in the first decades of the 19th century.

Learning Objectives

Create a timeline of the development of photography throughout the 19th century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A photograph is created when light falls on a light-sensitive surface.
  • Before the first camera was ever invented, Chinese and Greek philosophers described the ” pinhole camera.”
  • Nicephore Niepce was a French inventor known for producing the first permanent photoetching in 1822.
  • Daguerre invented the Daguerrotype in 1837.
  • Many chemical and physical photographic advances were made throughout the mid-19th century including the invention of the cyanotype, ambrotype, tintype, and negative on albumen.
  • Photography represents the first instance of an artistic medium being used widely by the masses as a mode of visual expression.
  • The American Civil War (1861–65) was the first war in American history to be photographically documented.
  • Photographs in the first half of the 19th century were very expensive to produce. In the 1860s, a series of cheaper photographic technologies allowed for the middle class to take part in commissioning and purchasing photographs.

Key Terms

  • calotype: An early photographic process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot that used paper coated with silver iodide; also known as a talbotype
  • photoetching: A photolithographic etching process. It uses light to transfer a geometric pattern from a photomask to a light-sensitive chemical on the substrate.
  • cyanotype: An early photographic process employing paper sensitized with a cyanide.
  • ambrotype: An early type of photograph in which a glass negative appears positive when displayed on a black background.
  • camera obscura: A darkened chamber in which the image of an outside object is projected and focused onto a surface.
  • tintype: A mid-19th century photographic technology that created a direct positive image onto a thin piece of tin.
  • daguerreotype: An early type of photograph created by exposing a silver-coated copper surface previously exposed to either iodine vapor or iodine and bromine vapors.

Background

The word “photograph” is based on the Greek phos meaning light and graphe meaning drawing, together meaning drawing with light. Essentially, a photograph is created when a light-sensitive surface is exposed to light, leaving a mark on said surface. Camera photography was invented in the first decades of the 19th century, and even at this early point, it was able to capture more information, and with greater speed, than painting or sculpture.

There are a number of important precursors to photography. In the 5th century BCE, before the first camera was ever invented, Chinese and Greek philosophers described the “pinhole camera,” a lightproof box with a tiny hole in one side that allowed light to pass through and project an inverted image one side. The camera obscura is a version of the pinhole camera, and was often used as a tool by artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci as a technique to create paintings. The process of photography was effectually engaged in creating a permanent image from the process outlined originally by the camera obscura.

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Camera obscura design: This diagram illustrates the components of a camera obscura.

Nicephore Niepce was a French inventor who is known to have produced the first permanent photoetching in 1822. However, his process took a great deal of time; up to eight hours were needed to expose a single image. Niepce began to work with Louis Daguerre and the two conducted experiments with silver compounds, based on a theory of Johann Heinrich Schultz, who proved that the mixture of silver and chalk darkens when it is exposed to light. Niepce died in 1833 but Daguerre continued on this path and eventually invented the daguerreotype in 1837. The daguerreotype was an incredibly important discovery for photography due to its speed and ease of use. It represents the first commercially successful photographic process. Eventually, France agreed to pay Daguerre for his formula in exchange for announcing his discovery as the gift of France, which he did in 1839.

The Earliest Photography

The earliest photography consisted of monochromatic or black and white shots. Even after color photography was invented, black and white photography still prevailed due to its lower cost and preferable appearance. During the mid-19th century, many scientists and inventors began working on the development of photography. A number of chemical and physical photographic variations were made during the mid-19th century including the invention of the cyanotype, ambrotype, tintype, and negative on albumen.

John Herschel was an important figure to the development of photography. He is credited with creating the first glass negative, and was among the first to use the terms photography, negative, and positive. In addition, he discovered a solution that could be used to “fix” photographs in order to make them more permanent. William Fox Talbot worked to refine Daguerre’s process in order to make the new photographic medium more available to the masses. He also invented the calotype process, which produces a paper print from a negative image. Talbot’s photograph of the Oriel window in Lacock Abbey is the oldest negative in existence.

The 1860s were a defining decade for photography. In addition to the American Civil War (1861–65), the first war in American history to be documented with photographs, the 1860s also brought photography to the middle class. While the first half of the century introduced expensive daguerreotypes, the latter half of the century is defined by the development of cheaper photographic techniques. For example, the ambrotype mimicked the look of the daguerreotype with its reflective surface; however, the newer technology used a light-sensitized glass surface instead of copper, which made for a much cheaper photograph to produce and purchase. Likewise, the tintype eclipsed the ambrotype later in the decade by replacing glass with tin, an even cheaper material, and one that dried much quicker than glass. However, it was the albumen print, paper positives that retained the image quality of metal surfaces, that proved to be the winning technology, lasting well into the 20th century.

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Albumen print by Alexander Gardner, 1862: This print by Alexander Gardner depicts bodies of Confederate artillerymen near Dunker church.

Since the earliest photographic developments, many scientists and artists have taken great interest in photography’s inherent abilities. Artists have used photography to study movement and motion, details that before this point could not be seen by the naked eye, as we see in Eadweard Muybridge’s studies from 1887. Photography represents the first instance of an artistic medium being used widely by the masses as a mode of visual expression.

This print is made up of 12 different images showing a man on a horse in 12 different moments of movement.

The Horse in Motion, 1886, Eadweard Muybridge: The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge illustrates the artist’s preoccupation with documenting motion and his use of photography as a sequential art form.

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Flying Gallop Hypothesis Falsified: Galloping horse, animated in 2006 using photos by Eadweard Muybridge.