Photos That Changed History

I think I’m hanging around with History Geek too much because his fascination with the past is starting to rub off on me. I’m still not a big fan of his taste in music (though I suppose Eric Calderone is fairly skilled) but listening to the guy ramble on about historical macro-trends and predictive theorems no longer annoys me as much as it did.

The fact that he brings me food every day and took me back in time to see my great grandpa T-Rex also might play in to my ability to tolerate the guy. Out of the entire “OMG Space Is Cool” crowd, History Geek is the one I can hang around with the longest. So, when I got stumped for a follow-up to the History of Photography series, I took the problem to him. The following conversation ensued:

“Why not talk about photos that altered the course of history or completely changed the perception that people had on certain historical events?” he suggested. “Like the Berlin Wall changing people’s perspective of Reagan in the 90s or the first images of Earth from space both frightening and inspiring people to greater heights?”

“Lay off the space stuff, man.”

“Space is awesome. I’d sooner lay off breathing. Anyway, photos of history. I can help you with it considering that I got a BA in History.”

“In History? And you work in Marketing?”

“Yeah…I realized that I didn’t want to teach around the time I graduated from university.”

So, taking his advice, today we’ll start looking at some of the most well-known and, in some cases controversial, photographs in history. We’re going to start out with a very special photo, however — one that’s been featured on this site before. That’s right, it’s View from the Window at Le Gras by Niepce.

Why is this photograph important? Well, it’s important because it’s the first permanent photograph ever created. Earlier photographs created using a camera obscura faded when exposed to more light. Niepce was one of the first to develop a way to permanently “engrave” a photographic image on a surface. He called the process “heliography” or “sun writing” since the image was created by the sunlight hardening the bitumen of Judea he’d put on a pewter plate inside of the camera obscura. The bitumen of Judea (a mixture that is kind of like asphalt) hardened when exposed to sunlight. The unexposed areas remained water soluble and could be washed away with a mixture of lavender oil and white petroleum, leaving behind the image you see.

This scene is the result of an eight-hour-long exposure — hence why the sunlight seems to reflect off of both buildings.

This particular plate can currently be viewed in the Harry Ransom Center’s main lobby at the University of Texas. The University purchased it from Helmut Gernsheim in 1973. He’d rescued the photographic plate from relative obscurity. It had been long forgotten by all but the most die-hard photography enthusiasts. That’s kind of difficult to imagine in this day and age — the very first example of something being forgotten and misplaced for nearly 150 years. Apparently, though, this is something you humans regularly do. At least according to History Geek who points out that everyone forgot about science for a while (he swears that if Rome hadn’t fallen, the Industrial revolution would have occurred in the 1300s instead of the 1800s. But then, this is the same guy who willingly blasts heavy metal directly into his ear canals so take that with a grain of salt).

Check back later for more photos from history. And, if you have a photograph that changed your life, tell us about it. Who knows? Maybe one of you out there will capture the Tank Man or Migrant Mother.

— da Bird