Photography was invented in the 19th century, but centuries before that, an invention called the camera obscura already existed. Camera obscura is the Latin term for darkroom which was essentially a box, or a room, with a hole on one side of it. It could not impress an image on a surface, but only project it through a small opening in the wall onto a surface on the other side of the room. The idea behind this invention made it possible for the first camera to be born as it used the same concept with the only difference that on the other wall, where the image was projected, photographic paper or film was placed.
The First Photograph
The first photograph is considered to have been taken by Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor, in 1826. It showed a landscape that was seen from Niépce's window and it required eight-hour exposure in bright sunshine. The development of photography was continued by Louis Daguerre who invented the daguerreotype - a process that uses silver on a copper plate. His patent was bought by the French government which immediately made it public domain.
In England, William Fox Talbot discovered another way to fix the image in a shorter period of time and called it the calotype, which was essentially paper sheets coated with silver chloride. This process was later refined by George Eastman and is today the basic technology used by chemical film cameras.
After the first technological advancements of photography, people began experimenting more and more in order to find a way to shorten the exposure time. Emulsion plates, or wet plates, were invented as a less expensive way of capturing images, and the exposure took only two or three seconds. These plates contributed to the development of portrait photographs - the most common use of photography at that time.
In the 1870s, photography experienced another technological advance: Richard Maddox was able to improve the previous invention and make dry gelatin plates that were almost as equal as wet plates in terms of speed and quality. Dry plates were stored for long periods of time instead of being made as needed, which allowed photographers to have much more freedom when taking photographs.
However, photography was not as widespread as it is today. Until George Eastman started Kodak in the 1880s, not everyone could use a camera. He created a flexible roll film with which you didn't need to change the solid plates all the time and thus made it easier for people to use. Additionally, he made a self-contained box camera that could fit up to 100 film exposures. After a person would take the photographs and use the entire film, he would need to send the camera back to the factory where they would develop their prints.
Photography as Art
One of the people behind artistic photography was Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer and a promoter of modern art. Many believe that Stieglitz was the one who led photography into art and into what it is today. His photography work was revolutionary in the way he portrayed still life and what he showed with the photo portraits. He pointed out that photographers are artists themselves, and he also led the Photo-Secession, which was the first photography art movement that wanted to show that photography was a more complex thing than everybody saw it as. Photographs were not only about the subject. It was the manipulation of the photographer that captured the subject.
Documenting the World
Early photographs were not considered works of art because they didn’t look like art. The earliest use of photography was to document and present the world how it is. Until the invention of photography, painting was used as a documentary to a great extent. The invention of photography supplemented and modified the document as a traditional medium, namely, photography became a new medium of a document.
Photographer Albert Londe explained that photography was a good document because it was true, precise and strict. It could be applied in arts as well as in science, provided that “the visual document” followed up on “the written document”. In its initial development, photography was not about the esthetics, but the realistic representation of nature. As a document, it could depict realistically the truth or the fact, or note a certain moment or event and leave a trace about it.
Photographs were able to become a witness for history and, at times, even serve as catalysts for change. Photography was able to raise awareness, sympathy and or even offer critical commentary on some historical events, places, and people.
Photography has been glorified for its objectivity, which is a result of a mechanical procedure of taking a photograph, but its faults are often forgotten, such as the things that can endanger the photograph as an undisputable, noted fact. This view of the photograph as a detailed historiographical instrument capable of the autonomous depiction of the historical event, or a document that needs no interpretation, is a widely spread opinion, but it is also a naïve one in the present time, as well as in the past. In order to study the photograph as a document, one needs to have minimal expert knowledge in photography, so that we can clarify the changes made through the modern technique of photo processing by programs on our computers. Due to the possibilities offered by modern technology, photography today is capable of depicting reality, but also of showing things that do not exist, which opens more space to forging.
Another problem with photography as a document is that the past represents the time in continuity, whereas photography is a detached fragment of that time, a frozen moment, sometimes separated from the context of its creation, which often does not contain all the information necessary for contextualizing that particular photography. The author, place or a reason for making a photograph in the past is rarely known, and most of the photographs were made by anonymous authors, thereby leaving us to wonder about their purpose of noting that particular moment, because it is not uncommon for the photograph made with a certain intention to produce a totally opposite effect.
When photography came along just a few people wanted to give it a chance, and because of those few enthusiasts, photography was able to evolve into something bigger - almost an industry like it is today. Even though the invention of photography was the spark that led not only to new scientific achievements but to the development of the industrial world, photography also became a part of day-to-day life and even an art movement.
Nowadays, we’re used to modern photography that is accessible to all of us, but it wasn’t always like that. Photographers were rare and their work was highly appreciated as it contributed to the documenting of history. These old photographs may not seem important, but each of them tells a story about an event, a person or even a period in history that we can clearly see and not just imagine. The preservation and digitization of the photographs from the past is something that our civilization needs to keep. Now you can be part of this process: here at IMS Vintage Photos we digitize rare historical photographs that come from newspaper archives from all over the world. Once we return the digitized photo to the archives, we give access to the originals to the public. You can now buy these historical memories on our website. We have many categories and also usages: you can collect the pictures, decorate your home or office with them, and even reconnect with lost photos of your family!
Author: Iva Jovanovic