History of Photography

The Historical Development of Photography


Photography, among the youngest of Sciences, just one hundred years in 1940, can be said to have its origin in the camera obscura, probably first described in the unpublished papers of Leonardo Da Vinci. Venturi drew the first attention to Da Vinci’s experiments in an account written toward the end of the Eighteenth Century.

The camera obscura consists of a dark box or darkened room in the center of one wall of which a small hole has been cut to admit light from the outside. Rays of light reflected from objects outside the camera, passing through the opening, form an inverted image or picture on the far wall. The Artist sitting inside the camera, can then trace out the picture at his leisure on a piece of paper or other material fastened to the wall. The camera obscura was probably the first successful device for throwing the image of an object on a screen.

Some means of image transmission is the first essential to the creation of that permanent pictorial record that we call a photograph.

The second essential is a suitably sensitized screen upon which the image may be made lasting. No doubt the change in color or bleaching, of fabrics exposed to the sun for long periods, was observed early. And certainly the phenomena of sunburn and the resulting tanning of the skin were experienced by past generations, and yet, even with this evidence of the lasting impression that light leaves on many substances, no early attempt was made to turn this phenomenon to useful account.

In the sixteenth century, Georgius Fabricius recorded first the darkening of silver chloride or “horn silver” that takes place when this compound is exposed to light. The next isolated discovery in this field was not made until 1727 when Johann Heinrich Schulze accidentally found that a solution of chalk and aqua regia with a trace of silver was changed to a purple color when exposed to light. The next advance of any importance was made in the early nineteenth century by Thomas Wedgewood and Humphry Davy, who, by making use of Schulze’s findings, were able to produce prints of leaves and other semi-transparent objects.

The first permanent photographs appear to have been made by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, a Frenchman by birth. While visiting his brother inEngland, about 1827,  Niepce asked permission to show some of his pictures to the Royal Society but the request was refused because of his unwillingness to divulge the secret of their preparation. Later Niepce formed a partnership with Louis Jacques Monde Daguerre, the inventor of the Daguerreotype, to carry on experiments in making permanent pictures.

Niepce died in 1833 but Daguerre continued the work and was soon reporting to Arago, a fellow scientist, that he had made definite progress  toward perfecting a photographic of wedding gowns process though he had abandoned the particular line of attack that he and Niepce had been following. Daguerre had formed a company but it was in a  weak financial condition and he persuaded Arago, a man of influence, to present the process to the French government. On condition that Daguerre publish his process without any claims or patents, the government bestowed a life pension on him.

The Daguerreotype was made from a polished, silver coated plate, sensitized to light by exposure to fumes from iodine crystals. The process gained rapidly in popularity and was without a rival  for a full decade. In 1851, the wet collodion process developed by Fredrick Scott Archer began to replace rapidly the older method of photographing.

The basic discovery that made Scott-Archer’s work possible occurred in Boston three years earlier where a man named Maynard found that gun cotton, dissolved in ether and alcohol, produced, when dried, an adhesive film-like material know as collodion. Scott-Archer’s method was to prepare a collodion solution of soluble iodide and a small amount of potassium bromide which he poured over a glass plate. The plate was then sensitized in the darkroom by bathing it in a silver nitrate solution. The inconvenient feature was that it was necessary to expose the sensitized plates while still wet, but in spite of his drawback excellent pictures could be made and this process dominated the field of photography for nearly thirty years. The famous Cyrus K Brady collection of photographs of the Civil War is an example of what can be done with wet-collodion process. The next great improvement was the development of the gelatin dry plate which overcame most of the disadvantages of the wet plate. The dry plates were faster and retained their sensitivity over longer periods of time.

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