What is photography?

Light BoxThe most commonly exchanged every day object  is a photograph. By exchanged I don’t just mean from person to person but  metaphysically exchanged as well. Photographs are exchanged through social media, emails and also through magazines, advertising and television. To go through the day without seeing a single photograph is near impossible.

Photography literally means Light Writing. Beaumont Newhall said “what we know as photography is combined application of optical and chemical phenomena long known to man. “

To try and understand what photography is, it may be first an idea to look at the history of this fast and still evolving medium.

Photography’s birth is a contentious issue ingrained in national rivalry that dates back to the Middle Ages. The photograph you could say had two births. One was the first captured image the second the first mass production process.

The Camera Obscura can be dated back to ancient Greece, but it was possibly used by cave men.

The Greeks had known about the principles of a camera, creating camera obscuras that would project the image of the world in a box or room. It would take humans hundreds of years after the Greeks discovered the camera obscura to be able to fix the image to paper

Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805)

The first fixed image process was not discovered  until 1802, when Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy created the first fixed image using silver nitrate.The fixed image stayed for a time though would soon fade and disappear. It would then be the Frenchman who would take the next step, Niepce.

Joseph Niepce

Joseph Niepce was a French inventor who claimed to have created the first fixed image in 1922 of Pope Pious VII, with his photograving process. The original engraving was destroyed when he experimented in duplicating the image.

Most people at this time if they wanted to capture a true life image would trace an image from a camera obscura. Niepce did not have a steady enough had to do this. Instead he created a way to fix the image in a camera obscura.
Joseph Niepce dissolved bitumen in lavender oil, a solvent often used in varnishes, coated a sheet of pewter with this light capturing mixture. He placed the sheet inside a camera obscura to capture the picture, and eight hours later removed it and washed it with lavender oil to remove the unexposed bitumen.

The worlds first photograph yet also not. Named a Heliograph (sun writing) by Niepce. The image was taken through a window looking out back across a roof top. Photographing windows will become a theme of new innovations in photography.

A replica camera set up in the same location as Niepce’s first photograph.

Joseph Niepce called the process, Heliograph, meaning sun writing. Niepice, until his death in 1833, would go on to collaborate with Louis Daguerre. Daguerre published the photographic process and named it after himself the Daguerreotype.

The Daguerreotype was mainly based on the work of Niepce. Daguerre managed to sell his camera to the French government for a yearly payment of 6000 francs along with a yearly payment to the Niepce’s estate of 4000 Francs.

“Spontaneous reproduction of the Images of nature received in a camera obscura.” was the outline of the Daguerreotype process. On the announcement of the process Paul De La Roche stated “from this day on painting is dead”.

Boulevard du Temple by Daguerre
the long exposure of the image creates a ghost town effect in the image with no people or traffic. The only figure that can be seen is a shoe shiner shining a man’s shoe. The silhouette of the men is only possible due to the chance that the exposure was a similar length in time to the man having his shoes shined.

Daguerreotype Portrait of The ninth president of the United States of America. America favoured the French method over the British Calotype. It could be said this is due to the fact that the revolutionary war had been thought only 50 years before.

The Daguerreotype process was popular in France and America (due to America not importing the English process due to the fall out of the American War of Independence), it did have some basic disadvantages;

It created an original image that could not be duplicated on a mass scale.

The only way to duplicate an image was to photograph the original.

In comparison to the other method also published in 1839 the daguerreotype had long exposures, which would lead to its eventual decline in use.

William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864

It was Henry Fox Talbot who would create what we would recognise as the basis of modern photography, by inventing the first negative/positive process.

Fox Talbot started his experiments in photography around the same time as Niepce was showcasing his first heliograph. But unlike Niepce, Fox Tabot was working with silver nitrate that darkens when exposed to light. It would be a year later that he made his first photogenic drawings or what is now called photograms.

These were highly detailed silhouette images of leaves and flowers. The difference between these and the images that Wedswood and Davy produced in 1802, was that the image was fixed and didn’t fade.

Fox Talbot waited five years and didn’t announce his invention of a fixed image using silver nitrate until 1939, the same year that Daguerre  published his method. The next year, 1840, Henry Fox Talbot created the Calotype, meaning great beautiful picture. As with the Daguereotype, the first images had long exposures with models heads being held in place so as not to blur the image. The one benefit of the Calotype was that images could be easily mass produced.

Example of the positive/negative process. The Positive/negative process is the basis of modern photography and was more commercially viable than the Daguerreotype due to the ability to mass produce images.

It had been only been 30 years from Wedgwood and Davy creating their silver nitrate images to Talbot being able to fix and copy an image multiple times.
This is an example of rapid changes in the technical process that will be a trend in photography, which is continuing even today. Daguerre and Talbot created the means to record images. It was the technology of the age that really speed up the industrialization of photography and the belief that there could be a perfect means of reproducing the perfect image.

Ten years after the publication of the Calotype, Fredrick Scott Archer created the Collodion Wet Plate Process. This process involved painting an emulsion on a plate of glass and then exposing the glass in a camera. The positive of the Wet Plate process was that it created a glass negative form which prints could be made from. The major disadvantage of the process was that the glass plate needed to be developed directly after the picture had been taken.

An example of a wet plate image. Photogrpahy would play a big part in documenting the American civil war. This picture shows a soldier waiting with his horse.

Dry Plate Portrait

The weakness of the Collodion process spurred on the next step. In 1871 the Gelatin Dry Plate Process was created by Richard Leach Maddox. The process involved mixing silver nitrate into a gelatin emulsion that was painted on to glass, the same as the Colodion process with one benefit. The gelatine preserved the silver nitrate on the glass. The process enabled an image to be taken and then developed days later. Explorers, scientist and cartographers no longer needed to have a wagon trailing along with them on expeditions. The knock on effect of the dry plate process was not inconsequential. The camera now could go to places which had been to difficult to reach in the past.

The first cameras using the dry plate process were simple affairs, a wooden box with brass handles. The main draw back was it had a fixed lens.

George Eastman would be the next big name in photography and for some the most recognisable name yet. Eastman the founder of Kodak created the first flexible negative film in 1884. The flexible film brought a similar revolution as the change from wet to dry plate did. A flexible negative film was thinner, lighter and less delicate than glass.

The Box Brownie the camera that brought photography from the privileged to the everyday man and woman on the street.

The Box Brownie brought the camera into the house of the family.

The Kodak Company didn’t stop with film. At the turn of the 20th century they created the Box Brownie.
The Box Brownie put photography into the hands of the everyday person. You bought the camera took your photos and gave it back to Kodak for them to develop the film and print the images. The simplicity of the idea was shared in their slogan “You press the button and we do the rest.” The blue print for commercialization of the photographic image had been written and is still followed today.

An Image by Niepce

In the 60 years from the first mass produced image, photography had been advanced from big clunky cameras that needed to have images developed straight away to lighter (but still heavy) cameras with images that could be developed at a later date. The photographic image had been democratized, taken from the domain of the privileged (who were the pioneers) to the most accessible and accepted means of visual communication.

Colosseum 1964 Box Brownie

To look at photography now the image has become even more democratized with digital technology and smartphones.

To answer the question “What is photography?” is not to give a meaning behind what a photograph is. As a photograph is an image whose value is dependent on its context. With the most valuable photographs to us being those that are the least functional.

Photography is a way of opening the door to the world and having it be recorded. The first pictures taken by the early photographic experimenters were of the daily life. As the box brownie fell into the hands of the people it is this life that they captured on film. Still today if you were to go through most peoples Facebook albums and Instagram feeds, the same images are being replicated but with their  modern world as a backdrop.

What is photography? A simple answer is to say, photography is the means to freeze time with light, to steal time and cheat death or to establish a hold on the past in which history is sealed and preserved so it is able to speak in the continuous present. Photography can also be a persons pen to create the great novel or a masterpiece of poetry and even an illustration of an idea. Photography is a document, evidence that an event happened. As with the photographic technology the answer to, “What is Photography?” is constantly evolving.

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8 thoughts on “What is photography?

  1. Great short history of photography and I would agree about it being a way to speak in the continuous present. I just heard an interview on NPR about a man who saved an archive of thousands of photographs that were almost thrown out – from them so much information was gained about American social history that might otherwise disappeared into nothingness…

    • The photograph is a great primary source for our historians. I fear for our future generations who want to use our images to look back to the past. Our digital images are deleted with such ease and lost forever.
      Thanks for commenting.

    • Thank you, I think it is important as photography evolves that it is kept in mind where it came from, unfortunately it is a brief post looking at mechanics not photographers because it is photographers that have shaped how the cameras can be used. Maybe there is an idea for another post.

    • Thanks, it is comments like yours that keep me motivated and going. Thank you for taking the time to look around. I hope you will pop back in the future to see some more posts.

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