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People have been keeping visual records of themselves and the things
around them since prehistoric times, recording images that range from
carefully drawn hieroglyphics to pictures taken on the surface of the
moon. Each image is an attempt to communicate from one person to
another the things we see.
Photography, which means literally “writing with light”, gives us the
means to record and examine our day-to-day activities and experiences.
Unlike the casual glance, which often “sees” only the major elements of a
scene, a photograph records the tiniest of details. It then allows us time to
study and understand each minute element. A photograph preserves
what memory cannot.
The ability of light to transmit images was apparently first
casually noted by the Egyptians some ten thousand years
ago. Hiding from the fierce sun in their tents and huts, these
ancients noted that when light reflected from objects came
beaming through tiny holes in the ten walls, the colored
image of an upside-down camel or person was projected
onto the tent wall. Inspired by this experience, they began to
experiment with ways to capture and preserve images and
became the first “photographers”.
Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, first described the
formation of a crude optical image in about 350 B.C. He
observed that when a beam of light was allowed to enter a
darkened room through a small hole an image was formed. By
holding a piece of paper six inches or so from the opening he
was able to capture the image. Though blurred and upside down
the image was recognizable.
Leonardo DaVinci, early in the sixteenth century, diagrammed
in his famous Notebooks the workings of a camera, complete with
instructions on how to use it.
The phenomenon that Aristotle described and DaVinci illustrated
became known as the camera obscura. This term, meaning “dark
room”, was introduced by the Italians, whose painters were among the
first to make practical use of Aristotle’s discovery. In the early 1500s
Italian painters used the camera obscura to improve proportion and
perspective in their paintings.
During the next two hundred years many improvements were made in
the basic camera obscura. A glass lens that greatly sharpened the
image eventually replaced the somple opening, the camera was made
smaller and more portable, and mirrors were added so that the image
was projected in an upright position.
By the early 1700s, the basic optical equipment necessary
for manufacturing a camera was available, and the
camera obscura had come to look much like the basic
camera of today. But the solution to the basic problem of
preserving the camera’s image continued to elude
scientists and inventors. It took and additional 120 years
to solve that mystery.
During the 1700s, several people were
experimenting with chemicals that were sensitive to
light. The biggest challenge facing photographers
was to find a fixing agent that would make the
A German professor of anatomy, Schulze was experimenting
with the manufacture of phosphorus when he discovered that a
combination of chalk, aqua regia (a combination of nitric and
hydrochloric acids), and silver nitrate turned purple when
exposed to light. By the process of elimination he discovered
that silver salts were the darkening agent. Unfortunately,
however, he failed to make use of this discovery. The credit for
applying Shulze’s results goes to Thomas Wedgwood.
The great English potter Josian Wedgwood used the camera obscura to
reproduce accurate drawings for his ornamental china and potter. His
son Thomas was the first to apply the idea of light-sensitive chemicals
to the camera obscura. Familiar with the camera obscura because of
his father’s work, and with Schulze’s discoveries about silver salts
because of his fascination with chemistry,Wedgwood produced
silhouettes of insect wings and leaves on white leather coated with
silver nitrate. However, the process was too slow to be used in the
camera obscura, and there was not way to fix and preserve the image.
Partial credit for the inventiono f photography has also been given
to Frenchman Joseph Niepce, who, after many disappointments,
successfully produced the world’s first photograph in 1827. To
create it, he coated a pewter plate with bitumen of Judea, or
asphaltum, placed the plate in the camera, and made an eight
hour exposure. To develop the photograph, he rinsed the plate
with lavender oil. Althought the image was far from perfect, it was
a milestone in the advancement of the art.
Another Frenchman, Daguerre, started his own search for the ideal fixing
agent when his brief partnership with Niepce broke up. In 1837, after
eight years of searching, he found what he was looking for, mercury
vapor. Daguerre patented his process as the daguerreotype process. The
procedure involved making an exposure on silver foil that had been
sensitized with iodine. Following exposure, the foil was brought into
contact with mercury vapor for development. The image was made
permanent with a solution of common salt. Daguerreotype prints were an
instant success. Studios were opened, and professional photographers
began giving portrait painters stiff competition for business. Gradually,
over the years, refinements were made in the lens and in the light
sensitivity of the plates that were use. The popularity of daguerreotype
portraits leaped when a method was devised to soften the tones and
enrich the image.
Talbot, and English contemporary of Daguerre, made the next major
contribution to photography – production of the first negative image.
Working with silver nitrate and sodium chloride (salt),Talbot produced
silver chloride, a compound more sensitive to light than Daguerre’s foil
plates. Talbot coated paper instead of glass or metal plates, to produce
the first negative image in 1835. Despite his disappointment at public
indifference to his discovery,Talbot made numerous experiments to
perfect the process. While working to improve his technique,Talbot
discovered the latent image, an invisible image formed on film after
exposure but before development. He realized that the resulting negative
would enable him to reproduce an image easily. In 1841 he obtained a
patent for his process, which he called the calotype photographic process,
derived from the Greek word calos meaning “beautiful”.
Although Talbot did not enjoy the instant success of Daguerre,
his discoveries and contributions to photography were the keys
that unlocked the negative-positive image process, earning him
recognition as the father of modern photography.
The same year Talbot patented the calotype process, a Viennese
photographer, Petzval, designed the first fast portrait lens- a lens
ten times faster than the landscape lenses used in the
daguerreotype cameras. The daguerreotype, which was already
being replaced by Talbot’s negative process, was further relegated
to the past by Petzval’s faster lens, which relieved subjects from the
necessity of sitting for excruciatingly long sessions.
The English sculptor, Archer, invented the wet collodion process while
attempting to improve the calotype process he used during sculpting.
Archer decided to try using collodion, a substance made by dissolving
guncotton (nitrocellulose) in ether. Archer made a mixture of the
gelatin-like collodion and potassium iodide and spread it thinly over a
glass plate. He then dipped the still damp plate into a solution of silver
nitrate. The plate had to be exposed immediately because it’s light
sensitivity dropped sharply as it dried. As soon as it was exposed, the
plate was developed in pyrogallic acid and fixed with sodium
thiosulfate. Archer’s original intention was to use the collodion as a
process for producing negatives, but it soon became a popular method
for positive production too.
The collodion process was more technical and demanding than
either the daguerreotype or the calotype processes. It was
especially troublesome for outdoor photographers, who had to
take a complete portable darkroom into the field. But the
process produced excellent results. With an exposure time of
less than ten seconds instead of several minutes, it produced
sharp, clear, negatives that could easily be reprinted.
Cameron, one of the most remarkable amateur photographers of
all time, started work in the 1860s on what she considered a
“divine art”. In her photographs she attempted to record “the
greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.”
She pioneered in the use of close-up techniques, large plates, and
unusual lighting. She used an enormous lens and demanded that
her subjects sit frozen for exposures lasting five to seven minutes.
Her portrait subjects included the great, and the not so great of
Though there are several others who contributed to
the progress of modern photography along our
history of photography timeline, the next big
contribution was made by George Eastman. He
began as an amateur photographer in 1877. Within
twenty years he controlled the largest photographic
manufacturing company in the world. Can you
venture a guess at the company’s name?
Introduced in 1888, the Kodak No.1, Eastman’s simple box
camera was the first camera to use roll film instead of plates or
sheets. The camera appealed to the masses of amateur
photographers because it was small (6 ½ inches x 3 ½ inches x
3 ½ inches) and simple to operate. The advertising slogan “You
press the button, we do the rest” indicated that anyone who
could press the button could get a good picture. Eastman chose
the name Kodak because the word mimicked the sound the
shutter made and was easily pronounced throughout the world.
The camera came loaded with enough
film for one hundred pictures and cost
twenty-five dollars. When the one
hundred pictures had been taken, the
photographer mailed the camera to the
Eastman plant in Rochester , NY. The film
was then processed, prints were made, the
camera was reloaded with film, and the
pictures and camera were returned to the
owner. Total cost for the prints and new
film was ten dollars.
In the 1890s, following on the heels of Kodak, a host of
manufacturers attempted to complete in the vast
amateur photography marketplace.The folding bellows
camera, the twin-lens reflex camera, and the “nodark” –
a camerathat processed its own film- appealed to
beginners throughout the world. Small cameras became
even more popular with Dr. Paul Rudolph’s invention of a
precision lens – the Zeiss Tessar.
Small simple cameras had been developed to appeal to those novice
photographers who wanted to preserve on film Jimmy’s sixth birthday
or the family vacation to the coast. In 1925 the serious photographer
was provided with a small, high-quality, hand-held camera that used 35
mm film and the Zeiss lens – the Leica. Leicas established the standard
for the modern-day 35mm cameras. The inventor of the Leica, Oscar
Barnack, started work on the camera two years earlier as a means to
pretest the exposure of movie film. It worked so well that on mountain
hikes he substituted the smaller prototype Leica for his bulky field
camera. Leicas have been in production since 1925 and have been
refined and improved so that today they are still among the world’s
Harold Edgerton’s electronic flash ushered
photography into an era of ultra-high speed, with
shutter exposures of less than 1/50,000
of a second. Edgerton’s photographs have shown us a
drop of milk hitting a plate, a bullet passing through a
light bulb, and a hummingbird resting on air.
After World War II, amateur photography experienced another boom
period. Renewed interest was in large part due to the advent of the
Kodak Brownie instamatic cameras and the 1947 invention of the
Polaroid Land Camera (a camera that bore the name of it’s inventor,
Edwin Land). The revolutionary new Polaroid produced a positive print
in sixty seconds, because both the negative and the positive images
were developed simultaneously. Despite harsh critics who said the
Polaroid could not possibly last, it has endured to become a
photographic mainstay among amateurs, as well as being used by many
professionals in many different media related fields. In 2008 Polaroid
stopped production of it’s instant photography line, but in 2009, back by
popular demand, the company announced that Polaroid would soon be
available once again.