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Early Development of Photography

E.H. Carr has observed that history is a construct consequent upon the questions asked by the historian.[1] Typically the history of photography offer a series of histories of photographers illustrated with examples of their works.

Photography as recognized as a part of the naval art of capturing image using light reflection and chemical reaction. The invention was received from Europe with frenzy enthusiasm.[2] Photography is a combination of science and art to produce a perfect, as they thought then, a perfect rendition of a scene or person. The principle of concentrating light through a small hole in order to create reflection on the wall of a dark chamber was known to Aristotal 384 to 322 BC.[3]


Photographic camera was based on the Camera Obscura, described as ear;y as the tenth century AD, of which the first illustration was published in 1545. The problem which preoccupied experimentation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was how to fix the image once it had been obtained.


The credit for discovering practical chemical processes lies with no single person. As historian, Helmut Gernsheim, remarks in relation to the daguerreotype, though to Niepce goes the credit of having devised the first photographic process, and of having invented the earliest photo-engraving method, it was left to his partner Daguerre to make photography practicable as distinct from possible.’[4]


Nicéphore Niépce was successful to fix first photograph ever. In 1826, he took a camera obscura pointed it at toward the courtyard, and managed to make a permanent exposure of it. It took eight hours. He called it a heliograph, the first recorded picture using light-sensitive materials.[5] Niépce was a man in his 60s, poor, and in ill health heard about experiments that another Frenchman was conducting in photography, Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. He wrote a cautious letter to Daguerre, wanting to know about the process, and finally, they decided to form a partnership in 1829.[6]


Daguerre’s process differed from Niépce’s. He used vapor of mercury and salt. In 1833 Niépce died, and his son carried on the partnership, although Daguerre mostly was an active participant. After eleven more years of experimenting, Daguerre perfected his process: a sheet of copper was coated with a thin layer of silver. Silver was made sensitive to light with iodine vapor. It was exposed in a camera, and then the vapor of mercury was used to bring out an image. Finally that image was fixed with a salt solution, common table salt.[7] In partnership with famous French scientist of that time, François Arago, Daguerre made daguerreotype public with a lot of excitement. That process took nearly 20 minutes to expose were reduced in 1840 to 30 seconds using bromide and faster lenses.[8]


After Daguerre and Arago announced the new photography process, a man in England that became worried was William Henry Fox Talbot, a wealthy gentleman with much time for experimenting. In the beginning of 1820s has managed to make permanent an image, not on metal, but on paper. With a long experiment Talbot, invented the first negative/positive photo process, unlike daguerreotype, in which every image was on metal, and unique.[9]

In 1840 Sir John Herschel suggested that hyposulfite of soda would more effectively fix the image, and remove the unused silver particles, so that they wouldn’t turn dark over time. Herschel is credited with inventing the fixing method that we basically still use today in our “wet” darkrooms, called “hypo” for short. Pioneer photographer David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in the 1840s to produced an important collection of calotypes[10].


Then in 1848, Niépce de St. Victor, a cousin of Nicéphore, tried albumen or egg white. It worked all right on glass plates, but soon it was left for another method which proved more sensitive to light. In 1851 Scott Archer, British, combined guncotton, ether and alcohol into a solution called collodion. The collodion was flowed onto a glass plate, dipped in silver nitrate, and exposed in the camera. The beauty of this method was that it only required a two to three second exposure, much faster than previous methods. The drawback was that the wet plate process demanded that photographers make exposures before the plate dried and lost its sensitivity to light, about one minute. Photographers, therefore, had to carry portable darkrooms everywhere they wanted to take a picture.[11]


On the other hand the wet plate process rapidly became new standard in photography, totally eliminated the daguerreotype by 1858. Glass negatives could produce as many prints as needed Albumen method were used extensively for some 30 years for the paper on which the prints were made.[12] Wet plates made extensive photography possible outside the studios, with superior sensitivity, and even though their darkroom drawbacks. But this is not that there was nobody made photograph outside a studio before it. In 1842, Carl Stelzner made a daguerreotype photo of the Hamburg fire–the first spot news photo.[13]


In the late 1870s photography the world saw third revolution in technology. From Daguerreotype and Calotype to wet plate, as a third step of technological revolution chemists experimented with the ways to avoid weighty procedures, by finding a way to make dry plates. In 1871 gelatin was substituted for collodion, and the first dry glass plate was made.[14] It was slower than a wet plate first by 1880; dry plates became as fast as wet plates and wet plate phase out.


As wet plate technology was being superseded by dry plates, in popular taste other portrait styles gained ground. Among people who had limited funds, a photograph printed on emulsion placed on metal sold extensively–called a Tintype. Tintypes were extremely cheap, almost like a photo machine of today, and were made from the 1870s all the way into the 1930s. Also popular were cabinet cards, photo of a size of about four inches by six inches. These are the photos we all probably have in our shoeboxes, inherited from our grandparents–and probably a few tintypes as well, taken by itinerant photographers.[15]


Along with manufacturers of dry plates was George Eastman. He spent three years for photographic experiments, and finally his formula worked. By 1880, he had not only invented a dry plate formula, but had patented a machine for preparing large numbers of the plates. Eastman recognized the possibilities of making dry emulsion on a flexible back using gelatin and introduced in 1888 the first roll film. He marketed the film with his own camera, called Kodak, with slogan as “You push the button and we do the rest!” Kodak camera came with 100 exposures after shooting those people have to returned the entire thing to Eastman for processing. Pictures that came back were circular. The technology was excellent for the first time, actually could make a decent photo without a tripod.[16]


Another revolution took place from Germany in 1925. That was the invention of first 35 mm camera, named as Leica. It was designed as a way to use surplus movie film and then shot in the 35 mm format.[17] After the invention of photographic technology anyone who could push a button and wind a crank could be a photographer. It revolutionized photography as well as established photography as industry. Eastman’s company Kodak became renowned as well as did good business along with this photography became practical and economic art of playing light. The handy 35 mm camera with roll film opened out door photography and avenue of photojournalism opened.

[1] Carr, E.H. (1964) What is History?, Harmondsworth: Penguin

[2] Ross F. Collins, History of Photography. (assed on 3rd july 2011, 4.45 NST)

[3] Liz Wells, (1997) Photography: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge

[4] Gernsheim, Helmut and Gernsheim, Alison (1969) The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914, 2 Vols, London and  New York: MacGraw Hill

[5] Baatz, Willfried (1997). Photography: An Illustrated Historical Overview. New York: Barron’s. p. 16

[7] (assed on 3rd july 2011, 4.45 NST)


[8] (assed on 3rd july 2011, 4.45 NST)


[10] (assed on 3rd july 2011, 4.45 NST)


[11] Michael John Langford (1997) Story of photography: from its beginnings to the present day. pg 9 -13 Focal Press

[12] Ross F. Collins, History of Photography. (assed on 3rd july 2011, 4.45 NST)

[13] Helmut Gernshein (1991)Creative Photography : Aesthetic Trends 1839-1960. pg 245 General Publishing Company, Toronto

[14] Charles Kendall Adams (1895) Johnson’s universal cyclopaedia, Volume 6. pg 590 A.J. Johnson Co.

[17] Ross F. Collins, History of Photography. (assed on 3rd july 2011, 4.45 NST)