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Photography – The Beginnings

Since the ancient times, people had need to mimic the phenomena around them. That need was often exceeded into need of creating something that will last. Men always wanted something that will survive the inexorable passage of time. That need was present since prehistoric times and over time it only grew stronger.

Accordingly, human achievements in that field became increasingly diverse. The idea was born – capture the image, present it exactly as it is and preserve it. The result was a new human invention, called camera obscura (Latin for dark room). This invention played a crucial role in the later development of photography. This optical device works on a simple principle: it consists of a box with a hole on one side. Light from an external is passing through the hole and strikes a surface inside which is reproduced, inverted with preserved color and perspective. Then, the image is projecting on the paper. It represents a highly authentic reproduction. Invention of camera obscura pierced the way for development of photography.

First photographic images

In the beginning, no one would have thought that the principle of camera obscura could lead to real photographic process. And it took a long time to do so. First attempts to capture an image in permanent form happened in the beginning of 19th century. Around 1800, Thomas Wedgwood made the first reliable documented but unfortunately, unsuccessful attempt. His successor, French inventor Nicèphore Niépce, was much more successful. In the year of 1826 or 1827 he made the first known photograph. The image depicts the view from an upstairs window at Niépce’s estate, Le Gras, in the Burgundy region of France.


The first image mankind immortalized

This was a giant step forward in development of photography. But, the image was far from perfect. Several days of exposure in the camera were required and result was very crude. From that moment, development of photography is taking significantly faster flow.

Louis Daguerre and daguerreotype

Niépce’s associate, Louis Daguerre quickly went on to develop the first known photographic process which bears his name, so called daguerreotype. This process was introduced worldwide in the year of 1839. For nearly twenty years, the photographers were using it. In 1860 the new, much easier and less expensive processes started to appear. These new processes were result of persistent researches in the filed of image capturing.


In 1841, William Henry Fox Talbot invented calotype. Like Daguerre’s process, it used the principle of chemical development to reduce exposure time. Difference was that Talbot’s process could make a large number of prints using simple contact printing. This process had another specific characteristic: its final product lacked clarity due to translucent paper negative. But that was a very good attribute for portraits because it softened the appearance of the human face. So, Talbot’s process was very popular. However, the distribution was greatly limited as Talbot patented his process.

IF 2
A fine example of a well preserved mid 19 century studio photo.


Still, during the 40’s and 50’s of 19th century portrait photos became very popular. The invention of the collodion process, the official replacement for daguerreotype, additionally contributed to the popularity of portraits. With this process, resolution of photography was significantly improved. It was another big step for photography development. Popularization of photography (especially portraiture) takes a big swing during 50’s and 60’s. Famous Parisian caricaturist, journalist and novelist Nadar (pseudo. for Gaspard-Felix Tournachon) opened his portrait studio in Paris. Paris was clearly emerging as the center of art of photography.

IF 2 (3)
Late 19th century cardboard photo taken outside a photographer’s studio. Even if the photo shows less detail, it is quite rare to see photographs outside the studio.

All of these inventions made possible for photography to take an artistic form and to provide people the possibility to enjoy permanently captured images in a new way. Maybe one of the most popular events in early history of photography was the invention of the carte de visite, by French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri. Care de visite actually represents a small photographic image mounted on a card. This Frenchman and his invention had had a great influence, as he made mass-production world portraiture world.


Image (1) property of  Hary Ransom Center
Images (2,3) from actual listings on Sigedon Books and Antiques

Miloš Stanković
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