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A Brief History of Photography: The Beginning

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Read Time: 12 min

Photography: an art form invented in the 1830s, which became publicly recognised ten years later.

Today, photography is the largest-growing hobby in the world, with the hardware alone creating a multi-billion-dollar industry. Not everyone knows what camera obscura or even shutter speed is, nor have many heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson or even Annie Leibovitz.

In this article, we take a step back and look at the fascinating beginning of photography, answering questions like "What led to the first camera invention?", "When was the first photograph taken?", and more.

What You'll Learn: The Firsts in Photography

  • How did the beginning of photography happen?
  • What was the first photograph?
  • What preceded the camera invention?
  • How was the path to the first camera ever made?
  • When was the first photograph taken?
  • Who made the first camera for mass use?
  • When did color appear in the history of photography?
  • Notable names in photography history

Before Photography: Camera Obscura

Before photography was created, people had figured out the basic principles of lenses and the camera. They could project the image on the wall or a piece of paper, but no printing was possible at the time: recording light turned out to be a lot harder than projecting it.

The instrument that people used for processing pictures was called the camera obscura (which is Latin for the dark room). We can't look past it if we're talking about firsts in photography. And although it was around for a few centuries before photography came along, it is, however, the predecessor of the first camera ever made.

It is believed that the camera obscura was invented around the 13 or 14th centuries, although there is a manuscript by an Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan dating from the 10th century that describes the principles on which the camera obscura works and on which analogue photography is based today.

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An illustration of a camera obscura. Image: Public domain via Wikipedia

A camera obscura is essentially a dark, closed space in the shape of a box with a hole on one side of it. The hole has to be small enough in proportion to the box to make the camera obscura work properly. Light coming in through a tiny hole transforms and creates an image on the surface that it meets, like the wall of the box. The image is flipped and upside down, however, which is why modern analogue cameras have made use of mirrors.

In the mid-16th century, Giovanni Battista della Porta, an Italian scholar, wrote an essay on how to use a camera obscura to make the drawing process easier. He projected the image of people outside the camera obscura on the canvas inside of it (the camera obscura was a rather big room in this case) and then drew over the image or tried to copy it.

Giovanni Battista della Porta. Image: Public domain via Wikipedia

The process of using a camera obscura looked very strange and frightening to people at that time. Giovanni Battista had to drop the idea after he was arrested and prosecuted on a charge of sorcery.

Even though only a few Renaissance artists admitted they used a camera obscura as an aid in drawing, it is believed most of them did. The reason for not openly admitting it was the fear of being charged with associating with occultism or simply not wanting to admit something many artists called cheating.

Today we can state that the camera obscura was a prototype of the modern photo camera, so it's essential to understand the beginning of photography. Many people still find it amusing and use it for artistic reasons or simply for fun.

The First Photograph

Installing film and permanently capturing an image was a logical progression. So when did that happen? When was the first photograph taken?

The first photo picture—as we know it—was taken in 1825 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It records a view from the window at Le Gras.

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The first photograph, taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Image: public domain via Wikipedia

In the early days of photography, the exposure had to last for eight hours, so the sun in the picture had time to move from east to west. This way, it would appear to shine on both sides of the building in the picture.

Niépce came up with the idea of using a petroleum derivative called "Bitumen of Judea" to record the camera's projection. Bitumen hardens with exposure to light, and the unhardened material could then be washed away.

The metal plate that Niépce used was then polished, rendering a negative image that could be coated with ink to produce a print. One of the problems with this method was that the metal plate was heavy, expensive to produce, and took a lot of time to polish.

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Joseph Nicéphore Niépce 1765-1833. Image: public domain via Wikipedia
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    Photography Takes Off

    In 1839, Sir John Herschel came up with a way of making the first glass negative. The same year he coined the term photography, deriving from the Greek "fos" meaning light and "grafo"—to write. Even though the process became easier and the result was better, it was still a long time until photography was publicly recognized.

    When the history of photography began, it was either used as an aid in the work of a painter or followed the same principles the painters followed. The first publicly recognized portraits were usually portraits of one person or family portraits.

    Finally, after decades of refinements and improvements, came a camera aimed at mass use with Eastman Kodak's simple-but-relatively-reliable cameras. The first camera ever made for market distribution, by Kodak, came out in 1888 with the slogan: "You press the button, we do the rest."

    In 1900, the Kodak Brownie was introduced, becoming the first commercial camera in the market available for middle-class buyers. The camera only took black and white shots but was very popular due to its efficiency and ease of use. This was a big milestone in the history of photography!

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    The first color photograph, a tartan ribbon, taken by James Clerk Maxwell

    Color Photography History

    Color photography was explored throughout the 19th century, but didn't become truly commercially viable until the middle of the 20th century.  Prior to this, color could not be preserved for long since the images quickly degraded. Several methods of color photography were patented from 1862 by two French inventors: Louis Ducos du Hauron and Charles Cros, working independently.

    The first practical color plate in the history of photography reached the market in 1907. The method it used was based on a screen of filters. The screen let filtered red, green, and/or blue light through and then developed to a negative, later reversed to a positive.

    Applying the same screen later on in the process of the print resulted in a color photo that would be preserved. The technology, even though slightly altered, is the one that is still used in the processing of images. Red, green, and blue are the primary colors for television and computer screens, hence the RGB modes in numerous imaging applications.

    The first color photo, an image of a tartan ribbon (above), was taken in 1861 by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who was famous for his work on electromagnetism. Despite the great influence his photograph had on the photo industry, Maxwell is rarely remembered for this as his inventions in the field of physics simply overshadowed this accomplishment. It is, nevertheless, another of the great firsts in photography history. 

    The First Photograph With People

    The first ever picture to have a human in it was Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre, taken in 1838. The exposure lasted for about ten minutes at the time, so it was barely possible for the camera to capture a person on the busy street. However, it did capture a man who had his shoes polished for long enough to appear in the photo.

    Boulevard du Temple is by Louis DaguerreBoulevard du Temple is by Louis DaguerreBoulevard du Temple is by Louis Daguerre
    Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre
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      Notable Figures in the History of Photography

      At one time, photography was an unusual and perhaps even controversial practice. If not for the enthusiasts who persevered and indeed, pioneered, many techniques, we might not have the photographic styles, artists, and practitioners we have today. Here are just a few of the most influential people we can thank for many of the advances in photography.

      Alfred Stieglitz

      Photography became a part of day-to-day life and an art movement. One of the people behind photography as art was Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer and a promoter of modern art.

      Alfred Stieglitz in 1902Alfred Stieglitz in 1902Alfred Stieglitz in 1902
      Alfred Stieglitz in 1902

      Stieglitz said that photographers are artists. He, along with F. Holland Day, led the Photo-Secession, the first photography art movement whose primary task was to show that photography was not only about the subject of the picture but also the manipulation by the photographer that led to the subject being portrayed.

      Stieglitz set up various exhibitions where photos were judged by photographers. Stieglitz also promoted photography through newly established journals such as "Camera Notes" and "Camera Work".

      Examples of Stieglitz's Work

      The Terminal - Alfred SteiglitzThe Terminal - Alfred SteiglitzThe Terminal - Alfred Steiglitz
      The Terminal—Alfred Stieglitz
      Songs of the Sky - Alfred SteiglitzSongs of the Sky - Alfred SteiglitzSongs of the Sky - Alfred Steiglitz
      Songs of the Sky—Alfred Stieglitz

      Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (Felix Nadar)

      Felix Nadar (a pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) was a French caricaturist, journalist and—once photography emerged—a photographer. He is most famous for pioneering the use of artificial lightning in photography. Nadar was a good friend of Jules Verne and is said to have inspired Five Weeks in a Balloon after creating a 60-metre-high balloon named Le Géant (The Giant). Nadar was credited for having published the first ever photo interview in 1886.

      Gaspard-Flix Tournachon Felix NadarGaspard-Flix Tournachon Felix NadarGaspard-Flix Tournachon Felix Nadar
      Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (Felix Nadar)

      Nadar's portraits followed the same principles as a fine art portrait. He was known for depicting many famous people including Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Peter Kropotkin, and George Sand.

      Examples of Nadar's Work

      Auguste Rodin - NadarAuguste Rodin - NadarAuguste Rodin - Nadar
      Auguste Rodin—Nadar
      mile Zola - Nadarmile Zola - Nadarmile Zola - Nadar
      Emile Zola—Nadar

      Henri Cartier-Bresson

      Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer who is most famous for creating the "street photography" style of photojournalism, using the new compact 35mm format (which we still use today). Around the age of 23, he became very interested in photography and abandoned painting for it. "I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant," he would later explain. Strangely enough, he would take his first pictures all around the world but avoided his native France. His first exhibition took place in New York's Julien Levy Gallery in 1932. Cartier-Bresson's first journalistic photos were taken at the George VI coronation in London, but none of those portrayed the King himself.

      The Frenchman's works have influenced generations of photo artists and journalists around the world. Despite being narrative in style, his works can also be seen as iconic artworks. Despite all the fame and impact, there are very few pictures of the man. He hated being photographed, as he was embarrassed about his fame.

      Examples of Cartier-Bresson's Work

      Trieste Italy - Cartier-BressonTrieste Italy - Cartier-BressonTrieste Italy - Cartier-Bresson
      Trieste, Italy—Cartier-Bresson courtesy of Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
      Hyeres 1932 - Cartier-BressonHyeres 1932 - Cartier-BressonHyeres 1932 - Cartier-Bresson
      Hyeres 1932—Cartier-Bresson courtesy of Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

      Looking Forward

      We've learned everything from when the first photograph was taken through to the first camera ever made and the commercial camera invention, and finally we looked at some of the first big names in the field.

      The next article in this series will look at the 1940s-80s. We'll cover some other big firsts in photography, like the invention of multi-layer color negatives or the introduction of Polaroid and Fujifilm instant cameras. We'll also investigate how photography became a tool of propaganda and why it came to be used in advertising products and promotion.

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      14 Radiant Sunrise Lightroom Presets and LUTs14 Radiant Sunrise Lightroom Presets and LUTs14 Radiant Sunrise Lightroom Presets and LUTs
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