The creation of photography began with the combination of two elements one being optical and the other being chemical. It was only a matter of time before someone was able to figure out how to successfully combine and manipulate these elements in order to create photography. Here is a summary of the road that was ventured by many.

Pre-Photography Processes

The Camera Obscura (c. 16th century C.E.)

The camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”) was in use approximately four hundred years before the first photograph was ever created. It was discovered during Leonardo da Vinci’s time that if a room was completed darkened and a single hole penetrated one of the walls an image of the exterior environment would appear upside-down on the opposite wall.

The uses of this tool were quite limited. After the image appeared it would be traced by the artist. The camera obscura was used primarily to aid artists in drawing so they could achieve a more accurate representation of their subject matter. Historians who have studied da Vinci believe that he used this technique to fine-tune his understanding of perspective.

Later on a lens and a mirror were added to a smaller version of the camera obscura. This version had significant advantages. First of all it was small enough to sit on a tabletop (as opposed to being an entire room.) Second the lens and mirror made it possible for a person outside to trace the reflected image.

The Heliograph (c. 1827 C.E.)

A French artist and scientist by the name of Nicephore Niepce is said to have created the first photograph. He did so using the camera obscura. He did not call the image a photograph; instead he called it a heliograph (derived from the Greek phrase “of the sun”.) Niepce created the image by placing a metal plate, coated with chemicals, inside the camera obscura. After eight hours of being exposed to the sun an image appeared. The image was obviously very primitive compared to modern photography and can barely be deciphered. However this image was a huge step in the advancement of photography.

The main problems with the heliograph were: the blurred image, long exposure time, and inability to stop the image from further exposure to the sun. The main reason that the image is blurred is the lack of an accurate lens. The sun was used to expose the image but after the image appeared Niepce was unable to figure out an effective way to stop the sun from exposing it further and darkening it. The third problem was the long exposure time. Not only was this a problem because of things that could affect the camera obscura during the long period but also because the sun moves. At the beginning of the expose the sun may have been hitting one side of the building but by the time the exposure was complete the sun was shining on the opposite side of the building. This made the light sources appear inaccurate.

Early Photography

The Daguerreotype (c. 1839 C.E.)

Daguerre was familiar with the camera obscura because he often used it as a painting tool. When he heard of the work of Niepce he was eager to help further develop this technique. However, the partnership was fairly short because Niepce passed away in 1833. Daguerre continued to experiment and by 1837 had solved the major problems with the heliograph. First of all he was able to reduce the expose time to thirty minutes. Second he discovered a new chemical that would permanently fix the image protecting it from further exposure. The lens was replaced with one that produced a remarkably clearer image. At this point he renamed the image Daguerreotype, after of course himself.

This process had its fair share of problems as well. He had found solutions to some of the major problems, but had some yet to be solved. Even though the exposure time had been greatly reduced it still limited what images could be reproduced. Portraits could not be taken because even slight movement over a period of a half hour would cause the final image to be blurred. Secondly, since the image was permanently fixed to metal no changes could be made. Keeping in mind that the use of metal was much more costly than the photo paper we use today and therefore people could not afford to make permanent mistakes.

Sir John Herschel

Sir John Herschel coined the word “photography”, derived from the Greek words meaning light and writing, in 1839. It was this year that the photographic process first became public. It wasn’t long after Daguerre’s initial advances before the technology made leaps and bounds.

It was Herschel who introduced the chemical gallic acid to photography. This photosensitive chemical is what led to Talbot’s Calotype. There is still much debate as to Herschel’s contribution to photography. Some say that his findings are over rated. Herschel did not hesitate in sharing his advancements with Talbot therefore many people think that Talbot, who was quite the opposite when it came the sharing of knowledge, took advantage of Herschel.

Calotype (c. 1840 C.E.)

William Henry Talbot (also known as Fox Talbot)developed an image on paper that he called a Calotype. The main difference between this process and Daguerre’s, other than the use of paper over metal, is that the Calotype is a negative image. This means that everything was in reverse from the subject to the monochromatic values. The main advantage of the Calotype was that infinitely many positives could be produced from one negative.

Albumen Printing (c. 1851 C.E.)

Frederick Scott Archer developed a glass negative that for the most part replaced Talbot’s paper negative. The glass allowed for extreme detail and was more versatile than the paper. Albumen prints were the beginning of mass production photography.

Photography for the masses

By 1884 exposure time was down to mere seconds and George Eastman introduced a flexible film, also known as cellulose roll film. This film allowed multiple images to be produced on light-sensitive paper (very similar to that which is used today.) This advancement solved some of Daguerre’s early problems of cost and limitation.

In 1888 George Eastman brought photography to the masses through his introduction of the box camera. The public adored this new invention. The slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest” was drawing more and more people toward photography each day. This first point and shoot camera came already loaded with paper film that could record one hundred images. The customer would simply shoot the entire roll of film and send the whole unit back to the company. In a short while the customer would receive their camera, loaded with a new roll of film and one hundred mounted photographs. The name of the company he founded; Eastman Kodak Company.


Everyone who was anyone had his or her portrait taken during this era. From Abraham Lincoln to Emily Dickinson, portraits were extremely popular. Photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron had even begun to apply effects, such as a soft focus, to the portraits. Cameron preferred the soft focus look because it made the subject appear more haunting and mysterious.

In most photographic portraits during this time the subject was not smiling. There was a very practical reason for this, other than that the phrase “say cheese” didn’t exist, the exposure time was short but not short enough for the subject to hold a smile realistically without being blurred.

Skepticism of the technology

There were those of course who were far from fond of this new found technology. Some skeptics were religious zealots and artists.

Many religious people felt that photography was created by the devil. They believed that the photograph captured not only a likeness of the subject, but also a piece of their soul. To this day there are still some religions, such as the Amish, that frown upon photography.

Some painters referred to photography as “foe-to-graphic art.” They had trained for many years in order to get their artwork are accurate as possible and they saw this as an easy way out. Up until this point paintings were generally pure representations of reality or mythology. After the invention of photography those artists who did not completely shun or embrace it were at least inadvertently affected by it. From this point forward painting becomes more about meaning and showing the world what the artist can create that the camera can’t. Rarely before photography would you see part of an object cut out of the composition. This was a result of the boundaries of the photograph. This shift can best be seen in the work of Impressionists that were painting when the camera was invented.

Motion Photography

It is thought that people tried to create moving pictures for centuries. Evidence can even be found in the sculptures of early ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman people. Frames of scenes were placed side by side in chronological order telling a story through the use of visuals; which is the essence of motion photography.

An example of this is The Standard of Ur (c. 2700 B.C.E.) This two-sided object was created in the Ancient Near East. Each side is divided into three bands, one side in known as the war side and the other as the peace side. The war side depicts images of what appear to be soldiers bringing prisoners to the authority figure (who is thought to be the tallest and most centralized of the men.) The peace side of the object depicts a celebratory feast. The story line of each side begins on the bottom band and continues toward the top.

Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge is considered by many to be the quintessential pioneer of motion photography. He used humans and animals to study movement. Muybridge would photograph each change in the subject’s movement. When the images were placed next to each other the composition was a still representation of motion. Eventually Muybridge invented an instrument called the zoopraxiscope that housed the images and projected them so they appeared to be moving. This created a clear path to cine photography.

Photography of the 20th Century

Photographers have had to work hard to gain recognition as artists. The process in the beginning was very much scientific and used mostly for record keeping. Even today there are many who do not understand the artistic aspects of photography.

The photograph over the years has been used to document, enhance and accentuate our lives. The 20th century photographer still has the challenging task of proving to the world the aesthetic principles of the photograph that cannot be produced in any other form.

Photography now is quite similar to other art forms such as painting. Emphasis is often placed on the meaning of the photograph more so than its appearance. There are also new boundaries that have been created and broken. For example, the use of a person’s image can either been seen as artistic or an invasion of the person’s privacy. We also now have to consider the way the photographic process is being used in order to determine its place in the art world. If photography is an art form than isn’t every person who uses a camera an artist? How about photographs taken by police or private investigators, are they art? Photography as we know it today has only existed as long as the day has. Developments are being made continuously in this field from advancements in digital photography to the extreme accessibility and instant gratification of the Polaroid.

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