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A Brief History of Photography in the Nineteenth Century
A Brief History of Photography in the Nineteenth Century
Published by Ravindra
27th October 2012
Default A Brief History of Photography in the Nineteenth Century

Early Processes

The origins of photography can be traced to an early optical device known as the camera obscura. Known even during the times of Leonardo da Vinci, the camera obscura, like the pinhole camera, was simply a darkened room with a tiny hole at one end to admit light. Rays of light from a brightly lit scene outside passing through gave rise to an upside down image that could be seen projected onto the wall of the room.

Later improved versions of the camera obscura utilized a positive power lens in place of the hole in the wall. This gave a brighter and far more clear image. Portable types of the instrument were in common use in the 17th and 18th centuries and were an invaluable aid to artists and painters in tracing out on paper perspective views of outdoor scenes.

The camera obscura used by the ancients embodied within it the principle of the photographic camera but was lacking, as yet, in one essential ingredient : and this was a means by which a permanent record could be made of the scene projected by the lens.

Modern film photography depends for its success on the fact that certain chemicals, most notably the bromide and chloride of silver, are affected by light (such as the image produced in a camera obscura) and the pattern of light and shade can be rendered visible by a series of appropriate manipulations involving treating the film with chemicals. Although straightforward enough, this principle long eluded capture. Amongst the first to investigate the action of light on chemicals was the German scientist Johann Heinrich Schulze who showed in 1725 that a solution of silver nitrate and chalk held in a glass bottle darkens when placed out in the sun. Almost three quarters of a century later, Thomas Wedgewood, son of Josiah Wedgewood, the founder of the pottery empire, made an interesting experiment in which leaves and other botanical specimens were placed over paper moistened with silver nitrate. When left in the sun, the border which received light darkened leaving a clear silhouette of the opaque object.

Although working in collaboration with Sir Humphry Davy, Wedgewood’s experiments were to remain only a scientific novelty; his ‘sun pictures’ were of little value, the whole of the sheet darkening to a uniform shade when held under light for viewing.

As is now known, Wedgewood’s experiments failed because he was unable to ‘fix’ his images : after he had made a picture of a specimen, the clear white areas of the silhouette still contained silver nitrate, and was thus susceptible to darkening under light. Today’s photographers fix their pictures, i.e., render them stable under the further action of light using a solution of sodium thiosulphate, commonly known as hypo. But we are here looking at early history in the eighteenth century when the principles that underlie the photographic process were in the early stages of discovery, when each tiny element ranging from creating an optical image to forming a permanent record on a light sensitive surface and arranging things to the photographer’s convenience presented enormous difficulties which could be worked out only by years of painstaking research and experiment.

The first person to succeed in creating a permanent image using a camera obscura was a Frenchman named Joseph Nicephore Niepce, and for this reason France is often regarded as the birthplace of photography. An amateur scientist, Niepce was experimenting as early as 1816 with a camera obscura hoping to record a picture on a chemically treated stone. After many experiments, he finally used bitumen spread over a pewter plate as his sensitive surface and succeeded in obtaining a positive picture in a camera obscura showing the view from his window. This crude photograph requiring a camera exposure of about eight hours is the world’s first photograph taken in a camera and is still in existence today.

Louis J. M. Daguerre. Moving on further, we now come to Daguerre. Louis Daguerre was a contemporary of Niepce and worked in the show business, staging dioramas in Paris and elsewhere—public shows featuring large painted backdrops accompanied by spectacular lighting effects. Daguerre had used camera obscuras to make sketches for his dioramas and he soon interested himself in recording camera images using silver compounds. He had heard of Niepce’s experiments from the Parisian optician Charles Chevalier who supplied lenses and camera obscuras. Daguerre wrote to Niepce and the two went into partnership to pool their knowledge and help develop a suitable process, but Niepce died four years later and little came of this collaboration.

Daguerre, as enthusiastic as ever, now embarked on a long series of experiments on his own. Unlike Niepce, he finally turned to silver coated copper plates sensitized with iodine. With the equipment then available, this seemed to be a promising method, but the plates were too slow to record a visible image. Daguerre finally hit upon success when he accidentally made the discovery that the picture, invisible as yet, could be ‘brought out’ (or developed) by holding the exposed plate over mercury vapour.

Daguerre’s invention was made public in 1839 and became an instant success worldwide. The first successful portrait in America using this method was of Miss Catherine Draper; it was made in 1840, requiring an exposure of about 6 minutes with the sitter’s face dusted over with powder to keep the time to a minimum ! In France, America and other parts of the civilized world, Daguerrean galleries opened. These were studios with posh waiting rooms where people would flock in large numbers each eagerly awaiting his turn to ascend the steps to the glass-house camera room above. Daguerre’s original process required an exposure of around 5-12 minutes, but a special portrait lens designed by Petzval brought this down to about a minute or two. The daguerreotype, as it was known, was a thing to marvel at; the tiny image measuring 5 inches by 7 inches had a shiny mirror like appearance and showed up every tiny detail with the greatest clarity. Demand was so great that in 1853 it is estimated that over three million daguerreotypes were made in the United States alone. Daguerreotyping was a profitable business and huge fortunes were made by owners of studios in those days.

Fox Talbot. While the world was witnessing the marvel of the daguerreotype, a quiet revolution was taking place in England. William Henry Fox Talbot, landowner and amateur scientist, found himself fascinated with the camera obscura and began his own experiments trying to record a scene on sensitized paper. Talbot began by first making ‘sun pictures’ or silhouette images, but unlike Wedgewood, he discovered that he could ‘fix’ (i.e., prevent from darkening further) his pictures by bathing the paper in salt solution.

Talbot next tried making pictures in a camera obscura. By 1842 he had devised a satisfactory method of obtaining a negative. His procedure consisted of coating good quality writing paper with silver iodide solution, then exposing in a camera for 2 – 3 minutes after the paper had dried (the word obscura was generally dropped from this time). No visible change had occurred on the paper at this stage. The picture was then ‘brought out’ (or developed) by immersing in gallic acid, fixed in hypo, and finally washed and dried. The resulting image was a negative of the scene.

The next step was to lay the negative in close contact with another sensitized sheet, allowing sunlight to shine through till a brownish image appeared, this time a positive. The print was fixed, washed and dried and was finally ready for viewing.

Talbot had thus invented the negative-positive system of photography. He named his process the ‘calotype’; it possessed the distinct advantage that once a negative was realized, any number of positive prints could be cheaply produced. Despite this advantage the calotype could never compete with the daguerreotype in terms of popularity, mainly on account of the fact that results lacked overall sharpness, often showing up the mottled appearance of the paper negatives employed. Aware of its limitations as a photographic process, Talbot publicized his process by mass producing a large number of excellent prints which were put up for sale. Despite the publicity, the calotype continued to remain mostly a neglected process having had a brief spell of success in Scotland where the painter David Octavius Hill in collaboration with Robert Adamson produced some of the most remarkable portraits ever made.

Collodion Wet Plates

The 1840s may be said to be the period when photography was officially born. By then the world had been presented with two rival systems of photography, each with distinctive advantages of its own. The daguerreotype, though expensive, was much admired for its exquisite detail and appearance. The process however yielded a single picture at a time, each additional copy requiring a separate exposure on a new copper plate. In this respect, as in the matter of cost, it was the humble calotype which scored over its rival despite the poor rendering of detail.

Perhaps the only discovery of significance during this period was the invention of albumen paper. Tired of the limitations of the daguerreotype and calotype, inventors were looking for a way to obtain a negative on a sheet of clear glass, but there was no way light sensitive silver salts could be made to stick to the glass. Albumen (the white of a hen’s egg) had been tried as a ‘binder’ with success, but the results were too slow to record camera images. Albumen however proved to be a convenient vehicle to coat silver salts onto paper which did not require a high degree of sensitivity. Results on albumen coated paper were entirely satisfactory and were found to give good detail with a glossy finish.

Matters might have continued thus indefinitely were it not for a London sculptor named Frederick Scott Archer who made the discovery in 1851 that collodion formed a suitable substance to hold together an even layer of silver salts on glass. Collodion is nitrated cotton dissolved in ether and alcohol. In Archer’s method, collodion containing potassium iodide is poured over a sheet of glass in an even layer which is then soaked in a solution of silver nitrate. The plate, now sensitive to light, is exposed in a camera whilst still damp (the plate did not work after the collodion had dried). Following camera exposure, the still damp plate was carried back to the darkroom and developed in pyrogallic acid, and finally fixed in hypo, washed and dried.

The result of these manipulations was to yield a clean, transparent negative on a sheet of glass which when printed by contact onto albumen paper gave a positive print which showed adequate contrast, with detail rendered to the last scratch.

Archer’s process created a revolution in photography. As both exposure and development had to be carried out whilst the plate was still damp, the process soon came to be known as the ‘wet plate process.’ Collodion negatives were faster than earlier processes, so smaller camera exposures were required, and good quality prints could be made cheaply on albumen paper.

The collodion process brought with it the age of glass plate negatives. With excellent photographic quality achieved at minimal cost, the process soon established itself as a profession, and within a few years’ time displaced the daguerreotype and calotype.

The new process marked the beginning of the era when photographs produced in the mass and at cheap cost found their way increasingly into the lives of people. Viewing a paper print was not the same as holding up a tiny silvered copper plate to the eye: it made you stop and think. For the first time camera pictures began to be looked upon as art: photographic societies began to spring up and exhibitions of pictures held. In England, the Photographic Society was set up in 1853 which later became the Royal Photographic Society, and the year following saw the arrival of the British Journal of Photography which has continued publication to this day.

Collodion had the remarkable effect of making the world seem to be at your doorstep. Travel photographers like Francis Frith would carry camera gear to distant lands returning with stacks of pictures made available in albums. Travel pictures were also made into lantern slides on albumen coated plates and lecture shows by itinerant showmen moving from town to town with their gas-light magic lanterns grew to be a much sought after entertainment.

Pictures became novelties which people liked to collect and display much as they would collect stamps and antiques today. This was made possible by the arrival of an innovative new idea known as a carte-de-visite, which was nothing more than a tiny albumen print stuck onto card with the name of the photo-firm printed below. Carte-de-visites were the absolute craze in the 1860s; the shops sold cartes by the hundreds featuring celebrities, statesmen, stage actors and writers, which everyone wanted to collect and display in the parlour.

Despite the worldwide popularity the new method commanded, collodion was clearly a painstaking process. For the photographer in the field, it meant that a darkroom tent was a necessary part of the accessories carried. Early collodion photographers carried tents together with bottles of chemicals, dishes and weights, and all the necessary implements to sensitize their plates in addition to camera equipment. Having set up his darkroom tent close to the spot where a picture was planned, the photographer flowed liquid collodion onto a plate, sensitized it with chemicals himself, placed the plate in a light-proof holder and rushed to the camera which had been erected previously close by. And as the plate could be successfully developed only while it was yet wet, it gave the photographer no opportunity to rest until he had extracted the plate from the camera and hurried back to his tent to develop.

With such a paintstaking and arduous routine set before him, no one would venture to take up collodion photography unless he made a living out of it. Photography as a hobby was practically unknown. Collodion work called for a certain amount of daring and recklessness : only the most ambitious who had the leisure to pursue the craft for pleasure would venture to experiment with a process which was known to be as exacting as it was messy.

Gelatine Dry Plates and Films

The year 1871 was a momentous year in the history of the camera. It was a year that saw a discovery that would bring about far-reaching changes which would finally bring photography into the form we are familiar with today. This was the age of the collodion glass plate, the system which had established its supremacy over all previous methods. The process, particularly for the outdoor photographer, was an arduous one, but over the years professionals had begun to look with pride upon their skill and ability to coat their own plates. Amateurs were few and far between. The manipulations were much too laborious for the casual snapshotter to even think of taking up the art. Among the handful of people who took up the craft for pleasure were Julia Margaret Cameron who is known for her fresh, new approach so evident in her portraits of celebrities; while in America, Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) went on to experiment with children’s portraits using wet plate.

Then in 1871 came news of a discovery by an English doctor named Richard Leach Maddox who showed how gelatin could serve as a convenient substitute in place of collodion. A thick gelatin soup (or ‘emulsion’) containing silver bromide mixed in, when flowed over a sheet of glass astoundingly retained its sensitivity to light even after the plate had dried. What is more, this sensitivity, it was discovered, could be boosted several fold simply by pre-warming the emulsion (a process known as ripening), so that exposures in a camera need be now only in fractions of a second. Further, gelatin plates were found to have a stable ‘latent image’ : the image on the plate did not deteriorate with time, and could be developed several hours after camera exposure. These features, if exploited, would mean that the photographer would be finally freed from the burden of carrying around a darkroom tent and processing chemicals which had made picture taking such a drudgery all along.

Gelatine plates were a startling discovery; they seemed to possess all the properties that an ideal plate would seem to demand. Nonetheless, the new discovery did not find immediate application, for professionals, already used to collodion, were understandably reluctant to experiment with a new medium whose outcome seemed uncertain. Thus when George Eastman who was to later found the Kodak empire, first took up photography as a pastime in 1878, he took lessons from a local photographer who taught him the art of the collodion wet plate.

Eastman, then a young man of twenty four living in Rochester, had stumbled upon photography while planning a trip to Hispaniola. He spent a whole month’s salary on photographic kit and soon found himself so absorbed by the art that the trip was put off. Eastman now devoted as much time as he could to his new craft, but soon began to grow frustrated at the cumbersome load of equipment he had to carry around. In photography he had found his true calling but, as he was only too well aware, the process, painstaking in every detail, deterred even the most ambitious and enterprising individuals. He resolved he would set about making improvements “to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.”

Eastman had read of Maddox’s discovery and now turned his attention to gelatin dry plates hoping that the new invention would be simpler to work with. He found himself appalled with the enormous complexity of the process. Gelatine plates held great promise but as Eastman would soon discover, the process was still in its infancy and little headway had been made in his country in the field of emulsion manufacture and coating.

Eastman who worked as a clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank was a self-taught experimenter, and began to work preparing gelatin emulsions and perfecting a machine that would deposit an even layer of emulsion on a glass plate. The machine proved to be a success and Eastman took out a patent in 1879. Two years later the Eastman Dry Plate Company was set up in Rochester specializing in the manufacture of dry plates for cameras.

It will be helpful to review the developments that were taking place in the world of photography during this period. Eastman’s patent of a plate coating machine came at a time when most of the technical advancements were being made in Britain. In 1877, the English firm of Mawson & Swan (who later bought Eastman’s patent) had begun commercial production of dry plates, to be followed by the firm of Wratten & Wainwright, and the Britannia Works Company which was to later become Ilford Limited. The future of photography clearly lay in the new medium which was steadily seeing improvements each year.

Although the world stood poised on the brink of a revolution, the new invention did not seem to hold immediate appeal for the amateur. The landscape photographer still needed to carry a heavy ‘view’ camera, a tripod and a box of plates. He would set up his camera on the spot, focus on the ground glass using a dark cloth, insert a plate and make the exposure. Back in darkroom, he developed his negative and printed the result on gelatin bromide paper which became available from about this time. Results were exceptionally good, but the camera manipulations were still much too cumbersome for the casual hobbyist to undertake the craft. For those looking for convenience, a compact form of a view camera was offered. Another innovation was the magazine plate camera which could be loaded with a number of plates, a handle when rotated lowering a plate after each successive exposure into a compartment below.

Eastman’s first step towards simplification of photography for the amateur was to develop film. The Eastman ‘stripping’ film which appeared in 1885 was a novel idea : it was made up of a band of paper on which was deposited a layer of gelatin emulsion. After exposure, the roll of paper was sent back to the company where the emulsion was floated off the paper support by soaking in water and transferred to a transparent support. The result was a negative as clear as a glass plate. Stripping film (also known as American film) was marketed in a special roll holder which adapted it to the view cameras then in use. The holder was the joint invention of Eastman and a camera maker William Walker, but the idea did not prove to be as popular as Eastman had imagined. The roll holder was after all an add-on accessory to an already bulky wooden camera; what was needed was a compact system where both the film and its winding mechanism were an integral part of the camera.

Success finally came in 1888 when Eastman came up with a new design of a camera that was to create a revolution in picture taking. The world’s first box camera cost twenty five dollars and was a rectangular shaped box small enough to be held in the hand which came factory-packed with a 6 meter roll of American film. Everything had been done to simplify matters for the snapshotter : the lens with an aperture of f/11 was pre-focussed to give sharp pictures of everything beyond 8 feet, and this together with a shutter set to 1/25 second gave a fully exposed picture in favourable outdoor light. Eastman's camera was thus a 'fair weather camera.' The roll of American film gave 100 circular pictures each 6 cm in diameter. After the roll was exposed the camera was sent to the Kodak factory where the film was unloaded, stripped from its paper base, processed, and the prints sent back to the owner with the camera reloaded with a fresh roll of film, all for a fee of only 10 dollars.

Eastman's camera was called the Kodak, a name coined by Eastman himself, and soon took the world by storm. All the user had to do was pull a string to tension the shutter, aim a V painted on the camera towards the subject, press the button and wind on the film by turning a key. So popular did the camera prove to be that by the end of 1888 a total of 13,000 pieces were sold. A whole new breed of amateur snapshotters emerged, encouraged by the company's catch-phrase: "You press the button—we do the rest." Photography had finally been simplified to the point where anyone with little or no knowledge of the subject could easily take a picture.

Other interesting developments soon followed. In 1889, the paper based emulsion was replaced with celluloid roll film. In 1892 the Boston Camera Company launched a box camera called the ‘Bull’s Eye’. Designed by Samuel Turner, the Bull’s Eye was the first camera to use film rolled in black paper with a red window at the back of the instrument to show numbers printed on the paper. When three years later Eastman introduced a compact box called the Pocket Kodak incorporating these features, he was required to pay royalties for using these innovations until August 21, 1895. Eastman's company went from strength to strength ; its founder went on to become a legend. Many of Eastman's cameras were designed by Frank Brownell, a camera designer who remained associated with the company for nearly seventeen years. At the turn of the century Brownell came up with a design that was to set a milestone in camera history. This was the Kodak 'Brownie' many of us are familiar with, a camera so simple even children could take pictures with it. A basic model shaped in the form of a rectangular box, the Brownie cost only 1 dollar giving a great boost to amateur photography. The general design of the camera proved to be outstanding, so much so that for several years to come the Brownie served as the standard on which other manufacturers based their own designs.

The last few decades of the nineteenth century saw the most exciting developments taking place in the world of photography brought about by man’s inventive genius working on the new possibilities opened up by gelatin plates and films. Some of these discoveries would prove to be transient attractions, while others had far reaching implications.

Although from 1890 onwards Eastman’s new flexible roll film on cellulose base continued to find increasing application in cameras, it did not entirely displace the use of glass plates as a photographic medium. Plates with their generous size (a large sized plate would measure 8 inches by 10 inches) gave excellent print quality, and thus many photographers preferred plates and sheet films, retaining their use well into the twentieth century.

At the other end of the scale, manufacturers also made use of miniscule plates, often an inch across or even smaller, as the medium in a range of detective cameras which appeared in the 1880s and 1890s. Rarely used for espionage work, detective cameras were tiny, unobtrusive devices often disguised in the form of commonplace objects such as a book, a ladies purse or vanity case, or even binoculars, and were designed so that the user could take pictures without the subject being aware. Detective cameras became very popular during the mid-1880s; they used ingenious arrangements to change plates between exposures, but with the exception of a few, most were unreliable in their operation and gave poor results. Lancaster’s advertised their ‘Watch Camera’ as a new departure in cameras …. The camera when closed is exactly like an ordinary watch. The camera is opened in an instant by rotating button when a series of about half a dozen tubes instantly shoot out into position and by means of another spring an instantaneous exposure is made. The lens is a very rapid one and can be adjusted for taking portraits, groups or views….

The Kodak with its simplicity of operation held immediate appeal for the man unversed in photography. The ‘serious’ amateur on the other hand, wanted something more than a push-button device : he wanted a camera small enough to be carried around easily and yet offering the controls of a professional plate camera. The twin lens reflex which first made an appearance in 1880 was a hand-camera with two lenses mounted one over the other; the lower took pictures while the upper one projected a view via a 45 degree mirror on a ground glass used for focusing, an arrangement clearly borrowed from the camera obscura. While the amateur preferred compact plate cameras, others found the convenience of the folding roll film camera irresistible. The folding camera which first appeared in 1895 was a collapsible camera with bellows and could be easily carried around in a large pocket. Some of the simpler models in this class were no better than box cameras with everything set for outdoor pictures in the sun, while better versions offered a choice of several stops and shutter speeds. With a range of models to choose from and with its unique feature of portability, the folding camera had come to stay, and would remain a favourite with the serious amateur for well over thirty years to come.

Other than the box camera which brought photography to the masses, Eastman’s roll film also paved the way for one of the greatest inventions of all time—the motion picture. Early moving-picture devices were fascinating little toys known by such names as Phenakisticopes, Zoetropes, and Praxiniscopes, often involving rotating drums with a series of animated drawings clipped on the interior which when rotated presented the viewer, peering through a slit, with an illusion of movement. With the coming of dry plates and films, instantaneous exposures in fractions of a second became possible and many inventors busied themselves in trying to record and analyse movement.

Thomas Edison, working on the problem using Eastman’s roll film, invented a motion picture camera he called the Kinetograph, taking pictures on 35mm film introduced by himself. Edison believed that the idea of using motion picture film for public performance on a screen held no future, and in 1893 he put out the Kinetoscope, a one-man peepshow device for fun-fairs and parks with an endless band of film within which presented a short performance to the viewer when a coin was dropped in a slot.

Meanwhile, in France the Lumiere brothers, using the newly introduced films, were experimenting on the very idea that Edison had rejected. They invented a camera-cum-projection machine, and in 1895 gave their first demonstration of a projection of their first fifty feet film, “Lunch Hour at the Lumiere Factory.” The age of the silent cinema had begun.
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By Argentum on 27th October 2012, 02:52 PM

Interesting article, thanks for posting.

You probably came across it in your research but just in case, have you seen Robert Leggats History of photography? He died quite recently but his web site has been reproduced at:
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By Ravindra on 30th October 2012, 07:46 AM
Default Robert Leggat's website

Thanks Argentum, for the kind words. As to Robert's page on photographic history, I had known of this site for some time. Lovely history !!

I am saddened to learn about Robert's demise. Although I never was in touch with the gentleman, when someone like him who has done superb work in photography moves on, you feel as though a part of your self has ceased to be....

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