The History of Photography Part 1

This brief history of photography is intended as a short excursion for readers who would like an overview.

It is not intended to be comprehensive but here you will find references to people or processes that you may wish to explore further.


In the Beginning

We begin in the early nineteenth century, when the first permanent photos were created. The image below shows the first colour photograph created in 1861 using the additive colour method by photographer Thomas Sutton as instructed by the 19th century mathematician James Clerk Maxwell.

However, before this period, there were a number of devices that used many of the same principles. Before the first permanent photographs were created, there was the camera obscura, camera lucida, and the pinhole camera. These devices all made use of the properties of light and reflection to create images on a surface but unfortunately none of these images were permanent.

Medieval Photography

Artists in the Renaissance used these devices to aid them in their drawings, but they were largely curiosities until they were combined with other advances.

Silver nitrate was discovered as early as the thirteenth century, and silver chloride in the sixteenth century. However, the photochemical effect by which these materials darkened wasn't described until the end of the seventeenth century.

A late eighteenth century work of fiction, Giphantie by Tiphaigne de la Roche, described a process that could be interpreted as photography.

The Development of Modern Photography

Above: View from the Window at Le Gras taken in 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce

In 1826, the French inventor Joseph Niecéphore Niépce created the first permanent photograph using a pewter plate coated in bitumen. After an eight hour exposure to light, the material hardened. The material that remained soft was washed away, the plate polished, and a negative image created. Then the plate was inked and used to print paper photographs.

After the creation of this process, Niépce began experimenting with compounds containing silver in partnership with the famous Louis Daguerre. Niépce died in 1833, leaving Daguerre to work on the project alone, and produce the first daguerreotypes.

Above: L'Atelier de l'artiste (1837) , a daguerreotype made by Daguerre himself

Black and White Photography

Perhaps the most important development in the early stages of the history of photography was the daguerreotype process which involved exposing the silver to iodine vapor, then to light, and then to mercury fumes. This created an image which could be made permanent using a salt bath.

Left: Photography: An Illustrated History

The first photos were made on a copper plate, and producing them was dangerous to the health of the photographer, because of the mercury.

A similar process was invented by Hercules Florence in 1832 who developed the name "photographie" from which we have derived the word "photography".

The next development in black and white photography was the calotype. Created by Fox Talbot and John Herschel, it used a glass negative, which could be used to create positive prints, just like today's chemical films. Unfortunately, Talbot's patent on this process actually limited its popularity. The calotype is, however, the basic technique that modern chemical cameras still use.

› History of Photography Part 1


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