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From Ancient times to the 1850s
Photography. Definition: The art of capturing time and creating an immortal instant. Can you imagine a time where paintings took the place of portraits, and your memories could only be accessed by your mind? Today, it seems like photography is everywhere; it’s not even limited to Earth.
The first surviving photograph (at left) was taken in the year 1826 by the French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niepce. He called it “View from the Window at Le Gras”, and captured it over the course of several hours. It was achieved using a sheet of pewter and a light-sensitive substance called bitumen, which was dissolved in lavender oil and coated in a thin layer over the pewter. The amount of light exposure made the bitumen harden to different extents, and the hardened areas represented the light areas of the “photograph” while the areas of bare pewter represented the darker areas. This immensely complicated process resulted in the first surviving photograph, but if we really want to get to the core of photography’s origins, we need to dive even further into the past; as far back, in fact, as the fourth century BCE.
While we won’t find any long-lost selfies of ancient emperors, the fourth-century BCE is when the camera obscura was first documented. This natural phenomenon can project a reversed image onto an opposite surface; all that it requires is a darkened room (or box, or tent) where there is a small hole or lens in the side. This technology has not been lost, and there are plenty of tutorials to be found on how to create your own (just ask Google!).
Early on, the camera obscura was mostly used to help with the study of astronomy and optics, and was also quite useful when watching an eclipse (in order to avoid blindness) or for artists to trace their subjects in perfect perspective (from the 17th century, portable camera obscura boxes were popular among artists). The camera obscura did not create a permanent “photograph”, but rather only a projection; however, this inspired future inventions.
Later, circa. 1717, Johann Heinrich Schulze conducted experiments to “capture shadows”. He created a mixture of chalk, silver and nitric acid, and discovered that this mixture would darken when exposed to light, but not, interestingly, when exposed to fire. Putting cutouts of letters into a bottle filled with this mixture, he exposed it to sunlight and thus copied the text; the images however, did not last, as further sunlight exposure or a simple shake of the bottle quickly erased them. Would you consider these momentary, fluid images as photographs? If so, perhaps we can credit Schulze as photography’s earliest inventor.
Four more scientists made notable discoveries before Niépce: they were Carl Wilhelm Sheele, Thomas Wedgwood, Humphry Davy and Jacques Charles.
Sheele was first, in 1777. He experimented with silver nitrate and discovered that ammonia would dissolve the nitrate but not the darker particles; a discovery of great potential, as it could have been used to fix the images that were caught in silver nitrate. However, this discovery was apparently looked over by future scientists.
Wedgwood may have been the very first scientist to try and create permanent photographs, and he too used silver nitrate as his light-sensitive material of choice. His initial experiments trying to utilize the camera obscura proved unsuccessful, but he did manage to copy images of shadows and even plates onto paper as well as white leather that had been soaked with silver nitrate. He apparently did not continue these experiments to any great extent, as his health was failing, and he died at the ae of 34 in 1805.
Davy described Wedgwood’s methods in a scientific journal in 1802. He speculated as to the existence of a fixer that could potentially deactivate unexposed silver nitrate particles (he seems to not have been aware of Sheele’s discovery) but did not continue the experiments.
Charles, perhaps even prior to Wedgewood,captured negative images of silhouettes onto light-sensitive paper.He did not document his process before his death but did deliver lectures on the subject, although these were not made public; it was only much later, in 1839, when a new and much more successful method of photography was developed, that Charles’s discoveries were credited.
Now back to Niépce, who died in 1833 and left his notes to Lois Daguerre, a fellow scientist. Daguerre focused on silver salts, and created the photographic process known as the daguerreotype. Step one of the daguerreotype was to expose a copper plate, thinly coated with silver, to the vapor of iodine crystals in order to create a light-sensitive coat of iodide; step two was exposing the plate in the camera; step three was the develop the image with mercury vapor; step four was using heated salt water to remove unaffected silver iodide (a more effective solution was created later, thanks to Henry Fox Talbot, an inventor who would later patent his own method known as the calotype process). Exposure time for this process was very long, but the next few years saw it rapidly decrease with the use of better chemicals and lenses.
This was not available for the public until August, 1839, when complete instructions were given. This process remained the most common process all the way until the 1850s, although many improvements were made in the meantime.
One interesting phenomenon in these early photographs is that often, even when it was a photo of a busy street, no or minimal horses or people are seen. This owes itself to the long expose times; a passing carriage was often not there long enough to be captured, and thus many streets are deceivingly empty.
The collodion process went on to replace the daguerreotype process. It was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer and sported two significant advantages: it could be replicated (it was produced on transparent glass) and it was very sharp and clear.
Throughout all this time, scientists were not the only people doing groundbreaking things in photography. The photographers themselves- as well as those who were both scientists and photographers- were also doing something immensely valuable; namely, they were documenting the past. These were photographers such as Robert Cornelius, who in 1839 took the first ever portrait; Mary Dillwyn of Wales, who took daily-life photographs of women and children; or Roger Fenton, who documented so much of the Crimean war.