The art of photography has become one of the most well known and most admired art forms of our time. It is also, for better or worse, the most accessible. But as is the case with any art form, to get from where things began to the present is nothing less than a long and winding road. So what exactly is the history of photography?
Table of Contents
Before we start…
It is important to cover several aspects of the history of photography to provide you with a genuinely complete photography record. They include:
- The principal uses of photography at various points in time
- The key players in the enhancement of the form
- The part photography played in significant historical events
- The technological advancements that lead to today’s cameras
But even to best discuss these things, it’s best to take it one century – sometimes even one decade – at a time. So, let’s climb inside the time machine and head on back. Our first stop: the sixteenth century.
1500s – 1700s: Da Vinci, Kepler, Schulze, and Camera Obscura
When was photography invented? Believe it or not, in the history of photography the foundations were laid for photography practice even earlier than this, as early as 500 BC in China.
Despite the name, camera obscura doesn’t refer to the instrument that we know as a camera today. Instead, that phrase is Latin for “dark chamber” and was essentially that. A dark room with a small amount of light allowed in. Just enough to project an image onto a wall so that the image might be traced.
When did photography start?
While the initial practice of camera obscura involved only a pinhole of light, by the early 1500s, renowned inventor Leonardo Da Vinci drew diagrams of projectors for this purpose, incorporating not only the pinhole method but also lenses to help reflect light.
Just a century later, astronomer Johannes Kepler applied the same principle of using lenses to project images of the stars he studied onto paper. He first used the term “photograph“, Latin for “light” and “to draw.” This method is what Da Vinci, Kepler, and their contemporaries sought, to draw with light.
But they still had a problem – their images weren’t particularly stark, nor were they long-lasting. Enter Johann Henrich Schulze, who, in 1717, discovered that a silver nitrate solution would darken when exposed to light. The trick was getting it to stop and permanently affix the image.
Indeed, in the earliest years of light image experimentation, it seems as though photography was every bit a science as it was an art. And it would remain such in the coming years but would be continually developed.
1827-1840: Niépce and Louis Daguerre
Artists and astronomers alike struggled to perfect this medium for years until Nicéphore Niépce brought it a step closer in 1827. He took an engraving and slathered it with chemicals such as bitumen, a sort of asphalt, and exposed it to light.
He found that it was more sensitive to the light than many of the compounds and combinations other people had used up to that point. But it was sensitive and quick to fade even then. That’s even more of a shame when you consider that the engravings’ treating process took Niépce eight whole hours to complete. Imagine slaving over a process for most of your day only to have it fade away.
The next important milestone in the history of photography happened in 1839, Louis Daguerre finally cracked the problem, bringing the overall processing time down to roughly thirty minutes.
His process was thus. The image would be projected onto a sheet of copper that was plated with silver. Iodine was added to make the image light-sensitive, and then the image was exposed to light for a few minutes. A final rinse of silver chloride would make the image permanent.
This method took its creator’s name: the Daguerreotype. It caught on quickly. Within a decade, there would be more than fifty different Daguerreotype studios in New York City alone. Even more useful than being housed in studio space, the equipment could be taken anywhere and be operated by nearly anyone who could afford the equipment and put in the work.
1848-1865: the birth of photojournalism and photographs as political art
With the birth of the portable camera, photos became a regular part of the news cycle. Whereas before papers would run illustrations drawn or painted by hand, a more solidified photography process allowed actual photographs to replace those drawings. This process added a new element of realism and humanity to the news. Suddenly, photographers became war correspondents, covering everything from the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856 and the United States Civil War of 1861 to 1865.
Some of the most famous photographs in the history of photography were taken of a conflict.
Not only did black and white portrait photography add humanity to soldiers on the battlefield, but they added a sense of humanity to a country’s political leaders. Rather than only posing for painted portraits, Presidents like Abraham Lincoln posed for portrait photographs, allowing people to have a ‘warts and all’ look at their leaders.
1835-1888: Eastman and the development of film
While photographers used metal plates to capture the news and beyond, the search was on for a less expensive, more user-friendly image translating device. What would become rolls of film as we know it today, Henry Talbot spread a gelatin mix onto paper. The technique was refined, and in 1887, sheets of film were distributed, either by the roll or by individual sheets.
The advent of the modern film camera was George Eastman’s brainchild. An American entrepreneur, he was one of the key figures in the history of photography. He used the newly developed film technique and an individual camera and turned this art form from a high calling into a fun hobby.
History of photography in the twentieth century and beyond
Eastman’s marketing of the camera as a device for use by the amateur photographers opened the door for today’s modern camera equipment and even smartphone photographers. So whilst it wasn’t him who invented photography, George Eastman through his company (Kodak Eastman) played a significant role in bringing photography to the masses.
1900-1970: documenting social change
Photography came of age at the perfect time. Seventy years laden with conflict and civil change. This era gave rise to the practice of documentary photography.
The photojournalism of the nineteenth century brought significant events like battles to the public eye. Documentary photography put the common man in the spotlight, but even then, for a more substantial cause.
Photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine sought to tell the story of child labourers in East Coast factories and tenants in the slums of New York City. These photos were published in leaflets that would be distributed and used to help bring perspective on the issues they raised and eventually bring about reform and regulation.
In the 1930s, the United States Government utilized the documentary photographer to help document and promote the aide programs that had been put in place to help people secure employment amid the Great Depression. But for every official in a suit whose official photos a camera operator might have captured on those trips, countless more everyday people found themselves subjects.
While the uses of photography were evolving, the technology was also changing. The 35-millimetre film was developed to capture moving pictures. This would eventually lend itself to a burgeoning cinematic industry.
In the early 1940s, scientist Edwin Land broke new ground with the invention of the Polaroid instant camera. Where the old methods of photography processing had taken upwards of eight hours, eventually trimming down to thirty minutes, the Polaroid Land Camera processed the image in sixty seconds. When released to the public in 1948, it was a great success, particularly amongst studio photographers who needed to test lighting and angles before setting up their actual shots.
1960s photography history
The history of color photography timeline began in the early 1960s, colour photography was coming into its own when Polaroid developed instant colour film. The advent of colour photographs would bring a whole new level of depth to the use of photography of any sort. Whether it was photojournalism that would capture the Vietnam war or the pieces that would hang in photo galleries to be displayed as art. These photographs would become some of the most important pieces in documenting our world.
1980-1999: Let’s Get Digital
Along with the older millennial generation came an emphasis on the use of the digital camera. Most of these cameras were point and shoot cameras, and the first digital video camera was put forth by Sony in 1980. Using digital cameras to capture movement enabled a whole new generation of documentary photographers, except this time, they captured motion, not just still images.
Digital photography, either still or in motion, would be used to bring coverage and perspective to a whole new generation of social issues, including the AIDS crisis. Photographs in magazines and interviews on TV helped a frightened public understand things they previously couldn’t.
To that end, the modern age of photography had proven to be somewhat cyclical. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was used to bring perspective and coverage to the plights of various groups of people, and now once again in the 1990s. The only difference is how clearly the image was rendered.
In 1999, the Kyocera Corporation put out the VP-210 Visual Phone, the first-ever cell phone to come with a built-in camera that would record both still photos and videos. The virtual phone undoubtedly helped usher in the current age of cell phone photography but at a particular cost.
2000-2021: a camera in your pocket and revenge of the polaroid
Children of the 1980s and 1990s may retain and cherish memories of going with their parents to pick up photos after the rolls of film had been developed. You always remember the phrase “don’ play with the negatives”. The advent of digital cameras that are connected to the computer and phones with cameras that can transfer photos via the cloud seemed to have killed this process for good.
This is where we are today: Each iPhone or Android claims to boast a better camera than its predecessor, allowing users to do everything from setting up portrait style shots to slow-motion video with the swipe of a finger or the tap of a button on the screen. Instant gratification, endless portability, and the ability to upload photos to social media without using a scanner have genuinely changed the game.
Smartphone cameras have by no means eradicated the traditional cameras. Still, short of people who make a living as professional photographers, they seem to be falling more and more out of style.
However, within the last year or two, the Polaroid instant camera, and other models like it, have seen something of a resurgence in popularity and availability. If the types of cameras used are as cyclical as the reasons they are used, one must wonder how long it might be before we start working backwards to tintype photography under the label of vintage.
Or on the other hand, how long until technology advances (like for example aerial photography and drone photography) so far that traditional photography is classified as a dying art?
The probability of either scenario isn’t wholly unlikely.
Whether its the history of portrait photography, the history of aerial photography or even smartphone photography, it all stemmed from those early visionaries who created the first pinhole cameras with a long exposure time. Now we can take photos like never before and process and upload them in seconds.
So if you have ever asked “what is the history of photography?”, then hopefully you have enjoyed this article.
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Kav Dadfar is a writer and photographer who has written over 500 articles on photography. He is also a judge on the Wanderlust Travel Photography of the Year competition and a speaker at camera clubs and events. He has years of experience shooting assignments with his images having been used by some of the biggest brands in the world.
This history of photography timeline article is subject to copyright. Words and photos by Kav Dadfar (That Wild Idea) or otherwise recognized. Copying or reposting of photos or article elsewhere is strictly forbidden.