The History of Photography

First Photograph in History by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

In my previousblog post, we’ve talked about what Photography is and now it’s time to dig deeper and explore its roots. The history of photography commenced with the invention and development of the camera and the creation of permanent images starting with Thomas Wedgwood in 1790 and culminating in the work of the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826.

The coining of the word “Photography” has been attributed in 1839 to Sir John Herschel based on the Greek φῶς (phos), (genitive: phōtós) meaning “light”, and γραφή (graphê), meaning “drawing, writing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.

The Unrecognized Inventors of Photography

However, in 1832, a little-known French-Brazilian inventor Hércules Florence studied ways of permanently fixing camera obscura images, which he named “photographia”. He never published results of his invention adequately. Because he was an obscure inventor living in a remote and undeveloped province, Florence was never recognized internationally as one of the inventors of photography.

Photography is the result of combining several different technical discoveries. Long before the first photographs were made, Chinese philosopher Mo Ti and Greek mathematicians Aristotle and Euclid described a pinhole camera in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. In the 6th century AD, Byzantine mathematician Anthemius of Tralles used a type of camera obscura in his experiments. Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) (965 in Basra – c. 1040 in Cairo) studied the camera obscura and pinhole camera, Albertus Magnus (1193/1206–80) discovered silver nitrate, and Georg Fabricius (1516–71) discovered silver chloride. Daniel Barbaro described a diaphragm in 1568. Wilhelm Homberg described how light darkened some chemicals (photochemical effect) in 1694. The novel Giphantie (by the French Tiphaigne de la Roche, 1729–74) described what could be interpreted as photography.

Scientists had known for some time that certain silver compounds, then called silver salts and now named silver halides, would turn black when exposed to light. In England, Thomas Wedgwood, son of the famous potter, experimented with one of these silver halides, silver nitrate, to produce silhouettes. The pictures, however, were not permanent and turned black unless stored in the dark.

The Fathers of Photography

In the early 19th century Joseph-Nicephore Niepce of France began to experiment with a then novel graphic arts printing method called lithography. His work led him to further experiments using bitumen, a resinous substance, and oil of lavender. Niepce developed a process whereby he could permanently capture the image of a camera obscura. In 1827 he made the world’s first surviving photograph from the window of a country home in France. It required an exposure, in bright sunlight, of eight hours.

Meanwhile, Daguerre was experimenting with silver-iodide images. Hearing of Niepce’s work, he contacted him, and in 1829 they became partners. During the next few years Daguerre, with Niepce’s help, worked out the process that came to be known as daguerreotypy. It was a complicated procedure that demanded considerable skill. A silver-coated sheet of copper was sensitized by treatment with iodine vapor, forming a coating of light-sensitive silver iodide. The daguerreotype plate was exposed in the camera and then developed in mercury fumes at temperatures of about 120 degrees F (50 degrees C). The exposed areas absorbed mercury atoms and highlighted the image. Finally, the image was fixed by washing it in hypo. The daguerreotype’s silver image was capable of rendering exquisitely fine detail. It was a single-image process, however–each exposure produced only one picture, incapable of reproduction. Furthermore, the process required exposures of up to several minutes even in bright sunlight, thus constraining its subjects to absolute motionlessness. In spite of this, the process immediately became popular, particularly for portraiture. Daguerreotypy rapidly developed into a thriving business in England and the United States. Superb portraits were made by such daguerreotypists as Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes in Boston. The French excelled in landscapes and cityscapes. In 1840 a much faster lens was designed by the Hungarian Jozsef Petzval and manufactured by Peter Voigtlander in Austria. At about the same time a method was discovered that increased considerably the light sensitivity of the daguerreotype plate. This method involved a second fuming with chlorine or bromine before exposure.

In England William Henry Fox Talbot had developed his own method of photography at about the same time that Daguerre was inventing the daguerreotype. Talbot impregnated paper with silver nitrate or silver chloride. When exposed in a camera, the sensitized paper turned black where light struck it, creating a negative image of the subject. This was made permanent by fixing with hypo. To achieve a positive image, a contact print could be made by placing the negative over a second piece of sensitized paper and exposing the combination to bright light. Talbot’s “photogenic drawings,” as he called them, lacked the daguerreotype’s sharp detail and brilliance but offered the great advantage that from one negative a large number of positive prints could be made. His process, known as the calotype, and later talbotype, process, was at first less popular than the daguerreotype. Most later methods of photography, however, have evolved from Talbot’s work. His was the first negative-positive process.

In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer of England made public his wet-collodion process, in which he used a glass plate coated with collodion as a base for light-sensitive silver halides. His procedure, requiring seven steps, was only slightly less complicated than the daguerreotype process, but it was considerably less expensive. It also produced a negative that was much sharper than that of the calotype method. Soon the wet-collodion process had supplanted both the older techniques as the most widely used process of photography. A major inconvenience of the wet-collodion method was the fact that the plate was light-sensitive only as long as it remained wet; after it dried it lost its sensitivity. Thus plates had to be used almost immediately after preparation. Since these plates could not be prepared and stockpiled in advance, a portable darkroom, in the form of a tent, wagon, or railway car, for instance, had to accompany the camera wherever it went.


Since there is so much more to the History of Photography, consider this blog post as “work in progress” and return for more updates soon. In addition, feel free to read about the Different Types of Photography and the Future of Digital Photography.

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