Early History of Photography
The word photography, which is derived from the Greek words for light and
writing, was first used by Sir John Herschel in 1839, the year the invention of
the photographic process was made public. During the previous decades perhaps as
many as ten individuals had tried to make a photograph. At least four were
successful: Joseph Nicephore NIEPCE, Louis J. M. DAGUERRE, and Hippolyte BAYARD
in France, and William Henry TALBOT in England. Each of them employed two
scientific techniques that had been known for some time but had never before
been successfully combined.
The first of these techniques was optical. Since the 16th century artists
and scientists had made use of the fact that light passing through a small hole
in one wall of a dark room, or CAMERA OBSCURA, projects an inverted image on the
opposite wall. The hole was soon replaced with a lens, which made the image
brighter and sharper. By the 18th century the room had been replaced by a
portable box, which artists used as a sketching aid. The second technique was
chemical. In 1727, Johann Heinrich Schulze had discovered that certain
chemicals, especially silver halides, turn dark when exposed to light. The first
attempt to use such chemicals to record the image of the camera obscura was
made--unsuccessfully--by Thomas WEDGWOOD about 1800.
Daguerre's invention, which was bought by the French government and made public
on Aug. 19, 1839, produced a one-of-a-kind picture on metal, the DAGUERREOTYPE.
In contrast, Talbot's invention (1840), the CALOTYPE, produced a negative
picture on paper; the lights of the image were recorded as darks, the darks as
lights. A positive was made on another sheet of chemically sensitized paper,
exposed to light through the negative. Because an infinite number of positives
could be made from a single negative, Talbot's invention and refinements of it
soon predominated. The photograph's capacity to repeat itself exactly and
infinitely through the negative-to-positive process was one side of its radical
character. The other, of course, was its privileged status as a picture created
by nature alone, free from the inevitable distortions of handmade
The ever-increasing ease with which photography precisely recorded visual
information and distributed it worldwide made it the most powerful tool of
communication since the invention of the printing press. Early theories of
photography stressed its mechanical nature. To some, this nature excluded the
personal intervention that was the stamp of art; to others, photography's
potential signaled the demise of painting. Neither view prevailed. Painters
continued to paint and photographers proliferated; at best, everyone agreed that
the new invention was useful.
THE PIONEERING DAYS
If photography baffled the theoretician, it welcomed the practitioner. Arcane
and mysterious by today's standards, early processes were nevertheless easy
enough to learn, and the medium spread rapidly throughout Europe and America.
Photography appealed to a few professional scientists and artists, but most
early photographers were undistinguished--artisans, handymen of all sorts, and,
like several of the inventors, versatile amateurs. These individuals shared
neither a common tradition nor a uniform intention. Only in the 20th century did
an approximate consensus--or even a coherent argument--emerge about the past
achievements and future goals of photography.
Because early photographers were largely unfettered by academic convention or
demand for a uniform commercial product, the first two decades of photography
were rich in pictorial experiment. Among the inventors, Talbot and Bayard were
especially sensitive to the beauty of the new medium. Their loving records of
often humble subjects announced photography's aptitude for the intimate,
Some of the best early photographers had been trained as artists; none were
important artists, however, and many had a talent with the camera that they
lacked with the brush. In the 1840s, D. O. Hill and Robert Adamson (see HILL, D.
O., AND ADAMSON, ROBERT) made photographic portraits as studies for a large
group portrait that Hill finished painting 20 years later. The painting is an
awkward failure; the photographs, however, possess a grandeur that
recalls--without copying--portraits by old masters. It was as if the training
and talent of the painter could only be released in a practical struggle with
the camera, the light of the day, and the mood of the sitter.
The intuition of Hill and Adamson was shared by an impressive group of
French photographers of the 1850s, among them Gustave LE GRAY, Charles MARVILLE,
Charles NEGRE, E. D. Baldus (b. 1820), and Henri Le Secq (1818-82). Several of
these men were, like Hill, painters, and they brought the conviction of art to
their work and to their SOCIETE FRANCAISE DE PHOTOGRAPHIE.
They frequently photographed important places and historic monuments,
sometimes for the government, but this work was not separate from their private
experiments. Their pictures preserve the adventurous spirit of early photography
before it became both an art and a business. Although some of them were artists,
the French primitives (as they are often called) gave up their professions, if
not their ambition, when they took up the camera. In this sense, they were
Even after the medium began to be dominated by professionals in the 1860s, many
of the most inventive 19th-century photographers were amateurs. Perhaps the best
of them was Julia Margaret CAMERON, who made intense portraits of her friends,
many of whom were eminent Victorians. Cameron also composed photographic
tableaux in which real people were transformed into characters from Alfred, Lord
Tennyson's Idylls of the King. In their own day, these pictures were admired as
idiosyncratic productions; today they are appreciated as precocious examples of
photography's responsiveness to fantasy and fiction.
The amateurs may be contrasted with photographers such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander
and Henry Peach ROBINSON, who attempted to challenge painting on its own ground.
In England in the 1850s they turned out labored but technically accomplished
versions of successful genre paintings, pieced together from as many as a dozen
different negatives. These hackneyed failures doubtless encouraged the enemies
of photographic art. They may also have benefited the commercial photographers,
who recognized (for the time being) that artistic aspiration had no place in
their work and went on to make practical--and original--pictures.
IMPACT OF MASS PRODUCTION METHODS
After 1851, when Frederick Scott ARCHER's process substituted glass for Talbot's
paper negative, the mass production of ALBUMEN PRINTS of extremely fine detail
became possible. Until the 1880s this was the medium of the great commercial
firms, which fed an enormous popular demand for portraits and for views of
famous monuments or strange places. The majority of 19th-century photographs
fall into these two categories.
Initially at least, portrait and view photographers adopted the pictorial
conventions and commercial markets that had been established by painters and
printmakers. The low cost of their product and the large scale of their
operations, however, changed the meaning of these traditions. By the mid-1850s,
when Andre Adolphe Eugene DISDERI popularized the small, cheap portrait, anyone
could afford a picture of himself or herself.