Photography and its Impact Throughout History

A world with no photographs may seem like an unfathomable idea to some, but such a world had existed in history. Yes, the idea of capturing light through a pinhole to form an image dates as far back as Aristotle and by the seventeenth-century a lens had been fitted into the pinhole to improve the image with the room-sized device being reduced to the size of a small box that could be carried about.  And here we see the camera obscura (the primitive granddaddy of all cameras) take its first appearance to the world beyond the scientific experiments and into the lives of artists in Europe as an aid, helping trace images reflected on a sheet of drawing paper and with some artists (notably Vermeer, Rembrandt – some of the great Dutch painters of the time, and Caravaggio) using this as the basis of their underpaintings to achieve sharply contrasting light and dark areas for their paintings without guidelines or guide marks.


The question that now remained was: How to fix the camera obscura image permanently on the paper or projected surface? Chemistry, it seemed, could provide an answer to this dilemma. It had been known amongst scholars that certain compounds, most notably natural silver salts darkened when exposed to the sun and by the 1720s Johan Heinrich Schulzer a German psychiatrist and medical professor had done several experiments to prove this.


The first permanent image was only made a hundred years later in by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, credited as the inventor of photography, who took up lithography in France 1813 as it became a fashionable hobby and began to experiment with the printing technique. Unable to draw he aimed to produce images from nature etched on metal or glass using light sensitive acids. In 1826 he finally succeeded after an eight hour exposure using his camera obscura, aimed through an open window at his courtyard, using a pewter plate coated with silver chloride, which he knew darkened on exposure to light, and bitumen of Judea, a kind of asphalt that hardened and darkened in bright areas and left it soft and soluble in dark areas. Niépce washed the plate with lavender oil removing the still-soft bitumen that had not been struck by light, leaving a permanent image on the plate. This process he would call Heliography. This gave birth to the phenomena that photography would become.


Niepce, View from his window at Gras, 1826. Heliograph


Jacque-Mande Daguerre, who also had been using the camera obscura for sketching and had an interest in preserving its images through automation, heard the news about Niépce’s work, wrote to him suggesting an exchange of information, and by 1829 the two were partners. Sadly, Niépce died in 1833, six years before Daguerre announced the processed to the French Académie des Sciences and the world, a process which permanently fixed an image on a silver-plated copper sheet, exposed in a camera obscura, with sensitized iodine vapours and developed with mercury vapours. He went on to claim the invention as his own calling it “The Daguerreotype” and claimed that his process was different from that of his now deceased partner (dead bodies can’t talk of course). The process would go on to be publicised on August 19, 1839 as a gift to the world by the French Government, thanks to the astronomer and attendee of the Académie des Sciences meeting, Françios Arago, who suggested the government compensate Daguerre directly instead, after the inventor’s failed idea to sell his process by subscription.


The Daguerreotype and Early Portraiture.


Almost immediately after the process was announced, daguerreotype studios opened worldwide providing “Sun Drawn Miniatures” to a very willing public and by 1853 an estimated three million daguerreotypes were being produced per year in the United States alone – mostly portraits but also of scenic views.


Considered as “mirrors of truth”, the amazing clarity and seemingly ability to capture the sitter’s soul had birthed an industry, with early daguerreotypes costing 25cents to $5 USD, anyone could have what the kings and nobleman of yesteryears had coveted for centuries, an image of one’s likeness. All man, rich and poor to could now have their image preserved for; themselves and generations to follow without having to pay a fortune for the skills of an artist with paint, brushes, and canvas.


couple holding daguerreotype
Photographer Unknown – Couple holding a daguerreotype, 1850


Early portraits were almost always of rigid sitters who kept still for long periods of time thanks to the length in which it took the daguerreotypes to expose an image on the silver plate, not that a different method did not exist, in fact an English amateur scientist, William Henry Fox Tablot, had appeared at the Royal Institute of Great Britain announcing that he too had found a way to permanently fix an image on paper and rather than on a silver sheet only three weeks after the announcement was made in France. Tablot’s process brought the exposure time down to a minute or two, which was way better than the ten to fifteen minutes daguerreotype; however, the paper images didn’t appear as sharp and striking as the daguerreotype and thus were not a favoured method. After seeing some daguerreotypes, the poet  Elizabeth Barrett wrote to a friend in 1843, “several of these wonderful portraits . . . like engravings – only exquisite and delicate beyond the work of graver – have I seen lately – longing to have such a memorial of every being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases – but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing . . . the fact of the very shadow of a person lying there fixed forever! . . . I would rather have such a memorial of one dearly loved, than the noblest artist’s work produced. I do not say this in respect (or disrespect) to Art, but for Love’s sake. Will you understand, even if you will not agree?”


Although the daguerreotype produced images that lacked reproducibility, Tablot had solved the problem with his Calotype process. And a later process, wet- collodion process, was to blend the best features of the daguerreotype (sharpness) and the best of the calotype (reproducibility), also more light-sensitive than both of them, with exposures as short as five seconds, the process had many advantages, however, convenience was not one of them. The glass plates on which the emulsion (a mixture of colldion and potassium iodide) was spread had to be coated, exposed and developed before the emulsion dried, which required transporting an entire darkroom wherever the photograph was to be taken. Collodion could be used to form either a negative or a positive image. Coated on glass it produced a negative of which a positive could be printed on albumen-coated paper. If the glass was backed with a dark material like black velvet, paper or paint, the image was transformed into a positive, an ambrotype, a kind of imitation daguerreotype. Coated on dark enamelled metal it also formed a positive- the durable, cheap tintype popular in America for portraits to be placed on buttons, and even on tombs.


However, daguerreotypes gave birth to what we know today as personal and public portraiture, documentary photography and photojournalism. With the some of the most famous photographers using this medium being; Nadar, a French portraitist who was one of the first to advance the idea of artificial lighting in his studio shooting friends and celebrities. Julia Magaret Cameron a British, forty-eight year old mother of six, who took up the camera as personal adventure enlisting some of her friends, family and staff in her activities, her sister’s art scene at Little Holland House also gave her access to writers, poets, historians, and scientists. The duo of Albert Sand Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes a partnership spanning to two decades, they specialized in celebrity portraiture with clientele of leading politicians and artists of the day. Mathew B. Brady a war photographer and a portraitist in his Broadway Studio, Alexander Gardner, in the direct employ of Brady managing his Washington D.C studio, photographing the war and later releasing his famous Photographic Sketchbook of the War.  Timothy O’Sullivan, a war photographer and also contributing 44 photographs to Gardner’s Sketchbook and documenting The King Survey in the American West a few years later.



The Birth of Photojournalism


As the public realised the ability for photographs to bring back images of distant places true accounts of reality due to photography’s mechanical method of representation, which was at first considered to exclude the artist’s perspective and without the exaggeration that had been thought of the traditional artists, the American Civil War presented more than three hundred photographers an opportunity to document the war when they received permission to follow the Army of Potomac as it fought in the war’s Eastern Theatre many in the direct employ of the War department, producing more than seven thousand images of Union commanders and ordinary soldiers, faraway landscapes, and scenes of unprecedented death and deconstruction. Civil war photography exemplified a shift in photographic practice, as photographers began to use photography quite simply and directly as a means of recording the world about them.


These images would continue influencing Americans and the world, what is remembered and understood about the war throughout history. Brady, Gardner, and their compatriots asserted that they held a unique claim to objectivity and aimed at conveying their historical significance, even though they had fabricated many of the images they had captured of the war, only to be discovered as frauds a hundred years later, this was especially true with Alexander Gardener’s Home of a Rebel Shooter in Devil’s Den photograph which the photographer created the scene to show what he thought was a visually powerful image, dragging a corpse (probably of an ordinary infantryman and not a sharpshooter) up a hill and positioning it to face the camera forcing the viewer to look directly into the face of death, and adding the his own riffle as a prop.



Alexander Garnder – Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter,1865



Roger Fenton, Crimean War, British officers sitting outside tents


Many had come before Brady, O’Sullivan, and Gardner, although none had brought images as prolific as the three and their compatriots. Roger Fenton, was one such person, he had achieved widespread recognition for his images of the Crimean War in 1855, commissioned by the Manchester publisher Thomas Agnew & Sons to travel to the Crimea and document the war with his mission his encouraged by the British government, which hoped that his photographs would reassure a worried public’s growing criticism of the war. The photographs were not meant to show death, suffering, ineptitude or suffering, or images that would challenge the belief in the necessity of and correctness of the conflict, but rather his images supported the commonly held myth that their loved ones had died for a worthy and noble cause. Fenton created photographic essays that showed camp life, officers relaxing near tents, often surrounded by their regiment, portraits of individuals onboard the ship to the war. Fenton achieved celebrity status upon returning home, in early August 1955, with the Queen endorsing his work as “extremely well done” and his exhibition, Photographic pictures taken in Crimea consisting of 280 images opened at the Water Society Gallery in London, the exhibition achieving popular and critical success which was followed by exhibitions in two more galleries.


Although such images existed, that documented war and everyday life, it was only the perfection of the halftone process in 1880s that photographs and type began to be printed together and photographs became an expectation in news stories. In order for journalists to tell compelling stories, they had to make the story appealing and interesting. Photography aided this process giving the public clear pictures to accompany and illustrate the text. The best stories and photographs did more than just tell a story well, however, they also revealed underlying truths beneath the details. Photography therefore, became an effective communicator to the public.


 Early Documentary Photography


Geroge Eastman holding a brownie camera, 1890


Until the 1880s, few photographs were made by the general public. Almost everyone had been photographed at one point or another, certainly everyone had seen a photograph, and probably many had thought of taking images themselves. But the technical skill, massive effort and the sheer quantity of the equipment needed for the wet-plate process restricted photography to the professionals and the most dedicated amateurs. In 1888 George Eastman, after he himself purchased photographic equipment, went in search for a simpler way of taking pictures, “It seemed,” he said, “that one ought to be able to carry less than a pack-horse load”. Eastman brought photography to the general public with the Kodak camera. Many had experimented with roll film, but Eastman was the first to market it commercially, he recalled in 1913, “we expected that everybody who used glass plates would take up films, but we found that in order to make a large business we would have to reach the general public”, he saw that the number of people who wanted to take pictures was larger than of those interested in developing their own images.


In 1888 Eastman released the Kodak camera (his “little roll holder breast camera”), loaded with a roll of paper coated with a thin gelatine emulsion which had to be stripped from the negative opaque paper backing to provide a negative that light could shine through for making prints, allowed the “public to press the button” while the company “did the rest” as suggested by their slogan and by 1889 Eastman had sold more than 5,000 cameras and 7,000 images were being processed daily in the U.S alone. In 1900 the Kodak brownie was introduced at $1, a small box camera marketed for mothers and children, selling more than 100,000 in the first year and a million cameras within five years.  While most photographs approached the photography as art, Eastman believed that he could convince the public to use their cameras to document birthdays, summer vacations, and other special moments in their lives. The Kodak cameras enabled the public to document significant events and those of lesser significance with more visual accuracy than any other medium, mostly snapshots, recording scenes that helped the viewer to remember them.


Photographs recorded reality and what the photographers comment on reality was. Many photographers went out in the streets to document life as is, or how they saw it, Eugene Agtét made thousands of photographs in the early 1900s of the streets, cafés, shops, monuments, parks and people of Paris, capturing the mood of the people and the city he loved. Another early documentary photographer was August Sanders whose images of people of pre-WWII Germany showed the classes making up German Society at the time; he photographed labourers, soldiers, merchants, provincial families, and other types, all formally posed.


eugen agtet cafe la rotonde
Eugene Agtet – Cafe La Rotonde


Photography went from documenting the world to documenting it for a cause thanks to its nature as a story-telling vice and its ability to persuade and connect with the viewer on a more emotional level.  Jacob Riis used his camera to expose the living conditions of the New York City slum dwellers and by 1980, How The Other Half Lives was released, Adolphe Smith and John Thompson documented the poor in London and they too had a book released in 1887 called Street Life in London, Lewis W. Hine documented abuse of child labour from 1908 to 1921. These are but a few that saw the potential of photography as a means for social reform and to sway public opinion.


The Great Depression


The documentary photography movement gained it fullest momentum during the 1930s to the 1940s, this momentum was thanks to the great depression that saw the American FSA use photography to document the plight of the depression on the “one third of the nation”, the FSA hired a several number of photographers, including Dorothy Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee, Marion Post Walcott, John Vachon, Jack Delano, John Collier, Jr., Carl Mydans, and Ben Sahn. The photographers of the FSA produced an astounding collection of work of more than 80 000 of America spanning a nine year period with the photographs appearing in magazines such as Life, Look, and Survey Graphic in efforts of swaying the city living middle-class’s opinion and improving the life of the sharecroppers, tenants, very poor landowning farmers in a program to purchase submarginal land owned by poor farmers to land more suitable for farming.


Arthur Rothstein – The bleached skull of a steer, South Dakota Badlands,1936


Photography and its many fields today is built on the backdrop and ingenuity of many great minds  spanning over two hundred centuries, as far back as written history itself, through the years advances in technology and art have led us to where photography stands today, cameras on our phones and digital cameras that produce images of unparalleled beauty and accuracy, we capture moments in fractions of a second and rely on the medium to articulate the many stories that flood our TVs and social media, however, this wasn’t always the case. Innovation and frustrations built upon thoughts and ideas conceived by the inventors of yesteryears allow us to use and explore this medium beyond what they ever thought possible.


On the next blog post I will look at early photography and its impact on art, the many art movements it inspired and the conceived notions of what role photography would play in the art world. I will look at its history from invention to modern day, highlighting advancements of photography’s acceptance as high ART!!

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