Photography History: In the Beginning…

DA Bird here. Today’s entry was inspired by the history degree our resident nerd isn’t using. In honor of history geeks everywhere, we’re gonna take a little trip back in time. So, get the flux capacitors fluxing (don’t forget the spare plutonium) and let’s go back to the early days of photography. Time circuits set to some time in the 5th century BC — History Geek Alpha’s got the pedal to the floor ’til we hit 88 miles per hour — and we’re off!

Photography is something most people consider a more recent hobby. However, photography and cameras have actually been with us for a pretty long time — since the fifth century BC. The first written account we have of photography is from Mo Ti [1]. The first cameras were the camera obscura — essentially a large box with a pinhole drilled into it and some light-sensitive paper inside [2]. Pinhole photography was all that was available for several centuries and is a discipline that has lasted until this very day. There are still many photographers who study this branch of the art and make use of it in their photography practices [3].

Now we’re going to jump ahead a couple thousand years. History Geek, set the time circuits to the 1800s, would ya?

Pinhole cameras, while allowing for great depth of field, had several drawbacks. First, they could not capture images of objects in motion. Secondly, colors are often washed-out or distorted. Lastly, the images do not scale well and cannot be enlarged without showing severe distortions. Therefore, photographers and inventors began working on devising a camera that would better suit their needs and desires. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, often credited with being the inventor of photography, was among the first to experiment with taking a permanent picture with a camera obscura by using chemicals to etch or engrave the image into a stone or metal tablet. Niépce partnered with Louis Daguerre, seeking ways to improve his photographic processes with optical images. After Niécpe’s death, Daguerre went on to invent a process that bore little resemblance to Niécpe’s attempts — the Daguerreotype.

Niépce’s first photograph — photographs using early processes often came out blurry, much to the photographer’s chagrin. Blurriness was seen as less-than-desireable until Bigfoot enthusiasts discovered blurriness as a way to breathe life into their claims of “evidence.”

The Daguerreotype process resulted in a cleaner image but still had plenty of artifacts. This process, while superior to Niépce’s, still could not render an entirely clear, crisp image.

The Daguerrotype was the most commonly-used photography method until the 1860s. In 1835, William Henry Fox Talbot developed the calotype process which he would incorporate into photo-mechanical reproduction leading to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure.

Photogravure and mechanical cameras, building on chemical discoveries over the centuries, in turn constitute the beginnings of modern photography. Check back next week for Part II of this essay series! Until then, History Geek and I are gonna go see some of my ancestors. Yeah, that’s right — I’m talking about seeing some dinosaurs!