Photography Through History

The natural phenomenon of camera obscura, when a reversed image of an object is projected through a small hole to a surface on the opposite side, is of crucial importance for development of photography. It was known since ancient times, but no one thought of capturing and fixing these images with light sensitive materials before the 18th century. Discovery of materials that react when exposed to light was another important step in inventing photography.

Around 1800 Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) made the first well-documented attempt to create photography. His experiments did produce detailed photograms, but Wedgwood couldn’t find a way to fix these images.

The first photography ever, View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 1827), was created by Nicéphore Niépce. He painted a flat pewter plate with a tick mix of bitumen and water and placed it into the camera. After the plate was exposed to light for at least 8 hours, it was washed with a mixture of lavender oil and petroleum, dissolving the parts that were not hardened by sunlight.

However, it was Niépce associate, Louis Daguerre, who tried to perfect images of the real world. As a result, he invented daguerreotype, the first publicly available photographic process. He discovered that latent image forms when a plate of iodized silver is exposed in camera and that it can be “developed” and made visible by fuming it with mercury vapour. Exposure times could thus be reduced to mere minutes and the result was a clear, finely detailed image. His photographs were publicly presented in 1839, a date generally accepted as the birth year of photography.

At the same time, a British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot was inventing his own photographic process, calotype. He created a light sensitive “salted paper”. When exposed, it became a negative that could be easily used to create multiple positives.

Daguerreotyping soon became a flourishing industry, especially in the US. The most desired application for early photography was the creation of portraits. This was the main motivation behind subsequent innovations that quickly reduced exposure time from minutes to a fraction of a second. Other notable genres were artistic photography, photojournalism (mainly war reportage) and documentary photography of landscape, customs, monuments and architecture all over the world.

In 1880 the world was amazed by the first motion-picture presentation, when Eadweard Muybridge managed to take sets of photographs of successive phases of a horse running and projected them upon a screen one after the other.

In 1888, a US based company Kodak made hand-held cameras available at low cost, allowing photographers to take snapshots instantly on a flexible roll film with 100 film exposures.

The next step in the evolution of photography was the invention of colour photography in 1907, but the process took time to perfect. It was only after the 1950s that colour started to dominate photographic output.

Photography underwent another revolution with the introduction of digital cameras in the late 1980s. Today, it is a ubiquitous everyday practice all over the world.

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