The History of Photography

The early cave paintings attest to the fact that man has always wanted to record himself, his activities and the environment around him. This art, until very recently, has been reserved for the talented individuals, not the everyday, ordinary person. Painters of great renown abound throughout the centuries and have left remarkable pictorial histories of our journey through time. While the camera was not invented until the 19th century, the two basic elements of a camera had been well known for hundreds of years.

The first element of a working camera known by the ancients is the effect of a lighted area separated from a dark area with only a pin hole opening between them. An inverted (upside down) image of the lighted area will be produced on a flat surface in the dark area. As early as the 1400’s it was documented that inserting a lens in the hole would produce a crisper, clearer image. This technology, called “camera obscura” was often used by artists to sketch objects more quickly and ease the difficulties of depth perception. The image was allowed to be projected on a piece of paper inside a dark box and the artist would trace outlines of the projected image.

The second known element of a working camera was the existence of materials capable of permanent change when exposed to light. These light sensitive chemicals were experimented with for centuries but were not used to coat a flat surface until very recently.

Putting these two pieces of knowledge together proved difficult. Early in the 1800’s, the first experiments took place attempting to make images on paper surfaces that had been coated with light sensitive material. The process worked, but a lot of logistical problems needed to be solved. The first major problem was making the captured image on the chemical coated surface permanent. This problem was finally solved with the Daguerrotype image and made a huge impact on the world when it was announced in 1839. However other difficulties remained to be solved.

The Daguerrotype image would appear and the exposure process arrested, but the image was easily lost as the surface chemicals could be damaged. Additionally, the exposure time was longer than practical for common portraiture, which was much in demand. As with all new ideas promising great fortunes, minds work furiously on the glitches preventing practical use.

Photography took many twists and turns as people experimented with chemicals to make the image capturing more practical. As the rage for Daguerrotype reigned, the discovery was being made that latent images in reverse color were revealed to be present after only short exposures. These paper negatives could then be washed, chemically treated and used to make positive paper prints.

This was a major turning point in the development of the photography processes. No longer did people have to make do with the results of a one time process which took up to a minute of sitting absolutely still. Now, the implications were plain to those excited few who realized the possibilities. Exposure time was cut down dramatically and multiple copies of any image could be produced as easily as the first. If multiple copies of a Daguerrotype were desired, then multiple sittings were required.

When this process was perfected enough for common use, for the first time ever, portrait studios popped up all over the place. For a very small cost, people could get their portrait made. Finally we begin to see photographs of poor and working class people who could now afford a family portrait once in a while.

The well known stereotype of the photographer buried in his portable dark tent had its start around the time of the Civil War, or mid-1800’s. This tent not only consisted of the camera equipment, but a portable dark room as well. The photographers had to process their photos right on the spot. The portable dark rooms, with the chemicals and equipment, were easily collapsed into moderately large suitcases. While this allowed the propagation of professional photography, the amateur still had to wait for further improvements.

By the 1870’s, the wet developing process gave way to a new innovation called the gelatin dry plate. No longer needed were the chemicals on site in the now famous photographers tent. Treated plates could be taken out to the field, exposed, and brought back to a dark room for later processing.

The camera mechanisms themselves were also going through a revolution. It was becoming possible to have the exposures take less time. The shutter releases were mechanically rigged instead of manually opened.

It was during this time of dry processing that Muybridge perfected processing of action images and mechanically rigged cameras to take his pictures. He could not have put his rows of cameras into action if each had to individually be processed on the spot.

The final revolution of the 1800’s took place when a man named George Eastman developed the idea of converting the preprocessed plate into rolls of sheets that were mounted on a roll holder inside of the camera. After each exposure, the roll would be forwarded by a special key, and after the roll was fully exposed, the whole camera was mailed or brought back to his plants for development. This camera was called the “Kodak Camera.” Now every man, woman and child could become an amateur photographer!

The innovations which have evolved from this point on have made picture taking easier, improved the ability of professionals to specialize, and of course, include the introduction of color photography. Every man, woman and child can now take pictures with confidence, knowing that good quality cameras do as much of the work as we want them to, and developing labs can do the processing for us. We all have the option, however, to do the processing ourselves. Many dark room kits are available for beginners at moderate cost, and make great gifts for those intrigued enough to follow in the footsteps of the men and women who labored to make photography what it is today.


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