The History of Photography

Over the past couple of days I decided to look into the history of photography, who the key personnel were and how it came to be. I found an excellent site, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone else who reads this blog

I decided to jot down a potted history, people and dates, just so I can keep coming back and reminding myself of them. I think it’s useful (and interesting) to know where photography all started. I also intend to pay a visit to Laycock Abbey which is about an hour away from where I live and is the home of the Fox Talbot museum. In this potted history I take it up to the point where dry plates were first produced which I consider to be the grandfather of film.

1825 – Nicéphore Niépce is credited with producing the world’s first ever photograph, called ‘Window at Le Gras’ and is still available to be viewed (do a google search for it). It took 8 hours to produce a very ill-defined image. While his discovery was interesting, for the purposes of Photography it’s largely irrelevant (as nothing which followed continued on from this particular discovery). This may in part be down to his unsuccessful visit to the Royal Society where he wish to present his invention, unfortunately a rule of the society was that no parts of the discovery and invention could be kept secret to the audience and as such he departed back to France sorely disappointed. He did however go on to work with Daguerre until his death in 1833.

1837 – Sir John Fredrick William Herschel discovers that Hyposulphite of Soda could be used as a photographic fixer, that is a substance which can be applied to an image to make it permanent (up to this point Camera Obscura images only appeared while the Camera Obscura was in place). He coined the term ‘Photography’ not realising it had already been coined such by Hercules Florence in 1834 – however it was likely his fame and renown which resulted in the term ‘Photography’ to be taken up and widely accepted. He sent the findings of his experiments to Louis Daguerre and Fox Talbot.

1839 – Louis Daguerre [pronounced Da-gair] discovered by accident the ability to create a latent image from mercury and silver. It wasn’t until he applied the knowledge gained from Herschel though that he was able to fix the image. This process became known as Daguerrotype and was incredibly popular. The benefits of the Daguerrotype images were that they had very good latitude (shadow to highlight range) and reproduced great detail. The downsides were that they were expensive to make, reversed the image (so a portrait would be a mirror image, as indicated by the way buttons are done up in some of the photos), and had a restricted viewing angle (as they were made on highly polished silver backed plates they simply acted as a mirror when looked at straight on). However the single largest drawback was that they were a ‘once only’ process in that the result was a ‘positive’ – i.e. the actual image. There was no negative and so duplicates could not be created (unless two cameras were taking an image at the same time).

1841 – William Fox Talbot [Fox Talbot] At about the same time as Daguerrotypes were discovered a competing process called Calotype came about. The differences between the two processes were considerable. Firstly Calotype developed a negative within the paper it was produced on. This meant that it had lower definition than the sliver plate based, more aesthetically pleasing, Daguerrotype. However Calotype produced a negative which could be reproduced and so the first photographic images which could be printed multiple times was created. Exposures were also less than was needed for Daguerrotype images. The largest drawback for Talbot’s Calotype process though was that he patented it and protected his patent aggressively, charging high fees for its use. Conversely the Daguerrotype process was patented by the French government (everywhere except England, Wales and Ireland where Daguerre himself patented it which limited it’s uptake in those regions) and was granted free use by anyone. This last difference limited the adoption of Calotype and eventually it died when the next advancement came along just a few years later.

1851 – Frederick Scott Archer wanted to find a process which would have the benefits of the fine detail of the Daguerrotype while retaining the Calotype ability for multiple images. The result of this was the first wet plate process, Collodian. His research focused on finding a way to getting a light-sensitive chemical to bind to a glass-plate. That meant coating the glass plate with a binding substance that itself would be clear. What he came up with was, first, egg white (Albumen prints), and then Collodian in 1851. Collodian itself was a relatively new compound discovered in the Crimean War and used to cover wounds to protect them from infection. As the process used a glass-plate the definition of the images was higher than Calotype while a print was only a 10th of the cost to produce compared to Daguerrotype. The icing on the cake was that each plate was a negative thereby allowing multiple prints from one exposure. As the plates were so sensitive to light the exposure times were now just a few seconds, sometimes only a second. This meant for the first time motion was able to be captured in photographs as well as more detail in those subjects which moved (like waves). This really was a watershed in photography. The drawback was that it was a complex development process and because the plates had to be wet when exposed this gave only a few short few minutes for the image to be taken and then developed (once the Collodian started to dry image definition would be lost). The result was that photographers would take Darkroom Caravans with them to a shoot so they could develop instantly. Hardly convenient. Also Collodian is explosive and so perhaps not the best chemical to be bouncing around and taking with you.  The hunt was on then for a dry plate process.

1871 – Dr. Richard Lee Maddox theorised on the use of gelatin on a plates instead of using wet plates and while he didn’t put this into practice himself he is rightly credited with coming up with the idea that would allow dry plates to be produced.

1878Charles Bennett credited with being the first person to mass produce Dry Plates for photographers. This process was revolutionary. No longer would portable darkrooms be needed, it was still very sensitive to light keeping the faster exposure times, it became the first process that introduced standardisation and quality, it allowed for the introduction of some new and often, novel, cameras.


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