Basic History of Photography

Where did it all start?

The course in photography that I created for my students a few years ago included a brief history of photography. So here I present that short lesson. I encourage you to do your own research to learn about the exciting history of photography.

You’re looking at the first photo ever taken. This photo was taken in 1826 or 1827 and the exposure time was 8 hours! Which explains the shadows going in two different directions.

Nicéphore Niépce, an amateur inventor living near Paris, was interested in lithography. He was not artistically trained, but he devised a method by which light could draw the pictures he needed. He oiled an engraving and then placed it on a plate coated with a light-sensitive solution of a type of asphalt and lavender oil and exposed the setup to sunlight. After a few hours, the solution under the light areas of the engraving hardened, while those under the dark areas remained soft and could be washed away, leaving a permanent, accurate copy of the engraving. Calling the process heliography (“sun drawing”), Niépce succeeded from 1822 onward in copying oiled engravings onto lithographic stone, glass, and zinc and from 1826 onto pewter plates.

In 1826/27, using a camera obscura fitted with a pewter plate, Niépce produced the first successful photograph of nature, a view of the courtyard of his country estate, Gras, from an upper window of the house.

Still Life, daguerreotype by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, 1837; in the collection of the Société Française de Photographie, Paris.
This photo was only created only ten years after the first one. Do you see the difference?

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre

A partnership between Daguerre and Niépce was formed in 1829 but Daguerre’s interest was in shortening the exposure time necessary to obtain an image of the real world, while Niépce remained interested in producing reproducible engraving plates. It appears that by 1835, three years after Niépce’s death, Daguerre had discovered that a latent image forms on a plate of iodized silver and that it can be “developed” and made visible by exposure to mercury vapor, which settles on the exposed parts of the image. Exposure times could thus be reduced from eight hours to 30 minutes. The results were not permanent, however; when the developed picture was exposed to light, the unexposed areas of silver darkened until the image was no longer visible.
By 1837 Daguerre was able to fix the image permanently by using a solution of table salt to dissolve the unexposed silver iodide. That year he produced a photograph of his studio on a silvered copper plate, a photograph that was remarkable for its fidelity and detail. Also that year, Niépce’s son Isidore signed an agreement with Daguerre affirming Daguerre as the inventor of a new process, “the daguerreotype.”

In the late 1840s every city in the United States had its own “Daguerrean artist,” and villages and towns were served by traveling photographers who had fitted up wagons as studios. In New York City alone there were 77 galleries in 1850. Of these, the most celebrated was that of Mathew B. Brady, who began in 1844 to form a “Gallery of Illustrious Americans,” a collection of portraits of notables taken by his own and other cameramen. 

This is an amazingly fast adoption of new technology for a time when there was no email or internet. The first daguerreotype was taken in 1837 and by 1840 the technology is worldwide.

This is the beginning of black-and-white photography.