Fine Art Photography Series
History of Photography

Inventors, Camera Obscura, Heliograph, Daguerreotype, Wet Plate Process.

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Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (1858)
During the time of his famous debates
with Stephen Douglas over slavery.

For a brief explanation of technical
and historical terms, please see:
Art Photography Glossary.

A Short History of Photography (c.1800-1900)


Camera Obscura
Use of Silver Nitrate
Heliograph: the First Photo by Joseph Nicephore Niepce
Development of the Daguerreotype
The First Calotype by William Fox Talbot
The Wet Plate or Collodion Process
The Ambrotype
Dry Plate Process
20th Century Photography


Photography is one of the newest and most exciting types of art, spanning all the genres (and more). Its relationship with reality has given rise to a new set of aesthetics, and an ongoing debate on the issue: Is Photography art? In the evolution of photography, the most important period was undoubtedly the 19th century. Here is a short guide to the critical developments which took place during this period. For details of many of the pioneers involved in these developments, see: Photographers: 19th Century. For 20th century camera artists, see: Greatest Art Photographers (c.1880-onwards).


Construction Workers Taking a Break. (New York, 1900s)

Camera Obscura

If a tiny hole is made in the screen or window blind of a darkened room, an inverted image of the scene outside the window is shown on the wall opposite.

The camera obscura or dark room, which is thought to have been invented by Battista della Porta (1538-1615) and is described in 1558 in his Magia Naturalis, had, in theory, been known to man for hundreds of years. Indeed, the Chinese wrote about it as early as the fourth century BCE. Apart from the Chinese, however, the camera obscura was described by, among others, Alhazan (956-1038), an Arabian scholar, by the scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon in 1267, and - as might be expected - by Leonardo da Vinci, who gave an accurate account of it in the 15th century.

Up to the mid-17th century the camera obscura was usually a room in a house, but by about 1650 smaller, portable versions had appeared.

By the beginning of the 19th century, there were three sorts of cameras obscura: the first was the above mentioned darkened room which often had, as an added refinement, a lens and a mirror arranged to produce an image of the scene outside onto a table in the room, another version was a sort of portable tent with the lens and mirror at the top, which produced the image onto a horizontal surface, usually - once again - a table inside the tent, and the last was a portable, although rather cumbersome box camera obscura, which reflected the image onto translucent paper, that is paper made translucent by soaking it in white oil.

These portable cameras obscura were used by Old Masters in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to help them draw in perspective, and were, of course, later an essential aid to the inventors of photography who modified the camera obscura by reducing its size, and by incorporating bellows, lenses, and diaphragms turned it into the camera.



Use of Silver Nitrate

Some of the earliest genuine experiments and attempts to produce a photograph were made at the close of the 18th century by Thomas Wedgwood, a son of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter. Wedgwood, who is known today less for his philanthropic activities than as a pioneer of photography, together with Humphry Davy, made prints of ferns, lace, and other objects by placing them on white paper or white leather, treating them with silver nitrate, and then exposing them to direct sunlight. In 1802 Wedgwood wrote An account of a Method for Copying Paintings upon Glass, and of Making Profiles by the Agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver with notes by Davy. Wedgwood and Davy were, however, never able to find a way of fixing the image, although to these two men must go the credit for first connecting the properties of light with those of silver nitrate.

Heliograph: the First Photo by Joseph Nicephore Niepce

Spurred on by the rising demand for pictures, especially portraits, lots of alternatives were tried: lithography was invented in 1796, and wood engraving was revived, and in response to the clamour of the rapidly growing middle classes, who wanted cheap portraits of themselves - portrait art had previously been the preserve of the upper classes and an expensive luxury - the silhouette became popular. In 1786 Gilles Louis Chretien invented the physionotrace. This was an exceedingly complicated machine for making silhouettes, which nonetheless grew popular because it allowed silhouettes to be inked and printed like copper plate engravings.

However, the real breakthrough came in 1826, when Joseph Nicephore Niepce produced, on a pewter plate and after an exposure time of over eight hours, the world's first photograph, a view from the attic window of his house near Gras. Photography had begun. In fact, Niepce used the word heliograph to describe what he had produced; the word 'photograph' was coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839.

Niepce, who had been experimenting with the photographic process for over ten years, was a dedicated inventor from childhood. In 1807 he and his brother Claude had patented the pyreolophore, an engine for boat propulsion, which seems to have passed into oblivion, and there followed, in 1813, experiments with lithography and, in April 1816, the first photographic experiments.

Niepce used bitumen of Judea dissolved in oil of lavender, a substance which hardens and becomes insoluble if exposed to strong light. When a thin coating of this mixture was spread onto a pewter plate and exposed to sunlight, a positive image was the result. The parts not exposed to sunlight could be washed away with a solvent consisting of oil of lavender and turpentine. Using a camera obscura he had designed and made himself, Niepce was thus able to make the world's first fixed photograph from nature.

Development of the Daguerreotype

Niepce, however, was only one of many experimenting with photography, and in 1837 - the year that Queen Victoria came to the throne - the first successful daguerreotype was made by Louis Daguerre. Daguerre had been a collaborator of Niepce until the death of the latter in 1833. He then carried on alone, and disclosed his process in 1839. Daguerre's method was to sensitize a polished copper plate coated with silver, with iodine vapour, expose it in the camera, develop it with mercury vapour, and fix the resulting image with a common salt solution. Shortly afterwards, Sir John Herschel, the astronomer, who was also keenly interested in this new phenomenon, suggested the use of 'hypo' (sodium thiosulphate) instead of salt for fixing the image, an idea that was soon adopted. A further improvement came in 1840, when John Goddard, a scientist, was able to increase the speed of the plates by using bromide vapour as well as iodine vapour for sensitizing. During the following two years, both Antoine Claudet, the daguerreotypist and Hippolyte Fizeau, a physicist, made some more minor improvements to the daguerreotype process, but after 1841 it remained, to all intents and purposes, the same.

Self-portrait by Robert Cornelius.
One of the earliest ever daguerreotype
photos of a person. Taken in 1839.

There were, naturally, disadvantages to the first daguerreotype: being on a solid metal plate, it was almost impossible to make additional copies, and also a 'mirror-like' image was produced, so that at some angles the image was almost invisible; but perhaps more important: as a result of the very long exposure time needed to make a daguerreotype - between 15 and 30 minutes - only static scenes without figures or movement of any kind could be recorded. If a clock, for example, appeared in the picture the hour hand would show, but the minute hand would not! Furthermore, the making of daguerreotypes was such a complicated process that only highly competent professional photographers were able to use it.

Later, successful attempts were made to improve daguerreotypes. Better lenses were developed, and a double lens was designed by Josef Petzval in 1840. In that year, also, John Goddard cut down the exposure time to about one minute, a tremendous stride forward. The reversed image was fairly easily corrected by using a prism in front of the lens.

The First Calotype by William Fox Talbot

On January 7th 1839, Francis Arago read before the Academie des Sciences in Paris a preliminary notice of the process invented by L.J.M.Daguerre. But in London, and quite independently of France, things were also happening, and on January 30th of the same year the Royal Society in London heard Michael Faraday describe the work of William Fox Talbot, an important contributor to Victorian art and one of the greatest camera artists of the 19th century.

Talbot, repeating Wedgwood's and Davy's experiments, had found a method of partially fixing a photographic image by bathing it in a strong solution of iodine of potassium and had, in 1835, succeeded in producing a photograph. The negative, although very faded, still exists in the Science Museum, London.

Talbot's new process, which printed on paper and not on metal, was patented in 1841 as calotype. Its main advantage over the daguerreotype process was that any number of copies could be made from a single negative. This was the first application of the negative/ positive principle of modern photography.

In 1844, Talbot produced a book, The Pencil of Nature, which is one of the best known photographically illustrated books in the world. Inside, the publisher thought it expedient to have a slip inserted which said: "The plates of the present work are impressed by light alone without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil." Each copy of The Pencil of Nature contained 34 calotype prints. These were of lace, ferns, views of Victorian architecture and still life. See also: Art of Illustration.

The best known photographers to use the calotype process were the partners David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Hill was a rather poor portrait painter who, when asked in 1843 to paint the convention of Scottish protestants at Canonmills, decided to use the camera to help him with the daunting task of painting almost five hundred persons on a canvas measuring five feet by twelve feet. Assisted by Adamson, who dealt with the technical side of the project, Hill posed his sitters, producing portraits and genre scenes that are unequalled as examples of the calotype process. See: Is Photography art?

Despite the aid of photographs, the portrait took over 23 years to complete, by which time Adamson was dead and Hill had turned away from photography. Ironically, it was not the painting that made Hill famous, but the photographs he took in order to execute it.


The Wet Plate or Collodion Process

In England, as in France, processes, inventions, and improvements followed in rapid succession. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer evolved his wet plate or collodion process. Archer coated glass negative plates with silver salts in collodion. After exposure, and while still wet, the image was developed and used to make a negative. Archer's collodion process was a success and was to remain in constant use until 1871, when it was finally superseded by Maddox's dry plate process. Until about 1890 most prints made from collodion negatives were albumen prints, so called because the photographic paper was first coated with albumen, then treated with salt and silver nitrate, and exposed until the image appeared.

It is amazing that despite the bulky equipment and manual dexterity required by users of the wet plate process, it was used by enthusiasts under the most daunting conditions: from mountain tops and balloons to the battle fields of the Crimea and the American Civil War.

The Ambrotype

The ambrotype, which is often confused with the daguerreotype, probably because of the similarity of its mounting and casing, was developed from the wet plate process. Ambrotypes were produced by bleaching out the highlights of the prepared wet plate with dichloride of mercury and painting the back of it black. Ambrotypes were usually mounted in small cases or lockets; sometimes - especially in America - they were mounted for hanging on a wall.

The wet plate process, which needed only a short exposure time - usually less than a minute - made it possible to produce an unlimited number of copies and popularized, as no previous method had succeeded in doing, cheap photography. In 1857, the carte-de-visite came to England from France, and inexpensive photographs, costing a few shillings, proliferated.

Dry Plate Process

A further important step forward was taken in 1871, when Richard Maddox, a physician, invented as a substitute for collodion, the dry plate process, which used instead of collodion an emulsion of sensitive chemicals in gelatine. Prepared plates could be packed and sold, and the photographer was now finally free of his mobile dark room. The exposure time was further shortened, so that at last the camera could be held in the hand, instead of being mounted on a tripod, and moving objects photographed. Photography as we know it today had arrived.

Note: photographic advances during the 1860s and 70s had a significant impact on Impressionist painters working outdoors, who were able to "capture" the transient effects of light in a snapshot.

20th Century Photography

Photographic art in the twentieth century has been driven by photojournalism and by fashion photography, both of which are inextricably linked with the media, and digital communication. Leading practitioners of the first genre include: Robert Capa, Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, James Nachtwey and Steve McCurry. Among the century's greatest fashion photographers are Cecil Beaton, Alexey Brodovitch, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson, David LaChapelle, among others.

Overall, the most important twentieth century camera artists - whose photos have appeared in several of the best galleries of contemporary art - include the following:

Ansel Adams (1902-84)
Noted for his landscape photographs of the American West.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
American documentary photographer of marginalized individuals.

Eugene Atget (1857-1927)
French camera artist noted for his architectural phots of Paris. One of the founders of documentary photography in an urban area.

Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
American fashion and portrait photographer.

David Bailey (b.1938)
1960s icon noted for his fashion and portrait photos.

Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)
Extravagant portrait and fashion photographer.

Bernd and Hilla Becher (b.1931/1934)
German couple, famous for their architectural photos.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983)
Versatile artist in portraiture, landscape, figure studies and documentary photography.

Brassai (1899-1984)
Hungarian camera artist famous for his images of 1930s Paris.

Larry Burrows (1926-1971)
Outstanding British war photographer.

Robert Capa (1913-54) (Endre Erno Friedmann)
World-famous photojournalist, founder of Magnum.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004)
Arguably the greatest exponent of street photography of the 20th century.

Bruce Davidson (b.1933)
Best-known for documentary photos on gang life in Brooklyn and Harlem, and New York subway system.

Patrick Demarchelier (b.1943)
Fashion photographer of the world's top models.

Robert Doisneau (1912-1994)
French photojournalist, famous for his photo of a couple kissing in Paris.

Ken Domon (1909-90)
Japanese documentary photographer.

Robert Frank (b.1924)
Famous for his seminal 1958 book "The Americans".

Walker Evans (1903–1975)
American lens-based artist noted for his photos of the Great Depression.

Nan Goldin (b.1953)
Noted for her photo-series on the lives of socially marginalized groups.

Andreas Gursky (b.1955)
German postmodernist photographer, noted for his large "architectural" photos.

Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971)
Berlin Dada painter, printmaker, collage artist, famous for his photomontages.

John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld) (1891-1968)
German Dada photographer noted for his photomontages.

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Documentary photographer of factory conditions in America.

David Hockney (b.1937)
English artist, noted for his Polaroid collages.

Nadav Kander (b.1961)
Best-known for his extraordinary Yangste river photo collection.

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)
Armenian-Canadian formal portraitist.

Andre Kertesz (1894-1985)
Noted for his street photos, portraits, cityscapes, still lifes, distorted nudes.

Nick Knight (b.1958)
Uncompromising fashion and advertising photographer.

David LaChapelle (b.1963)
Noted for extravagant postmodernist fashion shots.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Noted for photos of Depression and 1940s Japanese internment in America.

Annie Leibovitz (b.1949)
Contemporary portrait photographer specializing in photographs of popular celebrities, such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Demi Moore, Meryl Streep.

El Lissitzky (1890-1941)
Constructivist artist, noted for his political propagandist photography.

Man Ray (1890-1976)
Important pioneer of pictorialism. Dada/Surrealist/fashion photographer, inventor of the rayograph.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89)
Cult New York photographer of the 1980s.

Don McCullin (born 1935)
British war and documentary photographer.

Steve McCurry (born 1950)
Famous for his National Geographic photos like "Afghan Girl".

James Nachtwey (born 1948)
American photojournalist, famous for his images of natural and man-made disasters.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946)
Hungarian Bauhaus instructor, noted for his photograms.

Hans Namuth (1915-90)
Chronicler of American painters at work like Jackson Pollock.

Helmut Newton (1920-2004)
Noted for high fashion photos and female nudes.

Norman Parkinson (1913-90)
Famous for outdoor portraits and fashion shots.

Martin Parr (b.1952)
Social documentary photographer.

Irving Penn (1917-2009)
American photographer best-known for his fashion shots.

Ben Shahn (1898-1969)
Painter/photographer; like Lange and Evans, active in the Great Depression.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
American painter and photographer, noted for his industrial photography.

Cindy Sherman (b.1954)
Postmodernist photographer, best-known for her surreal self-portraits.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
Founder member of Photo-Secession, world's first fashion photographer; later, Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
The father of American photography. Founder member of Photo-Secession in 1902, co-founder with Edward Steichen of the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. Editor and publisher of the journal Camera Work (1902-17).

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
American pioneer photographer, a founder of the Photo League.

Mario Testino (b.1954)
Contemporary fashion photographer.

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990)
Chronicler of Jewish culture in Europe.

Jeff Wall (b.1946)
Canadian specialist in staged photography.

Andy Warhol (1928-87)
Pioneer postmosernist film-maker and photographer.

Edward Weston (1886-1958)
American camera artist, leading exponent of Pictorialism.

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984)
Renowned street photographer of the 1960s and 70s.


• For more about lens-based arts, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.
• For the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.

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