An Illustrated History of Photography

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Pictures of a Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura
Camera Obscura. LOC

An illustrated tour of how photography has advanced through the ages.

Photography" is derived from the Greek words photos ("light") and graphein ("to draw") The word was first used by the scientist Sir John F.W. Herschel in 1839. It is a method of recording images by the action of light, or related radiation, on a sensitive material.

Alhazen (Ibn Al-Haytham), a great authority on optics in the Middle Ages who lived around 1000AD, invented the first pinhole camera, (also called the Camera Obscura} and was able to explain why the images were upside down.

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Illustration of Camera Obscura in Use

Illustration of camera obscura from "Sketchbook on military art
Illustration of camera obscura from "Sketchbook on military art, including geometry, fortifications, artillery, mechanics, and pyrotechnics". LOC

Illustration of Camera Obscura in use from the "Sketchbook on military art, including geometry, fortifications, artillery, mechanics, and pyrotechnics"

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Joseph Nicephore Niepce's Heliograph Photography

The oldest known photograph in the world
Simulation of the oldest known photograph in the world. The oldest known photograph in the world of a 17th century Flemish engraving, made by the French inventor Nicephore Niepce in 1825, with an heliography technical process. LOC

Joseph Nicephore Niepce's heliographs or sun prints as they were called were the prototype for the modern photograph.

In 1827, Joseph Nicephore Niepce made the first known photographic image using the camera obscura. The camera obscura was a tool used by artists to draw.

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Daguerreotype taken by Louis Daguerre

Boulevard du Temple, Paris - Daguerreotype taken by Louis Daguerre.
Boulevard du Temple, Paris Boulevard du Temple, Paris - Daguerreotype taken by Louis Daguerre. Louis Daguerre circa 1838/39
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Daguerreotype Portrait of Louis Daguerre 1844

Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot
Daguerreotype Portrait of Louis Daguerre. Photographer Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot 1844
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First American Daguerreotype - Robert Cornelius Self-Portrait

Robert Cornelius Self-Portrait Approximate quarter-plate daguerreotype, 1839
First American Daguerreotype Robert Cornelius Self-Portrait Approximate quarter-plate daguerreotype, 1839. Robert Cornelius

Robert Cornelius's self-portrait is one of the first.

After several years of experimentation, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre developed a more convenient and effective method of photography, naming it after himself - the daguerreotype. In 1839, he and Niépce's son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government and published a booklet describing the process. He was able to reduce the exposure time to less than 30 minutes and keep the image from disappearing… ushering in the age of modern photography.

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Daguerreotype - Portrait of Samuel Morse

Daguerreotype - Samuel Morse
Daguerreotype - Portrait of Samuel Morse. Mathew B Brady

This head-and-shoulders portrait of Samuel Morse is a daguerreotype made between 1844 and 1860 from the studio of Mathew B Brady. Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, was also considered one of the finest portrait painters of the Romantic Style in America, had studied art in Paris, where he met Louis Daguerre inventor of the daguerreotype. Upon returning to the U.S., Morse set up his own photographic studio in New York. He was among the first in America to make portraits using the new daguerreotype method.

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Daguerreotype Photograph 1844

Example of a Daguerreotype Photograph
The General Post Office Washington, D.C. Example of a Daguerreotype Photograph. Library of Congress Daguerréotype Collection - John Plumbe Photographer
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Daguerreotype - Key West Florida 1849

Portrait of Mauma Mollie
Portrait of Mauma Mollie. Florida State Archives

The daguerreotype was the earliest practical photographic process, and was especially suited to portraiture. It was made by exposing the image on a sensitized silver-plated sheet of copper, and as a result, the surface of a daguerreotype is highly reflective. There is no negative used in this process, and the image is almost always reversed left to right. Sometimes a mirror inside the camera was used to correct this reversal.

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Daguerreotype - Photograph of Confederate Dead 1862

Example of Daguerreotype Photograph
Example of Daguerreotype Photograph. (National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection. Alexander Gardner, 1862)

Confederate dead lying east of the Dunker Church, Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

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Daguerreotype Photograph - Mount of the Holy Cross 1874

Example of a Daguerreotype Photograph
Example of a Daguerreotype Photograph. National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection - William Henry Jackson 1874
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Example of an Ambrotype - Unidentified Florida Soldier

Ambrotype,Daguerreotype,photography,wet plate
Period of Use 1851 - 1880s Ambrotype. Florida State Archives

Popularity of the daguerreotype declined in the late 1850s when the ambrotype, a faster and less expensive photographic process, became available.

The ambrotype is an early variation of the wet collodion process. The ambrotype was made by slightly underexposing a glass wet plate in the camera. The finished plate produced a negative image that appeared positive when backed with velvet, paper, metal or varnish.

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The Calotype Process

The Calotype Process
The oldest photographic negative in existence Window in the South Gallery of Lacock Abbey made from the oldest photographic negative in existence. Henry Fox Talbot 1835

The inventor of the first negative from which multiple postive prints were made was Henry Fox Talbot.

Talbot sensitized paper to light with a silver salt solution. He then exposed the paper to light. The background became black, and the subject was rendered in gradations of grey. This was a negative image, and from the paper negative, photographers could duplicate the image as many times as they wanted.

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Tintype Photography

Members of the 75th Ohio Infantry in Jacksonville
The tintype photograpy process was patented in 1856 by Hamilton Smith. Tintype Photograph of Members of the 75th Ohio Infantry in Jacksonville. Florida State Archives

Daguerreotypes and tintypes were one of a kind images and the image was almost always reversed left to right.

A thin sheet of iron was used to provide a base for light-sensitive material, yielding a positive image. Tintypes are a variation of the collodion wet plate process. The emulsion is painted onto a japanned (varnished) iron plate, which is exposed in the camera. The low cost and durability of tintypes, coupled with the growing number of traveling photographers, enhanced the tintype’s popularity.

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Glass Negatives & The Collodion Wet Plate

Glass Negatives: the Collodion Wet Plate
1851 - 1880's Glass Negatives: the Collodion Wet Plate. State Archives of Florida

The glass negative was sharp and the prints made from it produced fine detail. The photographer could also produce several prints from one negative.

In 1851, Frederick Scoff Archer, an English sculptor, invented the wet plate. Using a viscous solution of collodion, he coated glass with light-sensitive silver salts. Because it was glass and not paper, this wet plate created a more stable and detailed negative.

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Example of a Wet Plate Photograph

Example of a Wet Plate Photograph
Example of a Wet Plate Photograph. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

This photograph shows a typical field setup of the Civil War era. The wagon carried chemicals, glass plates, and negatives - the buggy used as a field darkroom.

Before a reliable, dry-plate process was invented (ca. 1879) photographers had to develop negatives quickly before the emulsion dried. Producing photographs from wet plates involved many steps. A clean sheet of glass was evenly coated with collodion. In a darkroom or a light-tight chamber, the coated plate was immersed in a silver nitrate solution, sensitizing it to light. After it was sensitized, the wet negative was placed in a light-tight holder and inserted into the camera, which already had been positioned and focused. The "dark slide," which protected the negative from light, and the lens cap were removed for several seconds, allowing light to expose the plate. The "dark slide" was inserted back into the plate holder, which was then removed from the camera. In the darkroom, the glass plate negative was removed from the plate holder and developed, washed in water, and fixed so that the image would not fade, then washed again and dried. Usually the negatives were coated with a varnish to protect the surface. After development, the photographs were printed on paper and mounted.

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Photograph Using the Dry Plate Process

Example of a Dry Plate Photograph
Made from Glass Negatives and Gelatine Dry Plate Example of a Dry Plate Photograph. Leonard Dakin 1887

Gelatine dry plates were usable when dry and needed less exposure to light than the wet plates.

In 1879, the dry plate was invented, a glass negative plate with a dried gelatin emulsion. Dry plates could be stored for a period of time. Photographers no longer needed portable darkrooms and could now hire technicians to develop their photographs. Dry processes absorbed light quickly and so rapidly that the hand-held camera was now possible.

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The Magic Lantern - Example of a Lantern Slide aka Hyalotype

The Magic Lantern - Lantern Slide
The Magic Lantern was the forerunner of the modern slide projector. The Magic Lantern - Lantern Slide. Florida State Archives

Magic Lantern's reached their popularity about 1900, but continued to be widely used until they were gradually replaced 35mm slides.

Produced to be viewed with a projector, lantern slides were both popular home entertainment and an accompaniment to speakers on the lecture circuit. The practice of projecting images from glass plates began centuries before the invention of photography. However, in the 1840s, Philadelphia daguerreotypists, William and Frederick Langenheim, began experimenting with The Magic Lantern as an apparatus for displaying their photographic images. The Langenheims were able to create a transparent positive image, suitable for projection. The brothers patented their invention in 1850 and called it a Hyalotype (hyalo is the Greek word for glass). The following year they received a medal at the Crystal Palace Exposition in London.

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Print Using Nitrocellulose Film

Prints of Nitrocellulose Film
Walter Holmes looking up towards entrance of Saber-Tooth Cave from deeper part of cave. Florida State Archive

Nitrocellulose was used to make the first flexible and transparent film. The process was developed by the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin in 1887, and introduced by the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company in 1889. The film's ease of use combined with intense marketing by Eastman-Kodak made photography increasingly accessible to amateurs.

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Bellis, Mary. "An Illustrated History of Photography." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). An Illustrated History of Photography. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "An Illustrated History of Photography." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).