History of photography

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Stepping stones

The history of photography dates back to the early 19th century, but the technique that made photography possible rests on much older ideas and inventions. During the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., the pinhole camera was described by prominent figures such as the Chinese philosopher Mo Ti, Greek philosopher Aristotle, and Greek mathematician Euclid. Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham (965–1040) – often reffered to as the “father of modern optics” – studied both the pinhole camera and the camera obscura and gave the oldest known clear description and correct analysis of how a camera obscura works.

In 1568, Italian scientist Daniel Barbaro published his treatise “La pratica della perspettiva” (Practice of Perspective) which includes the earliest known account of a lens being utilized with the camera obscura. This treaty also explains how the image can be improved by adjusting the distance upon which the image is to be projected. Barbaro himself preferred to use a bi-convex lens.

Other important stepping stones for the development of the modern camera were laid by early chemists. Dominican friar and bishop Albertus Magnus (1193/1206 – 1280) discovered silver nitrate, and Georges Fabricius (1516-1571) discovered silver chloride. In the late 17th century, a Dutch lawyer and physician named Wilhelm Homberg described how certain chemicals turned dark when exposed to light, the so called photochemical effect. In the early 18th century, German professor Johann Heinrich Schulze showed how certain silver salts, especially silver chloride and silver nitrate, turns dark in the presence of light, and how a mixture of silver and chalk reflects less light than untarnished silver.

The first photograph – Niépce and Daguerre

The first permanent photograph was produced in 1825 by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. When the first permanent photograph was taken, Niépce had been experimenting with optical images for over 30 years. During this period of trial-and-error he did manage to create images, but they faded very fast.

The first permanent photograph depicts a 17th century engraving of a boy leading a horse. This photograph wasn’t re-discovered until 2002 when it was found in a French photograph collection and sold for 450,000 Euros. Some sources claim that an even older Niépce photograph exists or have existed; a foggy picture of a table with food supposedly taken in 1822.

To create his first permanent photography, Niépce used a polished pewter sheet covered with bitumen of Judea, a petroleum derivative. Before covering the sheet, he dissolved the bitumen in lavender oil. The coated pewter was placed inside a camera obscura and left there for eight hours. When bitumen is exposed to light, it hardens, and the unhardened bitumen can then be washed away with lavender oil to form a crude type of negative. To produce a photograph, Niépce polished the pewter and coated it with ink before being pressed against a paper.

Working together with artist and chemist Louise Daguerre, Niépce continued to refine his methods until he died of a stroke in 1833. Together, Niépce and Daguerre developed the physautotype process. After the death of his partner, Daguerre continued the work on his own, creating the Danguerreotype process which relied on silver placed on a copper plate. In 1839 the invention was purchased by the French government “on behalf of the people of France”. Daguerre got a yearly stipend of 6,000 Francs for the remainder of his life, and the estate of Niépce was also given 4,000 Francs per annum.

Niépce is today credited with producing the very first permanent photograph in history, while Daguerre has his indubitable place in photograph history due to two crucial discoveries made by him. Daguerre was the first person to realize that you can form a latent image by exposing the silver to iodine vapour before exposing it to light, provided that you also expose the silver to mercury fumes after the photograph has been taken. Daguerre also showed that bathing such a silver plate in a salt bath afterwards will fix the image.

Hercules Florence – the unsung photographer of Brazil

It should be noted that in 1833 – six years before the invention of the Danguerreotype method – a very similar method had already been created by French-Brazilian artist and inventor Hercules Florence. While living in a Brazilian village, Florence enlisted the aid of a pharmacist friend, Joaquim Correa de Mello, to develop a method for permanently fixing camera obscura images. In 1833, they couple managed to settle images by using silver nitrate on paper. Florence called the process photographie. Florence was never recognized internationally as one of the inventors of photography, partly because he never published the invention adequately and partly because he lived in a remote location in the South American countryside.

Fixers, negatives and the popularization of photography

After reading about the French invention, British mathematician and optician William Henry Fox Talbot started experimenting to improve the method further. In 1839 he was given an effective fixer from the astronomer John Herschel who had showed that hyposulfite of soda (sodium thiosulfate) dissolves silver salts. Later that year, Talbot created the first glass negative, and by 1840 he had developed the calotype process. Unlike the danguerreotype, the calotype could be used to reproduce positive prints since it used coated paper sheets with silver chloride to create an intermediate negative image. Talbot patented the calotype process and had to spend a lot of time in court defending his rights.

The basic technology used by chemical film cameras today is still the calotype process, but a refined version developed by U.S. citizen George Eastman, the man who invented the roll film and founded the Eastman Kodak Company. Eastman greatly helped popularizing photography by making it less of a hassle and coined the company motto “You Press the Button and We Do the Rest.”


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