Unraveling the History of Photography

August 11, 2016

The history of photography cannot be told without explaining the two crucial moments that determined its development.

The first was the discovery of camera obscura[1], and the second (literally second, since it happened much later) was the observation that some substances change their appearance when exposed to light.

The term itself comes from two pertinent words combined: photo comes from the Greek word phos (photos in genitive), meaning light, and graphe is another Greek word that means drawing or writing.

It was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel, who was an important contributor to the development of the discipline himself.

An image of the New Royal Palace at Prague Castle projected onto an attic wall by a hole in the tile roofing

Camera Obscura

The camera obscura phenomenon was revealed quite early, since a similar occurrence has been described by Plato and even found in some writings of a Chinese philosopher Mozi in the 5th century BC. Still, the first person to explain the occurrence in detail and with clarity was Leonardo da Vinci in his Codex Atlanticus from 1502[2], in which he states that “If the facade of a building, or a place, or a landscape is illuminated by the sun and a small hole is drilled in the wall of a room in a building facing this, which is not directly lighted by the sun, then all objects illuminated by the sun will send their imagery through this aperture and will appear, upside down, on the wall facing the hole“. Da Vinci also suggests that these pictures can be “caught” on a piece of white paper placed “not far from that opening”. The described process is the foundation for the creation of a photographic image, although the inventions that kept the projected image in a more permanent form came a few centuries later.

the new age brought new way of creating a photo on european and american soil alike
Louis Daguerre - Shells and Fossils, 1839

The Development of Chemical Photography

While today we can talk about photographs as an art form, back in its earliest days it was practically considered a science, therefore its inventors and developers were mostly men working in the fields of physics and chemistry. The first important discovery was the effect of silver nitrate on paper - in 1614, Italian chemist Angelo Sala[3] demonstrated that sheets powdered with the substance can be blackened by the sun, although such action had no practical application at that time. Some hundred years later, German scientist Johann Heinrich Schulze got the same result by accident, realising that objects put in between a source of light (the sun) and the chemical appear imprinted on it. Thomas Wedgwood tried capturing pictures on pieces of leather, calling them “sun images” – however, they faded rapidly and could not be saved permanently. However, his actions were a passage to the first successful attempt to capture an image that would not fade away - one by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, after 10 long years of working with camera obscura and photosensitive materials.

this was the first photo made with light in the new age
Thomas Wedgwood's first "Sun images", taken in the 18th century

The Great Inventors - Niépce and Daguerre

To create the world’s oldest surviving permanent photograph was indeed a work of chemistry and creativity. Niépce used a polished sheet of pewter and a coating of bitumen, along with petroleum tar dissolved in lavender oil. After an exposure that would last for days, layers of bitumen would be removed to reveal the unexposed, light parts of the positive image, while pewter would hold the exposed, dark regions.The bitumen process was further refined by Niépce and Louis Daguerre until 1833, when Niépce died and Daguerre continued the practice on his own. He then began exploring the silver-based processes again, until he finally discovered that pictures could be developed to full visibility using mercury fumes, with less exposure time too, directly onto the silver plates that were fumed with iodine vapor to produce silver iodide. The image was then stabilized or “fixed” using hot solution of common salt, which removed the remaining silver iodide. Daguerre’s eureka was presented to the French Academy of Sciences and subsequently to the world in 1839, the year that is considered today as pivotal in the history of photography.

the earliest photo ever made introduced a new era in arts
Enhanced version of Nièpce's View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 1827), the earliest surviving photograph of a real-world scene, made using a camera obscura

Exploring the Process

Interestingly enough, there were a few other inventors who managed to establish successful processes of their own. William Henry Fox Talbot, for instance, introduced hyposulfite of soda as an even better “fixer” than hot salt water, something that Daguerre too adopted later. Talbot also invented the calotype process which reduced exposure time to just a few minutes and enabled the creation of large number of positive prints by simple contact printing, which was not possible with the daguerreotypes. Talbot, together with other inventors of the time such as Hippolyte Bayard, Janez Puhar and Niépce’s own cousin, Niépce St. Victor, had also contributed to the development of photography, although they remained largely unrecognised mainly because Daguerre introduced his method first. The experimenting with photographic processes continued throughout the 19th century, resulting in numerous emulsions for the development and the fixing and lawsuits over infringement. While Frederick Scott Archer and Gustave Le Gray almost simultaneously invented the collodion process in 1851, which involved wet plates and a portable dark room, Herbert Bowyer Berkeley worked on the developers that, in the end, contained pyrogallol, sulfite and citric acid, further contributing to the stability of the prints. In 1871, Richard Leach Maddox invented the gelatine dry plate, which meant smaller cameras and no tripods necessary.

on the list of successful artists, Fox Talbot certainly is on a high spot
William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864

Towards the Kodak Film

With each step, photography gained on simplicity, thus becoming available to more interested users. A little over a decade after it was invented, photography began proving to be more than just a mere product of a mechanical machine and chemical processes. In the midst of the industrial revolution, the demand for portraiture increased among the members of the middle class, and photographs offered a cheaper, faster solutions than, say, oil painting. In particular, the daguerreotypes, named after their inventor, became quite popular, bearing images of urban and natural landscapes and portraits of people. However, as daguerreotypes were fragile and difficult to copy, photographers turned to Talbot’s way of bulk copying. Another great discovery, one that would become and stay groundbreaking all the way until the digital age, was the introduction of roll film in 1884, when George Eastman developed dry gel on paper to replace the photographic plate and release the photographers from carrying boxes of plates and toxic chemicals everywhere they go. It was the year 1888 when Eastman’s very first hand-held Kodak camera containing the film went on the market and became available to practically everyone.

The first Kodak camera, introduced in 1888, loaded with enough Eastman film for 100 exposures

The Magic of Color, The Evolution of the Photograph

Naturally, one of the biggest milestones in photography history is turning the black and white world into a colorful one, in order to fulfil the quest of capturing reality the way it actually is. This was sought from the very beginning, although it wasn’t until Thomas Sutton’s first color photo in 1861 that this was achieved. To do it, he followed the method proposed by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and took a set of three black and white photographs through red, green and blue color filters, which he then showed by using three projectors with similar filters. His results were quickly forgotten as the photographic emulsions at the time were insensitive to most of the color spectrum, but this only lasted until 1873 when Hermann Wilhelm Vogel turned this fact around. By the end of the 19th century, color photographs were practically an established matter thanks to the Lumière brothers, who invented the Autochrome plate process.[4] Based on the ideas by Louis Ducos du Hauron, which proposed taking three separate photographs through color filters, they took only one through a mosaic of tiny color filters, overlaid on the emulsion, and showed the results through another such mosaic.

The Autochrome plates contained roughly five million previously dyed potato grains per square inch, pressured and flattened in order to be able to absorb color and create the illusion that the reds, blues and greens are merged together. These plates were then coated in silver bromide so they could capture the light. Producing the positive image from the negative consisted of reversal processing, in which each plate was developed into a transparent positive that could be viewed directly or projected. As the filters absorbed color slowly, less light required more exposure time, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that film-based versions were made, allowing image-takers to produce snapshots in whichever conditions.

Speaking of the 1930s, they brought another revolutionary product - the Kodachrome film, in versions of 16mm home movies and 35mm slides, in 1936. In three layers of emulsion it captured red, green and blue, at the same time producing complementary cyan, magenta and yellow dye images in those layers through a complex processing operation. While black and white photography was still primary and more affordable option for photographers and amateurs alike, color found their way towards wider use through Instant color film introduced by Polaroid in 1963, and by the 1980s it took over the role of the trendsetter.

Color Photography - Photographic Processes Series

The Advent of Digital Photography

In 1969, charge-coupled device commonly known as CCD, was invented by George Smith and Willard Boyle - and it was the key apparatus for the inauguration of digital photography. Its purpose was to serve as a high-speed semiconductor used for the making of a solid-state camera that would be able to deposit memory in digital form and ultimately to broadcast television. In simple, non-scientific words, once the image was projected through the lens, a CCD was used to transfer it from the photoactive region into digitally-stored information. These devices were used for other purposes as well, and so the first prototype of a digital camera was invented a bit later, in 1975. Kodak’s Steve Sasson was the one to build it, however the device was impractical, heavy and slow, and it was not designed for production, but primarily for scientific pursuits and the enhancement of the discipline. The first digital camera that was intended for commercial use was made after Kodak released the world’s first megapixel sensor in 1986. It was the Dycam Model 1 made in 1990, although a similar CCD-based Fuji camera was invented before, in 1988, but was never commercialized.

the first camera was invented by an american and it didn't have video options
First digital camera, invented by Kodak's Steven Sasson in 1975

Replacing CCD with APS - Commercializing Photography

Over the next years, CCD was largely replaced by another type of image sensor named Active-Pixel Sensor (APS), which was created at the approximately same time as CCD, but it has shown better image quality results in the 1990’s after its noise-reducing performances have been upgraded by the physicist Eric Fossum. It has also turned out to consume less power, and most importantly - it is cheaper. The Complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) is the most common type of Active-Pixel Sensor, and it is the one that was used for first digital single lens cameras. Thanks to its practicality, it is also the one we have in our smartphones today.

iphone by the american company apple can take both photos and video
Taking a picture with iPhone - via Huffington Post

Could the History of Photography Tell Us Something About Its Future?

From the first camera obscura to today's multi-purposeful dSLR cameras, photography has come a really long way, not only in terms of technology, but in respect to the way that we look at it. What started out as a fascination that triggered scientific studies is now seen as a tool used for the pursuit of artistic endeavors, both when in service of other media and as a form of fine art by itself. On the other hand, photography has become accessible to everyone, significantly empowered by the emergence of smartphones and apps that allow people to share their images on a regular daily basis. Sharing photographs has become part of our everyday social engagement, perhaps even one of the top tools of today's communication - a picture says a thousand words and Snapchat and Instagram had this in mind when they launched their popular apps. The ubiquity and the excessive deployment of photography has placed the medium in a strange position once again - deciding if photographic images are archival or artistic has become harder than ever, now that a camera can fall into anyone's hands, and also since photographs can be easily manipulated and edited in programs.[6] Nonetheless, all of the aforementioned was often seen as part of our cultural progress, and the bond between art and photography could be built on some other premises that take the latest trends into consideration and see them as inspiration. Another interesting occurrence that marked the last decade was a sudden return to film photography. Although the reasons for this may include nostalgia or simply a passion for traditional stuff, there has to be something special about film photography that makes us come back to it, be it the vintage aesthetics or simply the unique relationship between the author and the film camera that apparently cannot be replaced by digital technologies. Still, the image itself is mostly kept in digital format. Think before you print!

 york like  Editors’ Tip: The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present

Written by Beaumont Newhall (1908–1993), an influential curator, art historian, writer and photo-maker, the first Director of MoMA’s Photography Department, this lucid and scholarly chronicle of the history of photography has been hailed as the classic work on the subject. No other book and no other author have managed to relate the aesthetic evolution of the art of photography to its technical innovations with such an absorbing combination of clarity, scholarship and enthusiasm. The publication presents a fascinating, comprehensive study of the significant trends and developments in the medium since the first photographs were made in 1839, illustrated with photographs made in color, from hand-tinted daguerreotypes of 1850 to turn-of-the-century autochromes by Edward Steichen, to works by contemporary masters.


  1. wikipedia.org
  2. britannica.com
  3. Madesani, Angela, Storia della Fotografia, Mondadori Bruno 2008
  4. Gustavson Todd, Eastman George, Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital, Sterling Innovation 2009
  5. Mulligan Therese, Wooters David, A History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present, Taschen 2005

Featured images: An artist appears to be photographing himself in a 19th-century photographic studio; A photo by Niepce, created from Heliography process; "Boulevard du Temple", a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838; Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, Oct. or Nov. 1839, the first light picture ever taken; The first durable color photograph, taken by Thomas Sutton in 1861; Kodak Brownie, introduced in 1900; Leica III 35mm, introduced in 1925; Zeiss Ikon Contax S - 1949; Kodak CCD digital camera invented by Steve Sasson in 1979. All images used for illustrative purposes only.