Terms to Remember
- Photography - “light writing” or “light drawing”--the process, activity and art of creating still or moving pictures by recording radiation on a sensitive medium, such as a photographic film, or an electronic sensor.
- Camera Obscura - a darkened enclosure in which images of outside objects are projected through a small aperture or lens onto a facing surface.
- Daguerreotype - a photograph made by an early photographic process developed by Louis Daguerre; the image was produced on a silver plate sensitized to iodine and developed in mercury vapor.
- Silver Gelatin Process – the photographic process used with currently available black-and-white films and printing papers. A suspension of silver salts in gelatin is coated onto a support such as glass, flexible plastic or film, baryta paper, or resin-coated paper.
The history of photography begins in the High Renaissance period in Europe with the development of the Camera Obscura. Developed as a means by which artists could learn to draw accurately from life, the Camera Obscura was a darkened room (or box) in which reflected sunlight passing through a small hole in one of the walls projects onto the opposite wall an inverted image of whatever lies outside. This inverted image could then be traced by the artists, aiding him in his life drawing studies. This apparatus became the design upon which the modern camera was based.
The very first known photograph was produced by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a scientifically-minded personality in 19th century France who wanted to do something innovative with the relatively new printmaking process of lithography. These experiments eventually led to efforts to capture images of the outside world. In 1824 Niépce met with some degree of success in copying engravings, but it would be two years later before he had success utilizing pewter plates as the support medium for the process. By the summer of that year, 1826, Niépce was ready. In the window of his upper-story workroom at his Saint-Loup-de-Varennes country house, Le Gras, he set up a camera obscura, placed within it a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (an asphalt derivative of petroleum), and uncapped the lens. After at least a day-long exposure of eight hours, the plate was removed and the latent image of the view from the window was rendered visible by washing it with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum which dissolved away the parts of the bitumen which had not been hardened by light. The result was the permanent direct positive picture you see here—a one-of-a-kind photograph on pewter. It renders a view of the outbuildings, courtyard, trees and landscape as seen from that upstairs window. He called the resulting process Heliography.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.
View from the Window at Le Gras.
The Daguerreotype was the first truly successful photographic method. Developed by Frenchman Louis Jacque Mande Daguerre and released to the public in 1839, Daguerreotypes were produced with a silver plate treated with light-sensitive chemicals placed in the back of a camera. The lens of the camera would then be opened to allow the silver plate to be exposed to light. After the exposure was taken, the silver plate was developed in Mercury vapors. The resulting image looked better that in Niépce’s process, and required less exposure to light (though it still needed several minutes to an hour). One drawback to Daguerreotypes, however, is that each is an original positive, with no negative to allow for multiple prints.
Since the process required a somewhat prolonged exposure, action could not be captured on Daguerreotypes. Take a look at the following image. This is a Daguerreotype taken of a street in Paris, France at what appears to be late morning or early evening given the effect of the light. At this time of day, why is the street barren? Where is the hustle and bustle of city life? Why are there no carriages? Why are the sidewalks not crowded with people? Certainly at this time of day, the city would not be so empty. The reason for this seeming anomaly is that while the lens was uncovered for this particular exposure, all of the carriages and bustling people were moving and never stood still long enough to be captured by the daguerreotype…with one exception. Notice the solitary human figure near the bottom left corner of the image? This is the image of a man who was getting his shoes shined. He actually stayed in place for a long enough period of time, that his image was captured on Daguerre’s silver plate. As a result, this image contains the first ever depiction of a human being in a photograph. Daguerre won the market battle with Englishman Henry Talbot, who had also invented a new photographic process in 1837, and the Daguerreotype became the first photographic method well-suited for portraits.
Louis Jacque Mande Daguerre
Le Boulevard du Temple
Gelatin Silver Process
The gelatin silver process is the photographic process used with currently available black-and-white films and printing papers. A suspension of silver salts in gelatin is coated onto a support such as glass, flexible plastic or film, baryta paper, or resin-coated paper. These light-sensitive materials are stable under normal keeping conditions and are able to be exposed and processed even many years after their manufacture. This is in contrast to the collodion wet-plate process dominant from the 1850s–1880s, which had to be exposed and developed immediately after coating. The gelatin silver process was introduced by R. L. Maddox in 1871 with subsequent considerable improvements in sensitivity obtained by Charles Harper Bennet in 1878. Research over the last 125 years has led to current materials that exhibit low grain and high sensitivity to light.
When small crystals (called grains) of silver salts such as silver bromide and silver chloride are exposed to light, a few atoms of free metallic silver are liberated. These free silver atoms form the latent image. This latent image is relatively stable and will persist for some months without degradation provided the film is kept dark and cool. Films are developed using solutions that reduce silver halides in the presence of free silver atoms. An 'amplification' of the latent image occurs as the silver halides near the free silver atom are reduced to metallic silver. The strength, temperature and time for which the developer is allowed to act allow the photographer to control the contrast of the final image. The development is then stopped by neutralizing the developer in a second bath.
Once development is complete, the undeveloped silver salts must be removed by fixing in sodium thiosulphate or ammonium thiosulphate, and then the negative or print must be washed in clean water. The final image consists of metallic silver embedded in the gelatin coating. All gelatin silver photographic materials are subject to deterioration. The silver particles that comprise the image are susceptible to oxidation, leading to yellowing and fading of the image. Poor processing can also result in various forms of image degradation, due to residual silver-thiosulfate complexes. Toning increases the stability of the silver image by coating the silver image with a less easily oxidized metal such as gold, or by converting portions of the silver image particles into more stable compounds such as silver selenide or silver sulfide.
Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California
Gelatin Silver Print
Eadweard Muybridge was a turn-of-the-century photographer who became increasingly obsessed with photography’s ability to freeze motion, and how a series of frozen images arranged in a sequential order can again suggest motion to the viewer. Before Muybridge began making his photographs, many depictions of horses in paintings and sculptures often portrayed a horse with all for legs off of the ground like so:
To settle a bet between two Ivy League professors over whether or not a horse’s legs actually do this when running, Muybridge was commissioned to take a series of photos of a running horse. As you can see in the following reproduction of Muybridge’s print, the horse’s legs do have a moment at which all four are completely off the ground, but it looks nothing like the previous depiction:
Photography As An Artform
- Early on, the public was reluctant to consider photography an art form, because of its dependence on a mechanical device and its easy reproduction.
- Early attempts to legitimize photography as art tried to make photographs look like paintings.
- In the early twentieth century, photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Man Ray began to experiment with what photographs can do, making strides toward legitimizing photography’s status as art.
The Flatiron Building
Place de L’Europe Behind The Gare St. Lazare, Paris