The History of Photography By Beaumont Newhall

Just a short note: I have enjoyed this book very much, and would suggest that if you love photography you read the REAL thing! It’s a great book.

Everything that is in italics is my opinion and NOT in the book.

As the digital age is dawning with controversy as to whether the resulting photograph is art or not, it is fun to read about the beginning of photography and the excitement and wonder that it created in the world.

As an art form, photography is one of the newest and one of the most technical. Because it involves technology, it has constantly improved as mankind uses his creative mind to make it better and better. By making the technical process better, the art has become better…well, that is my opinion anyway…I do not believe that technology creates art, but it does allow the artist to be a better artist.

Photography began with a pinhole camera around 1500. It must have been an exciting moment when the first person saw an image appear through that hole! As I’m sure you know, pinhole images are ‘soft’, so it was only a matter of time before Giovanni Battista (1553) figured out that if he put a lens in place of the pinhole, he could get a sharper image. The first technical improvement!

At first the camera, called Camera Obsura, was as big as a room and was used to help painters understand perspective. The camera was pretty much useless until another creative mind made it portable. Someone put a lens into a two-foot square box with a piece of frosted glass on the back. The image fell onto the frosted glass. Painters could take the box out into the field, trace the image from the glass and get the perspective correct. The image was upside down and backward, but that was easily corrected by drawing onto thin transparent paper. Once the image was drawn, the artist could copy it and create a ‘good’ painting. Beaumont has a quote from Count Francesco Algarotti in 1764: “The best modern painters among Italians have availed themselves greatly of this contrivance; nor is it possible they should have otherwise represented things so much to life.”

Up to this point the Camera Obscura was used as a tool in the field of painting. It wasn’t until 1724 when Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered the light sensitivity of silver salts that the concept of capturing that image was considered. Thomas Wedgewood (late 1700’s) began experimenting with sensitizing paper or leather with silver nitrate. In the early 1800’s Joseph Nicephore Niepce created the first permanent image on ground glass and metal plates. He called the technique Heliographs. The image wasn’t ‘permanent’ as we think of the word today. It was only permanent in that it was captured so a person could see it. However, the issue of a ‘real permanent’ image is still with us today.

Johann Heinrich Schulze heard about a man named Jacques Mande Daguerre who was trying to achieve a permanent image. Daguerre was a painter, but found the chemistry of creating a permanent image fascinating and began experimenting. His creation was called Daguerretype.

Capturing an image was a wonder and an amazement to the world. The French government decided that the process should be made free to the public and so they took over the rights to it. Jacques Mande Daguerre was not able to make any money from the use of his process for many years. Eventually, it went to court and the French government gave a lifetime payment to Jacques Mande Daguerre for the process.

William Henry Fox Talbot, independently, invented a technique that was pretty close to the Daguerretype, however Talbot created a way in which others could utilize his technique. He created materials and apparatus for working the process. It was a kit, which he sold, that allowed the buyer to create a photograph. By 1841 Talbot had made enough individual improvements to his technique that he called it Calotype and patented the concept. His insistence on controlling his patent became a burden to photographers. He aggressively prosecuted any person making Calotypes who had not paid him a fee. When a new process producing negatives on glass coated with light-sensitive collodion was made public, Talbot went to English court claiming it was an infringement on his patent. He lost and the process of making a photograph was now free to the public.

During that time the Daguerretype had been free, and an easier process, and so it became the most popular photographic process. The Calotype never became as popular in use as the Daguerretype.

The competition between the two processes reminds me of the competition between Beta vs VHS and Blue Tooth vs High Definition…technology refining itself…

Sir John FW Herschel joined in the excitement of this new invention and created the chemical sodium thiosulfate. Today we call this “hypo”. Daguerre adopted the hypo solution into his process.

Herschel had seen the images created from Talbot’s process, but when he saw Daguerre’s images he said of Daguerre’s process, “It is hardly too much to call them miraculous. Certainly they surpass anything I could have conceived as within the bounds of reasonable expectation. I must tell you that compared to these masterpieces of Daguerre, Monsieur Talbot’s process is nothing but vague, foggy things. There is as much difference between these two products as there is between the sun and the moon.” This comment causes me to smile; because both of these processes are very soft…what would Herschel have said about photography today!?

Herschel coined the name “photography”, “negative” and “positive”.

More later…

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