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A photograph is usually looked at - seldom looked into.  ~  Ansel Adams

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Early History of Photography

Photo of old canon

The word photography, which is derived from the Greek words for light and writing, was first used by Sir John Herschel in 1839, the year the invention of the photographic process was made public. During the previous decades perhaps as many as ten individuals had tried to make a photograph. At least four were successful: Joseph Nicephore NIEPCE, Louis J. M. DAGUERRE, and Hippolyte BAYARD in France, and William Henry TALBOT in England. Each of them employed two scientific techniques that had been known for some time but had never before been successfully combined.

The first of these techniques was optical. Since the 16th century artists and scientists had made use of the fact that light passing through a small hole in one wall of a dark room, or CAMERA OBSCURA, projects an inverted image on the opposite wall. The hole was soon replaced with a lens, which made the image brighter and sharper. By the 18th century the room had been replaced by a portable box, which artists used as a sketching aid. The second technique was chemical. In 1727, Johann Heinrich Schulze had discovered that certain chemicals, especially silver halides, turn dark when exposed to light. The first attempt to use such chemicals to record the image of the camera obscura was made--unsuccessfully--by Thomas WEDGWOOD about 1800.

Daguerre's invention, which was bought by the French government and made public on Aug. 19, 1839, produced a one-of-a-kind picture on metal, the DAGUERREOTYPE. In contrast, Talbot's invention (1840), the CALOTYPE, produced a negative picture on paper; the lights of the image were recorded as darks, the darks as lights. A positive was made on another sheet of chemically sensitized paper, exposed to light through the negative. Because an infinite number of positives could be made from a single negative, Talbot's invention and refinements of it soon predominated. The photograph's capacity to repeat itself exactly and infinitely through the negative-to-positive process was one side of its radical character. The other, of course, was its privileged status as a picture created by nature alone, free from the inevitable distortions of handmade representations.

The ever-increasing ease with which photography precisely recorded visual information and distributed it worldwide made it the most powerful tool of communication since the invention of the printing press. Early theories of photography stressed its mechanical nature. To some, this nature excluded the personal intervention that was the stamp of art; to others, photography's potential signaled the demise of painting. Neither view prevailed. Painters continued to paint and photographers proliferated; at best, everyone agreed that the new invention was useful.


If photography baffled the theoretician, it welcomed the practitioner. Arcane and mysterious by today's standards, early processes were nevertheless easy enough to learn, and the medium spread rapidly throughout Europe and America. Photography appealed to a few professional scientists and artists, but most early photographers were undistinguished--artisans, handymen of all sorts, and, like several of the inventors, versatile amateurs. These individuals shared neither a common tradition nor a uniform intention. Only in the 20th century did an approximate consensus--or even a coherent argument--emerge about the past achievements and future goals of photography.

Because early photographers were largely unfettered by academic convention or demand for a uniform commercial product, the first two decades of photography were rich in pictorial experiment. Among the inventors, Talbot and Bayard were especially sensitive to the beauty of the new medium. Their loving records of often humble subjects announc
ed photography's aptitude for the intimate, personal view.

Some of the best early photographers had been trained as artists; none were important artists, however, and many had a talent with the camera that they lacked with the brush. In the 1840s, D. O. Hill and Robert Adamson (see HILL, D. O., AND ADAMSON, ROBERT) made photographic portraits as studies for a large group portrait that Hill finished painting 20 years later. The painting is an awkward failure; the photographs, however, possess a grandeur that recalls--without copying--portraits by old masters. It was as if the training and talent of the painter could only be released in a practical struggle with the camera, the light of the day, and the mood of the sitter.

The intuition of Hill and Adamson was shared by an impressive group of French photographers of the 1850s, among them Gustave LE GRAY, Charles MARVILLE, Charles NEGRE, E. D. Baldus (b. 1820), and Henri Le Secq (1818-82). Several of these men were, like Hill, painters, and they brought the conviction of art to their work and to their SOCIETE FRANCAISE DE PHOTOGRAPHIE.

They frequently photographed important places and historic monuments, sometimes for the government, but this work was not separate from their private experiments. Their pictures preserve the adventurous spirit of early photography before it became both an art and a business. Although some of them were artists, the French primitives (as they are often called) gave up their professions, if not their ambition, when they took up the camera. In this sense, they were amateurs.

Even after the medium began to be dominated by professionals in the 1860s, many of the most inventive 19th-century photographers were amateurs. Perhaps the best of them was Julia Margaret CAMERON, who made intense portraits of her friends, many of whom were eminent Victorians. Cameron also composed photographic tableaux in which real people were transformed into characters from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King. In their own day, these pictures were admired as idiosyncratic productions; today they are appreciated as precocious examples of photography's responsiveness to fantasy and fiction.

The amateurs may be contrasted with photographers such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Henry Peach ROBINSON, who attempted to challenge painting on its own ground. In England in the 1850s they turned out labored but technically accomplished versions of successful genre paintings, pieced together from as many as a dozen different negatives. These hackneyed failures doubtless encouraged the enemies of photographic art. They may also have benefited the commercial photographers, who recognized (for the time being) that artistic aspiration had no place in their work and went on to make practical--and original--pictures.


After 1851, when Frederick Scott ARCHER's process substituted glass for Talbot's paper negative, the mass production of ALBUMEN PRINTS of extremely fine detail became possible. Until the 1880s this was the medium of the great commercial firms, which fed an enormous popular demand for portraits and for views of famous monuments or strange places. The majority of 19th-century photographs fall into these two categories.

Initially at least, portrait and view photographers adopted the pictorial conventions and commercial markets that had been established by painters and printmakers. The low cost of their product and the large scale of their operations, however, changed the meaning of these traditions. By the mid-1850s, when Andre Adolphe Eugene DISDERI popularized the small, cheap portrait, anyone could afford a picture of himself or herself.

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