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A Brief History of Photography

The word photography, which is derived from the Greek words for light and writing, was first used by Sir John Herschel in 1839, the year the invention of the photographic process was made public. During the previous decades perhaps as many as ten individuals had tried to make a photograph. At least four were successful: Joseph Nicephore Niepce, Louis J. M. Dagurre, and Hippolyte Bayard in France, and William Henry Talbot in England. Each of them employed two scientific techniques that had been known for some time but had never before been successfully combined.

The first of these techniques was optical. Since the 16th century artists and scientists had made use of the fact that light passing through a small hole in one wall of a dark room, or “Camera Obscura”, projects an inverted image on the opposite wall. The hole was soon replaced with a lens, which made the image brighter and sharper. By the 18th century the room had been replaced by a portable box, which artists used as a sketching aid. The second technique was chemical. In 1727, Johann Heinrich Schulze had discovered that certain chemicals, especially silver halides, turn dark when exposed to light. The first attempt to use such chemicals to record the image of the camera obscura was made--unsuccessfully--by Thomas Wedgewood about 1800.

Daguerre's invention, which was bought by the French government and made public on Aug. 19, 1839, produced a one-of-a-kind picture on metal, the Daguerreotype. In contrast, Talbot's invention (1840), the Calotype, produced a negative picture on paper; the lights of the image were recorded as darks, the darks as lights. A positive was made on another sheet of chemically sensitized paper, exposed to light through the negative. Because an infinite number of positives could be made from a single negative, Talbot's invention and refinements of it soon predominated.

The photograph's capacity to repeat itself exactly and infinitely through the negative-to-positive process was one side of its radical character. The other, of course, was its privileged status as a picture created by nature alone, free from the inevitable distortions of handmade representations. The ever-increasing ease with which photography precisely recorded visual information and distributed it worldwide made it the most powerful tool of communication since the invention of the printing press. Early theories of photography stressed its mechanical nature. To some, this nature excluded the personal intervention that was the stamp of art; to others, photography's potential signaled the demise of painting. Neither view prevailed. Painters continued to paint and photographers proliferated; at best, everyone agreed that the new invention was useful.

From its modest beginnings to its complicated workings in the digital age (with the rise of the digital camera), photography has changed drastically as an art form. For many purists, the evolution has been somewhat degrading but for others – where photography is relied upon in business - the change has become a saving grace. In the end, what truly matters is the image; and the process to get that image - whatever the means – appears to be secondary. Although the development of the camera and photo processing has changed, a single image can be the single most important thing you might ever see.