The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall

As I look back on our life in the field of photography, I am amazed at the distance that photography has traveled in such a short time. Much to my dismay, our life in photography qualifies as history! I just heard that the history of photography is being dropped as a subject in colleges that offer photography as a major. PLEASE TELL ME THIS ISN’T TRUE! If it is true, I am shocked and saddened by the fact that the long trail of people who spent a good portion of their lives creating the field of photography will be lost forever.

I remember when Clyde was one of the first people in the USA to own a 20mm lens for his 35mm camera. The photographers who used that angle of a lens were few and very far between, but Clyde has loved that wide-angle view almost since he picked up a camera at a young age.

When Clyde decided to become a full time landscape photographer photography in the early 1960’s he began with black and white photography because it was cheap. Color photography was just beginning, expensive and very difficult to do.

Clyde bought black and white film in bulk and rolled his own. He also processed his own film. The process of printing black and white images was difficult because there were only three kinds of paper: high contrast, medium contrast, and low contrast. Because there was no way to get anything that was in between, Ansel Adams created the Zone system so that printing would be easier. I think Ansel Adams would have LOVED the multi-grade papers and Aristo enlarging heads that are now available! Printing is so much easier because of that advancement.

Glossy paper was hard to come by…there was paper called gloss, but compared to the glossy papers of today it looked like a semi-gloss surface. In order to get the really dark blacks that Clyde wanted, he needed a high gloss surface. The only way to get that was to take the finished photograph, submerge it in a chemical, then put it face down on the polished chrome of a drum drier. He covered the drum tightly, and waited for the paper to dry. It would come out looking like the high gloss that we are accustomed to seeing on Resin Coated paper today (there was no resin coated papers back then). Now there are many different grades of gloss to choose from. What a joy it is to have a choice!

He achieved a certain amount of success selling his black and white photographs, however, it didn’t take long for him to realize that color photography was more sellable…the colors of nature matched the home décor of the era. It was the days of avocado green shag rugs and gold furniture.

Our first color darkroom had nine trays of chemicals with the last tray being formaldehyde! Eventually, the color industry improved their products and a machine came out to process the images. It was wonderful not having to deal with the chemistry.

When Clyde purchased his first large format camera from Cal’s Camera in Newport Beach California, the 35mm camera was the rage and they couldn’t sell a large format camera for anything. They had a 5×7 Deardorf view camera sitting on their sales desk as a piece of décor. When Clyde asked if he could buy it, they said sure. He purchased it for $100. I’m sure they thought he was crazy because the whole industry was of the opinion that the large format camera was on its way out and would soon disappear altogether. The feeling was that the advancement of higher quality lenses and faster film for 35mm cameras would eliminate the need for larger format cameras. It’s strange that history is repeating itself today with the onslaught of the digital camera. Many people are saying that large format cameras will no longer matter because of the quality of the digital camera…and yet, it still survives.

During all this time, the field of photography has been refined over and over again. Better cameras, better lenses, better enlargers, better chemistry. It seems every era brings better technology. It makes me want to live to be 200 so I can see what the future brings to this technical art form!

The news that the history of photography isn’t going to be taught, led me to re-read The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall. I had read it many years ago and felt a need to refresh my memory. I wondered what it was that the young people of today would miss if they were not taught the history. And so, periodically in this blog I will review the chapters I have read. I’ll condense them, however Beaumont Newhall has already condensed the history to such a degree that it is hard to condense it any further. He has a lot of fun comments in the book that makes history come alive, so I would suggest that you get the book and read it for yourself. In the meantime, I’ll drop a line now and then as I read the book.

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