Advances in Photography during the Nineteenth Century

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Advances in Photography during the Nineteenth Century


In August 1839, at a joint meeting of the French Academies of Sciences and Fine Arts, the astronomer François Arago (1786-1853) announced Louis Daguerre's (1787-1851) method of obtaining pictures by the interaction of light and chemicals. Daguerre's discovery instantly captured the imagination of the public everywhere. But the invention of photography is actually the work of three men. The combined efforts of Daguerre, Joseph Niépce (1765-1833), and William Talbot (1800-1877) altered for all time how people see themselves and the world around them.


In ancient times the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) described how during a partial eclipse of the sun, the gaps between the leaves of a tree cast images of the crescent-shaped sun on the ground. During the Renaissance, artists in Europe applied this optical principle to create the camera obscura, or darkened room, in which light passing through a small hole in a window covering projected an image on the opposite wall. By the seventeenth century the camera obscura was no longer a room but a portable box. It was an indispensable tool in working out accurate and proportionally correct renditions of buildings, landscapes, and people.

The desire of post-Renaissance society to portray things as seen by the eye rather than the mind contributed to a climate of scientific inquiry that emerged in the sixteenth century. Investigations into the appearance and structure of living things made it possible to portray organisms realistically. Discoveries in the physical sciences made painters more aware of the visual effects of the physical world, and stimulated their interest in mundane events in contemporary life. Among the middle class, these developments fed a craving for exact copying of nature, and for reality.

Images obtained in the camera obscura were fleeting, so inventors naturally turned to ways of making them permanent. Until the 1700s, the reactions of organic and mineral substances to heat and light remained largely the province of alchemists. Observations in the seventeenth century focused on substances such as silver nitrate, silver chloride, and ferrous salts. But in 1725, Johan Heinrich Schulze, a university professor, made the accidental discovery that exposing silver nitrate to sunlight darkened it.

In the eighteenth century, Dr. William Lewis and the chemist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) studied and publicized the photochemical properties of silver halides. Thomas Wedgwood, an amateur scientist, and his associate Humphry Davy (1778-1829) demonstrated that it was possible to transfer pictures chemically by means of light. But they could not find a way to stop the action of light on the silver salts they used, and the result was darkened images.

In 1827, the French physicist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce exposed a pewter plate coated with bitumen, or asphalt, in the camera obscura for eight hours and managed to get an image in light and shade from the window of his work-room at Le Gras. Niépce, who described his camera as "a kind of artificial eye," tried without success to reduce the exposure time by increasing the sensitivity of his plates to light. A chance introduction to the scenic designer and Diorama owner Jacques Louis Mandé Daguerre resulted in their meeting in 1827 and forming a partnership to pursue the process of making images together.

After Niépce's death in 1833, Daguerre continued their joint work, discarding bitumen in favor of iodized silver plates. But the problem of lengthy exposure time continued to bedevil him until 1835, when he realized that he could use mercury vapor to bring out the latent, or hidden, image on the plate. A remaining problem was the action of light on the silver halides, which caused the image to darken into invisibility. But in 1837 Daguerre found that he could solve that problem by bathing the plate in a solution containing common table salt, a method he later replaced with hyposulfite of soda, a discovery made by the English scientist John Herschel (1792-1871). The result of this process was called the daguerreotype. The product was so delicate that it had to be encased in glass. And daguerreotypes were unique—they could not be duplicated. Still, their clarity of detail was breathtaking. Significantly, Daguerre gave his invention to the French government, which offered it free to the world.

Simultaneous with Daguerre's early discoveries, the English scientist and mathematician Willim Henry Fox Talbot found a way of making permanent images by exposing to light paper treated with alternate washes of sodium chloride and silver nitrate. Talbot's first experiments involved transferring leaf forms onto chemically sensitized paper. But in 1835, Talbot produced a one-inch-square negative paper image of his ancestral home. Talbot stabilized his early images with potassium iodide or salt, but like Daguerre, switched to hyposulfite of soda on the advice of John Herschel. Talbot called his images photogenic drawings, and tried without success to make a positive image from them by making a sandwich with silver-sensitized paper and exposing both sheets to light. Talbot's first images were reversed (a negative). In re-reversing the process, he obtained a positive copy.

The significance of Talbot's discovery was that in theory it would be possible to make multiple positives from a single negative. Like Daguerre, Talbot also hit on the phenomenon of latent development, in 1840. He sensitized his paper with a combination of chemical solutions, exposed it in the camera, removed what appeared to be a blank sheet of paper, and brushed the surface again with a bath of the same chemicals, during which the image appeared. This process reduced exposure time to 30 seconds on a bright day. Talbot called his invention a calotype, and he patented it.

It was John Herschel who persuaded Talbot to consider the term photography from the Greek photos for light and graphein for writing. Herschel also coined the terms negative and positive, and, 20 years later, snap shot. Herschel considered the three critical elements of photography to be very sensitive paper, a perfect camera, and a way to stop the further action of light. His solution to the problem of light action changed everything.

Talbot made his paper image process public in London in February 1839. The slowness of his method to gain popularity, especially in the United States, may have been due to people perceiving it as abstract, complex, and fuzzy, not clear like a daguerrotype. Moreover, Daguerre's invention had the sanction of the French government, whereas Talbot worked alone. Consequently, his fierce efforts to protect the rights to the use of his invention discouraged other people from using it—American photographers balked at paying license fees. In 1852, in response to requests from the Royal Academy and the Royal Society, Talbot relinquished control of his invention except in the case of portraiture.

The biggest problem for paper prints remained the lack of a stable printing medium. The surface of photographic printing papers was irregular, which made impossible the kind of detail that people had come to expect with daguerreotypes. Large-scale commercial printing finally became a reality with the development of the so-called colloidion or "wet plate" process in combination with the use of paper coated with albumen (egg white). The introduction of the colloidion process in 1851 made both daguerreotype and calotype processes almost instantly obsolete.

The first equipment used by Niépce, Daguerre, and Talbot was rectangular boxes modeled on the camera obscura that included a lens and a place to put the plate. Talbot's wife called his boxes mousetraps. Early photographic equipment was extremely cumbersome. For a single day's shoot, an amateur photographer alone easily lugged 100 to 120 pounds (45-54 kg) of equipment.


In England, France, and the United States, which were the three primary industrial powers with the wherewithal to develop the medium, photography found an immediately receptive public.

Portraiture satisfied people's desire for personal memoranda—every Victorian home had a family album. Visiting cards with small portraits on them called cartes de visite were introduced in 1851 and by 1861 had become an international craze. The photographer as explorer familiarized people with their own lands and faraway places in a realistic manner, without their having to traverse seas or climb mountains. Roger Fenton (1819-1869) pioneered a new application of photography—war reportage—with his documentation of the Siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean War. Using a wagon fitted out as a darkroom, Fenton was the first to photograph still shots of battlefields, officers, and men during battle. The camera also provided an objective testament to the ruins of the Civil War, driving home the psychological difference between photography and other ways of making images.

People believed that photographs were authentic, that the people or things in them existed. William H. Jackson's (1843-1942) photographs detailing natural wonders were instrumental in the decision of the United States Congress to make the Yellowstone region a national park. The photographs of Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) led a newly aware America to better living conditions for the poor in New York.

Once action studies were possible, they helped to understand movement. And inevitably, photography aspired not only to truth but also to beauty. As the science of photography adjusted to accommodate the art of picture making, artist-photographers came into being.

The substitution of gelatin plates for wet plates around 1879 freed the photographer of having to carry his darkroom with him. Gelatin dry plates could be stored for long periods and made instant photographs possible, shortening exposures to a fraction of a second. Modern photography still relies basically on gelatine emulsion. In 1888 George Eastman (1854-1932) introduced the first camera to incorporate a roll film, and made every tenth person in the United States a camera owner. "You press the button," ran the slogan for the Kodak camera, "we do the rest."

From the beginning, people sought ways of printing their photographic images. A variety of techniques made it possible to reproduce photographs in quantity, but they could not be printed on an ordinary press with type. All this changed with the invention of the halftone plate in the 1890s, which revolutionized the economy of news photography. Photographs could be reproduced in books, magazines, and newspapers, cheap and in limitless quantity.

At the close of the century, photographic technology had advanced to hand cameras and dry plates, enlargers and rapid printing paper, and more powerful lenses and high-speed shutters. Although nascent, the development of successful color photography was still several years away.


Further Reading

Gernsheim, Helmut. The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914. London: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography, from 1839 to the Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.

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Advances in Photography during the Nineteenth Century

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Advances in Photography during the Nineteenth Century