History of Photography

Dr. Peter Hagerty (PhD)

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History of Photography Studies  
Seminar : Before Photography

It is difficult to imagine the early 19th century impact of photography. The analogy of the "event horizon" from cosmology, a philosophical horizon of which the possibilities could only be imagined. The event horizon of the 1839 invention of photography was a time when no one had seen or heard of photography. While scientists and artists had dreamed of such an invention, no one could foresee the dramatic effect it would have on cultural life.

In retrospect we can see that the idea of photography was "of its time". The printing industry required a solution to the problem of transferring a drawing onto a lithographic stone without the necessity of it being copied by hand. As an application of technology photography also drew upon, and refined earlier developments in optics and chemistry. There were futher scientific applications, astronomers as well as military map makers and civil planners had extensively used the camera obscura since the sixteenth century as an aid to surveying and topographic drawing.

Painters and their Cameras


Painters and draughtsmen had since the sixteenth century had readily sought the aid of the camera obscura. The seventeetn century paintings by Vermeer particularly " Soldier and Young Girl Smiling" 1657 [oil on canvas]," View of Delft"(1658) and " The Street" (1658-60) have strong optical indications that he used a camera obscura.

While historians are uncertain as to whether Vermeer used the camera obscura the evidence of Caneletto's (1697 - 1768) practice is unequivocal, his camera is extant. In works like " Grand Canal Venice" 1735 [oil on canvas] " Whitehall and Privy Garden" (1751) and "Grand Canal looking SE"(1756) the accuracy of the topography described by the camera obscura forms the basis for Canaletto's interpretation and modification of grand city views.


The principle of the camera obscura is however ancient. If a small hole is made in one wall of a dark room an upside down image appears on an opposite wall. This is described by Plato in the 6th century BC.

"Imagine the condition of men living in a cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance [aperture] open to the light."

"Now if they could talk to one another, would they not suppose that their words referred only to those passing shadows."

Plato The Republic Ch.25 "The Allegory of the Cave"


The history of optics and the making of lenses is similarly ancient, there are examples of Egyptian cast glass lenses in the British Museum.

The Roman philosophers Ptolemy and Seneca were very interested in optics and Nero is reputed to have watched the Roman games wearing glasses. The subsequent combination of lens and dark room (literally camera obscura) would develop into a revolutionary instrument. During the next millenia there is however no evidence of any development.

By the 16th century, during the Renaissance, the camera obscura reappears. Although usually used for rendering correct perspective, Brunelleschi, the Florentine architect, used an arrangement of a painting of the Palazzo Vechio with a hole in it and mirror to demonstrate how a prospective new building would fit into the facades of the existing buildings.

Roger Bacon the English Renaissance Franciscan "scientist" used lenses and mirrors "for magical effect" and it was a common party trick to use a lens to invert an image so that it was upside down and back to front. It was not however until 1611 that Johannes Kepler describes what actually happens to light rays passing through a lens.

The invention of the telescope by Lippershey in 1550 and the subsequent improvements made by Galileo, who claimed "my instrument can enlarge objects almost 1,000 times", but was certainly adequate for his 1610 discovery of the moons of Jupiter - which are invisible to the naked eye. The experiments in microscopy by the Dutch scientist and anatomist van Leeuwenhoek in the early seventeenth century similarly built upon an earlier history of optics.

These devlopments in optics wer linked to instrument technology, the accurate production and measuring required for a camera were similar to the requirements of the Renaissance astrolabe which was used for triangulation in navigation and surveying, and the quadrant which was used by ordinance experts for gun sighting. Similarly the instrument of division, the quadratura circuli, was used in astronomy for the measurement of the zenith distance of stars and planets.

The later inventions of the reflecting telescope (1765) and the theodolite (c.1790), significant as they were, were all overshadowed when John Harrison in 1737, delivered his H1 marine chronometer to the Board of Longitude, time itself could now be measured with accuracy.

While the camera obscura had been in common use during the sixteenth century it's basic construction was established in the 17th century and remained almost unchanged until the middle of the 19th. However during the period 1600-1850 the forms of the camera differ greatly. Structurally it was either a portable box, a tent as used by Johannes Kepler, a Porte-Chaise or at its most extravagant built into the roof of a carriage.

By 1685 Johanna Zahn in Germany had used a mirror to invert the image onto a translucent screen, establishing the principle model for the contemporary camera.

"The three centuries 1400-1700 were the classical age of the machine pour dessiner and the 18th century was the classical age of the camera obscura." Schwartz (1949)



Photography required the technology of optics and the measurement of time, but technically photography is more than the use of an optical device; it also requires light sensitive materials. What is specifically lacking is the knowledge of the photo-chemistry of silver.

The tarnishing of silver had been observed since ancient times and Arabian alchemists had studied the properties of the metal since the 8th & 9th centuries The compounds Silver Nitrate (AgNO3) and Silver Chloride (AgCl3) were discovered during the 17th century.

In 1727 the German scientist Johannes Heinrich Schulze observed that silver salts darken when exposed to the sun. This chemical reaction would be exploited in the 18th century parlour game which used light from the sun to "write" letters cut out from black paper.

In 1777 Scheele, a Swedish chemist discovered that Silver Nitrate darkens quickest with blue light. He demonstrated this by using paper coated with silver nitrate. After projecting the solar spectrum onto the paper using a prism he discovered that silver nitrate darkens more at blue end. Scheele however failed to note that the UV wavelengths had the greatest effect. It was a further 25 years before this effect is noted and led to the use of a yellow filter to prevent overexposing the sky

In 1802 Josiah Wedgewood reports success at producing images on leather which had been impregnated with silver salts. The problem for Wedgewood and many subsequent experimenters was that he could not stop the reaction. The second element of photographic chemistry, fixation had similarly to be solved before a working process could begin to be established.

In 1799 Francois Chaussier read a paper to the Institut National, Paris -"On New Combinations of Sulphur and the Alkalis"- in which he described three different methods for the making of a new salt "hydro-sulfure de soude" [sodium thiosulphate]. He describes the appearance of transparent crystals which are square prisms ending in six faced pyramids. He describes their use as a medicinal bath for skin infections, he does not report that the compound dissolves halides of silver.

In 1815 John Herschel in a paper to the Edinburgh philosophical Society "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds", Herschel described sodium thiosulphate [Hypo] as a solvent for silver salts He describes "hyposulphite of soda" as dissolving "muriate of silver" [silver chloride]. Although Herschel was in correspondence with one of the inventors of photography, Fox-Talbot, Herschel did not know of Talbot's photographic experiments until 1839. After which time Herschel solved the fixation problem "in a week".

Eighteenth Century Cameras

There is similarly much evidence of the camera as being among the portrait painters' tools. The "[Self]Portrait of the Court Painter Beich" (1744) includes a small camera with lens among his brushes and maulstick. Philip van Loo's "The Magic Lantern" 1764 shows how in certain social circles the projected picture (painted on glass) was a popular optical entertainment. By 1786 Giles Louis Chretien invented a device, the physionotrace, which could be used to trace a shadow of a persons outline on a screen.

As has been noted the use of the camera obscura by Dutch seventeenth century artists had been frowned upon by British critics and the effect of the photograph was seen, by later writers such as Baudelaire, as more deleterious. For Baudelaire its use was laziness, but worse was that painters were beginning to describe reality rather than expressions of their imagination. Similarly we find this echoed in the writings of Proust when he refers to "my mother would not have photographs in the house, considering them too real".

Some artists, the English painter Turner for example, witnessed the arrival of the new technology and realised the real implications.

When a colleague of Turner's commented, upon seeing his first daguerreotype, "We are finished."

Turner remarked "No we shall simply go about like tinkers with a box under our arm instead of a folio."

Hamilton (1997)


The modern camera has its predecessor in the widespread use during the 17th century of the camera portabilis, which replaced the optical chamber of the earlier camera immobilis. The camera portabilis with changeable lenses looked like a camera but it was not photography, although the watercolour painting by Andriesson "Artist with a Camera Obscura" (1810) demonstrates how lightly the painter carried his camera.

Against this background of technical and aesthetic concerns the history of the early years of photography has been established by many writers as following a now familiar sequence. However from the outset we should be aware that the early history of photography includes a wide and diverse list of experimenters; many of whose work failed to achieve a satisfactory result.

"At the time of Daguerre's revelation there were at least 20 experimental chemists and entrepreneurs, in 7 different countries who claimed the honour of being the inventor of photography."

Batchen (1997)

While the trio of Niece, Daguerre and Talbot are rightly credited as the major contributors to the invention of the medium, the idea of photography was clearly part of the zeitgeist of experimental science at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Joseph Nic�phore Ni�pce A professional soldier who contracted typhoid and retired to his country estate at Chalon-sur-Sa�ne. 1816 he starts his experiments with the objective of transferring a picture direct to a lithographic stone. In this respect he was unsuccessful but after ten years of experimentation he does however make the first "photograph". His picture "Gras Estate, Chalon sur Saone" (1826), a view made from an upper floor window is the earliest extant picture made with the new medium of photography. Ni�pce described his photograph as a "heliograph"(sun drawing) and he described that it required an exposure of 8 hours. Unlike earlier and subsequent experimenters, Ni�pce used entirely different, non-silver chemistry. He exploited the chemistry of Bitumen of Judea, which turns white in the sun giving a direct positive, very fuzzy. His heliographs were therefore direct positives. In his notebooks Ni�pce also distinguished between work which was points de vue (landscapes) and copies de gravures (copying artwork). A detailed description of Ni�pce's experiments can be found in Gernsheim (1955) and Batchen (1997)

In 1829 Ni�pce formed a commercial partnership with Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. Daguerre was an entrepreneur and diorama painter and had excellent cameras, which Ni�pce lacked. Ni�pce did not live to see the fruition of the partnership but died in 1833, his son Isidore continues the partnership with Daguerre. Daguerre subsequently reduces the exposure using different chemistry and gets sharper images by his new method the Daguerreotype. In 1839 Francois Arago champions Daguerre's invention to the French Chamber of Deputies, requesting "a pension for life.... for its revelation". Arago cites its usefulness for the "Copying of hieroglyphics, historic monuments & scientific applications" On August 19th 1839 the method was revealed in Paris and the same day communicated to the USA by telegraph.

Daguerreotype method

1. Using a piece of Silver-coated Copper plate, which is polished mirror bright.

2. Fume the surface of the metal with Iodine vapour (a reaction which forms the photosensitive compound Silver Iodide).

3. Expose plate in a camera for 15 - 60 minutes

4. Develop plate with fumes from a heated Mercury bath until the image appears.

5. Fix in Sodium Chloride or Sodium Thiosulphate to remove Silver Iodine

6. Rinse with distilled water.



When Daguerre made his "revelation" William Henry Fox Talbot (b.1800) in England also claimed the rights to the invention of photography. The background to Talbot's invention is that while on holiday at Lake Como in Italy, and making drawings using Wollaston's Camera Lucida, (1807) he became interested in the idea of "fixing the image of the camera obscura" (Talbot 1844).


Camera Lucida A Simple portable device in which light is reflected from subject through a prism where a virtual image is cast onto tracing paper. It usually comprised a prism attached to a metal rod, which is fixed to a drawing board.

Upon returning to England Talbot experimented to produce a workable method for his idea. In 1839 after hearing of Daguerre's revelation, Talbot read a paper to The Royal Society describing his experiments. Talbot's invention of the positive/negative process has been extensively described including (Talbot 1844) and (Hannavy 1976).

Calotype Method

1. Paper soaked in Sodium chloride solution.

2. Then soaked in Silver Chloride (AgCl3)

3. Expose in the camera obscura

4. Fix in sodium chloride


Talbot's crucial discovery was that a weak solution of silver nitrate worked best, but exposure times were long, fixation was inadequate, resulting in poor stabilisation and quick fading. Another drawback to Talbot's sun pictures was that the weave of the paper is recorded in the positive as interference.

By 1840 Talbot had reduced the length of his exposure times, the original 1839 calotype required 1-2 minutes, by 1850 it was down to seconds. Talbot also adopted Herschel's idea of sodium thiosulphate as the means of fixation.

In 1840 seeking financial support Talbot applies for a patent for the Calotype (gk.kalos - beautiful).In 1843 Talbot began publishing a series of folios of his work culminating in his "Pencil of Nature"(1844). 1853 in a letter to The Times, Talbot loosens his patent restrictions allowing everyone except "commercial photographers" to use his invention.

"We have sufficient authority in the Dutch school of art for taking as subjects of representation scenes of daily life and familiar occurrence.

A painter's eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine or, a shadow thrown across his path, a time withered oak may awaken thoughts, feelings and picturesque imaginings" Talbot (1844)


The work of the Scottish Portraitists Hill & Adamson (1843-47) is now regarded as the finest work achieved by the calotype process. Davis Octavius Hill, a landscape painter, was commissioned to paint the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, when 155 of the original 907 assembled ministers broke with the established church.

The scientist Sir David Brewster suggests that Hill makes individual calotypes of his subjects and introduces him to Robert Adamson an engineer and expert photographer. The partnership of Hill & Adamson ran for 5 years until Adamson died, from their work 1,400 paper negatives survive.

Walter Benjamin cites Orlick on time captured, in Hill and Adamson's photography.

"The synthesis of expression which was achieved through the long immobility of the model in these early photographs is the chief reason beside their simplicity, like a well drawn or painted likeness, which exercise a more penetrating longer lasting effect on the observer than photographs taken more recently."(Arendt 1970)


Hill's own assessment of the work was quite modest writing in 1848: "The rough and unequal texture throughout the paper is the man cause of the calotype failing in details before the daguerreotype...AND this is the very life of it. They look like the imperfect work of man... and not the much diminished perfect work of God." (Jeffrey 1981).

"It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones; absent or dead offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture.

For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expressions of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty." Walter Benjamin (Arendt 1970)


Hybrid Photographer-Painters

Aside from the advanced technical equipment used by painters. Galassi (1981) notes the adoption and the use among painters of the technique of the oil sketch, a quick and intentionally unfinished record of a transient occurrence. The observation of the transient moment is comparable to the metaphysics of the new invention of photography.

Comparisons between John Constable's "Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree (c.1821)[oil on paper] and works by the photographer Gustave le Gray such as "Beech Tree" (1855-57)[wax negative and albumen print] underlie Galassi's argument for a convergence of ideas among contemporary artists. While peripheral to our central argument the writings of Coke (1964) and Scharf (1968) further demonstrate the contingency of painting and photography during the nineteenth century.

In Paris the photographic portrait is a la mode, "Nadar" Gaspar Felix Tournachon publishes "Pantheon Nadar" in 1854 which consisted of lithographed sheets of 300 caricatures of his Parisian literary contemporaries for which he uses photographs as source from which to make drawings. In 1855 Nadar opens portrait studio, sitters include Daumier, Manet, Courbet, Millet, Corot, and Baudelaire.

While commercial portraiture was a lucrative business artists sought to use the medium of photography in emulation of the thinking of contemporary painters, particularly those of the Pre-Raphaelites. Most prominent was the English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron whose work contrast with that of the French portraitist Nadar, he chose "Character", and she chose "Dreams".

Cameron's first exhibition was at Colnaghi's Gallery, London in 1864 and followed by her 1875 publication "Idylls of the King and other Poems by Tennyson", illustrated with hand-tipped albumen prints. Jeffrey remarks "Her subjects are removed from the mundane actuality and projected into a spiritual world of her own devising - a legendary place not unlike the heroic Arthurian world created by her friend and neighbour Alfred Lord Tennyson." (Jeffrey, 1981)

By 1850 the Albumen Print was available, this was the most common photographic print in the 19th century. Introduced by Louis Desire Blanquart Evrard it could be directly purchased by photographers as a paper coated with albumen containing sodium chloride (common salt). The paper was then sensitized by the photographer with Silver Nitrate solution and printed by contact.

These photographic prints were a bronze colour, as the result of toning for stabilisation, and required mounting on card because the albumen papers were very thin. By 1872 pre-sensitized paper was available In 1851 the Liverpool photographer Scott Archer had invented the Collodion process for making negatives, which he offered free of patent restrictions, by 1855 photography was free to all users.

The effect on painting during the century was dramatic. As early as 1839 the painter Paul de la Roche wrote "From Today Painting is Dead" while Arago stated that "At the moment Daguerre succeeded in fixing the images in the camera obscura the painter had been distinguished from the technician."

Walter Benjamin describes the genuine victim of photography was not landscape painting but the miniature portrait. "...things developed so swiftly that as early as 1840 most of the innumerable painters of miniatures had become professional photographers. At first only on the side but soon, however exclusively."

Benjamin further notes "It was not their preparation in art BUT in craft to which the high level of their photographic accomplishments must be credited."

Although portrait photography had supplanted the painter of miniatures. Sitters still expected an idealised portrait. It became general practice to remove defects and by 1842 Richard Beard had patented the hand colouring of photographs.

By the 1850' retouching is so extreme that some photographic societies banned colour photographs from their exhibitions. They insisted that "touched up" photographs should be exhibited alongside the negative arguing that "Photographs must be produced solely by the action of light on sensitive materials."

Later 19thc. Developments in Portraiture

Cartes and "Sure Cards" patented by Adolph-Eugene Disderi in 1857 consisted of 8- 10 pictures on a plate, which after printing were then mounted on card. The Emperor Napoleon visited Disderi's studio and made the carte very popular.

These are the first mass produced photographs of famous people. In England J.E. Mayall's photographic cartes of Queen Victoria sold more than one hundred thousand copies. It is reported that Disderi's turnover was �48,000 per year and in England the studio of Mayall's was �28,000.

Oliver Sarony a Canadian who settled in Scarborough in 1857 was the most successful provincial photographer, making �10,000 per year from his Scarborough studio.

"The studio was a 120ft palace... furnished in the Louis Quinze style, considered the embodiment of good taste and elegance."

His business brought a lot of money to the town. In gratitude the town named a square in which his establishment stood as "Sarony Square". Public figures would be given free sittings, worth money to the photographer through sales of cards.

People did not actually leave cards ( bad taste), the fashion was to exchange cartes with friends. The French aristocrat Camille Silvy stooped to a few years to the lucrative business of portrait photography. In 1859 he opened a London studio employing 40 men. He ran a series of cards "The Beauties of England" which swamped the market and made him a fortune.

Census of photographers

1841 Photography was not recorded as a profession but it is known that at least 3 professional establishments operated in London.

1851 census includes 51 photographers

1861 census includes 2,534 photographers a definite understatement which excludes dabblers and the thousands who were employed in the trade.


Further Reading

Benjamin (1970)

Batchen (1997)

Hamilton J. Turner A Life (London, Hodder & Stoughton; 1977)

Jeffrey (1981)

Cornford F.M. The Republic of Plato (Oxford,Clarendon Press;1941)

Schwartz (1949)

Talbot (1844)


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Dr. Peter Hagerty (PhD)