The history of photography

The history of photography is a long and distinguished one. Multiple scientific discoveries eventually led to the technologically advanced cameras of today. In fact, the first dark room (camera obscura) attempt at photography occurred near the year 1800, when Thomas Wedgwood made the first photographs using paper and white leather dipped in silver nitrate. Unfortunately, he was only able to capture rough shadows and those eventually disappeared as the entire glass surface of the photographic plate slowly turned dark, eradicating the images. Despite the failure, this was a distinguishing moment in the photography timeline. Five years later, Wedgwood died at the young age of 34.

By the middle of the 1820’s, another photographer, Nicéphore Niépce, attempted and succeeded in capturing real and lasting photos. His first attempts were grueling, requiring not just hours, but full days of exposure that led to extremely crude photos. Despite the result and all the work involved, this stands as the world’s first true photography. Niépce’s associate, a man named Louis Daguerre created the first practical form of photography using the daguerreotype process. This method of photography required only a few minutes of exposure inside the camera and produced clearly detailed pictures. Daguerre introduced his photography method to the world in 1839, which became known as photography’s birthday after many years of birthing pains.

In 1839, Sir John Herschel coined the word “photography”, based on the two Greek words, ‘phos’ and ‘graphe’, which when put together represented the interesting phrase, “drawing with light”. These words were soon used for the offspring of the original daguerreotype picture. Louis Daguerre was not yet finished though. He created what is known as the world’s first cityscape photo that included people in the frame. It was a scene of many buildings surrounding a busy street, but the exposure lasted too long to actually capture any of the people on the street except for two, a man apparently getting his shoes shined by another man. They must have remained in one place for several minutes, long enough to be photographed. This photo is titled, “Boulevard du Temple”.

Around 1840, or thereabouts, John William Draper took one of the oldest known photographic portraits, a beautiful representation of his own sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, wearing flowers in her hair and posing with her arms crossed in front of her. He probably had no idea, that her haunting expression would become so lastingly famous. By the time photography became more common-place and popular, it was already widely known for being a grueling process with the subjects forced to stand in one place for several minutes. Since the slightest movement would blur the picture, often the people would literally be strapped into place using standards that were hidden behind them but often remained slightly visible in some pictures.

By 1847 experimentation was well underway to find better chemicals for developing permanent photographs. Some of these chemicals were harsh enough to need leather gloves and long tweezers to keep the emulsions off people’s hands. Photographic chemicals of the time included albumen, dithionite, pyrogallol, sulfite and citric acid. Sulfur dioxide was a chemical reaction of the dithionite and needed neutralizing by the sulfite. While much more dangerous to work with than ordinary salts and silver nitrate, these new discoveries led to the first permanent photos, many of which are still around today.

The ground-breaking metal plate daguerreotype photographs were popular for a time, but by the latter years of the 1800’s, the cheaper to produce paper versions invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, replaced them. It took many years of progressive development, but eventually the photo exposure times reduced from days, down to hours, then minutes and eventually to mere seconds. Many of the portraits taken in the mid to late 1800’s were of very somber faced and still subjects. Even wedding photos looked as though the participants were not having a very good day. It might have been the happiest day of their lives, but they often looked either expressionless or pained. This was due to the entire process taking the better part of the day to complete. Rare examples of smiling faces from that era do exist, but those people must have smiled at just the right moment, or they could hold an expression for a very long time.

By the early 20th century, smaller and smaller cameras came into development, bringing photography out into the mainstream public for the first time. No longer were photos taken only by professionals, and no longer were long sitting times required to create clear pictures. For the first time, public event photographs appeared, albeit in black and white. Throughout the entire history of photography the main goal was to eventually create full color photos. Many experiments toward that goal happened over the years, usually involving a three layer process interlaced with red, blue and green colored filters. Another simpler process involved tinting black and white photographs with faint and fairly lifelike dyes. This led to a successful new service profession, where people made a living tinting old family photos for delighted customers.
In 1901, the Kodak Brownie camera, invented by George Eastman’s company entered the field, enabling even the most slap-happy amateur photographer to create beautiful photos. In 1907, the autochrome plate was invented, resulting in full color photos made for the first time from just one black and white photo. Rather than taking three separate pictures through colored filters, one photo was taken through a sheet of small color filters laid out mosaic style on the emulsion. When used properly, the red, green and blue colors blended together in the viewer’s eye to create the appearance of normal color patterns on the paper.

Believe it or not, the somewhat ‘primitive’ concept of blending three colors in a mosaic pattern was a long-lasting one that continued in use well into the 20th and 21st centuries. This technology made instant photos possible in the first place and many camera makers used it in their own processes. Film cameras developed a complex formula that managed to produce not only the red, green and blue dye, but also magenta, cyan and yellow colors as well. Once color film became the standard, it also became less expensive and more people chose to buy it over the black and white film. Film cameras were regularly used up until the late 1990’s when digital cameras started to become popular among the consumers.

The first experimentation with digital photography occurred in 1957, when scientists scanned regular film photos into a computer to become digital information. Each image was primitive, printed only in black and white, and required much work just to create a gray-scale in the stark photos. But it was digital and an explosion in the world of photography. Improvements over the years were inevitable, and with every new generation of smaller, smarter and fancier computers, came new and improved digital scanning devices so that people could transfer their precious family photos into digital memory banks to keep forever. The digital camera itself first arrived at the stores in the mid 1990’s and those cameras were simple, low-tech and produced primitive photos, but they were magnificent in their time as the latest innovation to the world of photography. With the passage of only a few years, consumers had their hands on decent digital camera technology and as a result, the film camera era more or less died out. The instant film camera died out as well, but later made a comeback because people missed the ‘instant’ format.

Cell phones with digital camera technology were the next logical step, as the camera became smaller and smaller, as well as more advanced. Basically, everything that could once be done only with a huge box camera and several weeks worth of preparation, could be done much better in a split second on a device that fits inside a person’s pocket or purse. Portability in cameras was nothing new, but with the cell phone era, cameras were suddenly everywhere and could be used in an instant. Naturally, the future of the camera is just as exciting as its past, and will be just as colorful.

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