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A Brief History of Photography


Camera Obscura

Hundreds of years ago, artists discovered the camera obscura. They noticed that light coming through a keyhole into a dark room casts an inverted image on the wall. They built a camera obscura by setting a lens into a two-foot square box and placing a sheet of glass opposite the opening. Through the camera frame, the artist saw the view which he or she wished to draw. The artist then traced the image reflected on the glass frame. In this way, artists used an early form of a camera picture to give their drawings realistic perspective and detail.


1826 - Early Experimentation: Heliographs

Joseph Nicephore Niepce of France invented heliographs or sun prints. This was the first experiment which created a prototype of the photograph, removing the artist's hand from the creation of the image and letting light draw the picture. Niepce placed an engraving onto a metal plate coated in bitumen, and then exposed it to light. The shadowy areas of the engraving blocked light, but the whiter areas permitted light to react with the chemicals on the plate. When Niepce placed the metal plate in a solvent, gradually an image, until then invisible, appeared.

1839 - The Invention of Photography

On a trip to Paris, Niepce visited the painter and theatrical set designer, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, and showed him the heliographs. Daguerre was intrigued by the invention, and the two men became partners in photographic experimentation. Unfortunately, Niepce died four years later.

In 1839, Daguerre invented a process which 'fixed' the images onto a sheet of silver-plated copper. He polished the silver and coated it in iodine, creating a surface that was sensitive to light. Then, he put the plate in a camera and exposed it for a few minutes. After the image was painted by light, Daguerre bathed the plate in a solution of silver chloride. This process created a lasting image, one that would not change if exposed to light. When set next to a black velvety surface, the metal plate reflected the shadowy areas of the picture and the light areas seemed illuminated. See Daguerreotypes, for examples.


At the same time, Henry Fox Talbot, an English botanist and mathematician, invented a similar technique. He sensitized paper to light with a silver salt solution. Talbot placed an object such as a leaf or lace onto the paper and then exposed it to sunlight. The background became black, and the subject was rendered in gradations of grey. This was a negative image, and from the negative, photographers could now duplicate the image as many times as they wanted. Talbot made contact prints of this image, reversing the light and shadows to create a detailed picture. In 1841, he perfected this paper-negative process and called it a calotype, from the Greek, meaning "beautiful picture."

News of Daguerre's and Talbot's discoveries sparked the curiosity of the scientist and astronomer, Sir John F.W. Herschel. He perfected the process of 'fixing' the negative image in 1839. Herschel bathed the negative in sodium thiosulfite to dissolve the silver salts, so that they would not react with light any longer, and the image became permanent. He also coined the name for these processes--photography, or "writing with light." Soon, photographers around the world used Daguerreotypes and calotypes to record architecture and nature with finite detail, to document historic events, and to create painterly portraits of literary and social figures.

1850s - Cartes de visites

Throughout the 1850s, paper, lenses, and cameras improved. These advancements made it easier for the general public to become involved in photography. Tintypes and cartes de visites were small pictures on iron frames or paper. Since they were inexpensive to make, they became popular ways to carry pictures of scenic views, families, and individuals. These were some of the first snapshots! See these examples of cartes de visites.

1851 - The Glass Negative

In 1851, Frederick Scoff Archer, an English sculptor, invented the wet plate. Using a viscous solution of collodion, he coated glass with light-sensitive silver salts. Because it was glass and not paper, this wet plate created a more stable and detailed negative. However, the wet plate needed to be developed and fixed before it dried. In order to process the pictures quickly, the photographer had to carry a portable darkroom, with cumbersome black boxes, trays and tongs, bottles of chemistry and fragile glass plates, everywhere he or she went.


1860s - Realism and Fantasy

Newsworthy events were communicated with the aid of photography. In the 1860s, many photographers, such as Mathew Brady, Roger Fenton, and Timothy O'Sullivan, became interested in documenting war. These photographs were seen in exhibitions, printed in newspapers, and passed from person to person as cartes de visites. They provided the most realistic and compelling records of the cruelties of war available at the time.

Photography enabled artists to create a representation of the physical world that was faithful to reality, but it was also seen as another medium for rendering allegories and works of art that followed the traditions of painting. Julia Margaret Cameron purposely blurred the image, using radiant lighting and soft focus to evoke the spiritual quality of the subject. She employed this method whether photographing social figures such as Lord Alfred Tennyson and Charles Darwin or portraying allegories with models that were often family members. Lewis Carroll photographed Alice Grace Weld, his friend and the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood. Henry Peach Robinson combined several negatives to re-enact dramatic scenes in myths and stories.

1870s - Capturing Motion

Edward Muybridge invented a way to freeze motion. He created a shutter inside the camera: two boards slipping past each other at the touch of spring. The film recorded the actions that took place during the split-second when the shutter was open. Muybridge did a series' films on motion, photographing men vaulting over poles, and horses galloping on a track. His work not only assisted artists in studying anatomical form in motion, but it was also a precursor to motion pictures. See the Edison Kinetoscopic record of a sneeze, in the American Treasures Exhibit of the Library of Congress.

1880s - Technological Advancements: The Dry Plate and The Hand-held Camera

In 1879, experiments resulted in the dry plate, a glass negative plate with a dried gelatin emulsion. Dry plates could be stored for a period of time. Photographers no longer needed the cumbersome and time-consuming portable darkroom. In fact, photographers began hiring technicians to develop their photographs, and the art of photo finishing was born. In addition, dry processes absorbed light quickly so rapidly in fact that the tripod could be stored in the closet and the camera held in the hand. With the speed of the film and the influx of hand-held cameras, action shots became more feasible.


In 1888, George Eastman, a dry plate manufacturer in Rochester, NewYork, invented the Kodak camera. For $22.00, an amateur could purchase a camera with enough film for 100 shots. After use, it was sent back to the company, which then processed the film. The ad slogan read, "You press the button, we do the rest." (A year later, the delicate paper film was changed to a plastic base, so that photographers could do their own processing.)

1880s-1890s - Pictorialism vs. Naturalism

Pictorialists, such as Gertrude Kasebier and Alvin Coburn, took photographs that imitated the style of paintings. Using symbols, shimmering light, and soft focus to create impressionistic dots and streaks, pictorialists depicted a world that was one step removed from reality. H. Emerson attacked pictorialism, calling it a 'high art' and 'artificial', and stated that photography was an independent art form that did not have to imitate painting.

Naturalist photographers were captivated by photography's capacity to render the world with mirror-like accuracy. William Henry Jackson traveled miles over back-breaking terrain to document the crystal mountain peaks and black lakes of hitherto unknown reaches of the American landscape. He was the first person to photograph Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone Park, and his work helped to preserve some of America's wilderness.

Note: Examples of William Henry Jackson's work are in several American Memory collections, including:


The Turn of the Century - Documentary Photography and Aesthetics

Many people became interested in photography as a tool to record customs and manners, the facets of their culture that they felt were disappearing at the turn of the century. With Kodak hand-held cameras and rolls of gelatin films, photojournalists burst onto the scene. They felt compelled to record life as it unfolded before their eyes, and to bear witness to the world and their place in it. See Pictorial Journalism, a presentation by the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, for examples.


In addition, many photographers were interested solely in the aesthetic possibilities of the medium. Alfred Steiglitz, a New York-based photographer, was actively involved in writing, editing, lecturing, photographing, and organizing gallery shows to establish the reputation of photography as a fine art. In 1924, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston collected Steiglitz's photographs. It was the first time that photographs were collected in a museum in the United States.

1920s and 1930s - Experimentation

In 1925, the invention of the Leica camera liberated photographers. Because the Leica was small, light, and quick, they were now able to capture the chaos of street life with greater accuracy and imagination. In responding to the momentous changes in the world around them, photographers experimented with different means of expression and techniques, such as surrealism, color, montage, and F/64 straight photography.

Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Paul Strand, and others traveled through America during the Depression, creating a visual document powerful enough to influence the government to change social welfare laws. (See Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives or Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs.) In addition, editorial and advertising photography became important venues for photography. Margaret Bourke-White whose work ranged from industrial photography to moving portraits of figures such as Gandhi, Stalin, F.D. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Pope Pius XIII, created the cover photo for the first issue of Life Magazine in 1936.

1940s and 1950s - Photography and Publishing

Photography books of all kinds became popular. Henri Cartier-Bresson published The Decisive Moment; Robert Frank published The Americans. News magazines such as Life and Look helped to establish the importance of photography as a communication tool. During World War II, Robert Capa's historic photographs of the amphibious landing on D-Day brought news of the event home in unforgettable imagery. Sebastiao Salgado's moving images of the poor, of refugees, and of workers and working conditions around the world stood as icons of the human condition.

1960s and 1970s - Photography Comes of Age

Photography began to be shown in galleries and museums, collected in auction houses, published in books and magazines, and taught in universities. In 1974, Cornell Capa founded The International Center of Photography as a place where socially-concerned photographic work could be seen as a creative art form.

1980s Through the Present - Contemporary Photography

Photographers use various techniques, including large format Polaroid photography, advanced electronics, multimedia, and digital imaging, to create works that question such topics as identity, society, issues of historical verity, and fact versus fiction.