These days, taking a photograph is something that is so deeply ingrained in our history and social interactions that it has literally become a case of ‘point-and-shoot’. We don’t even need to print photos anymore. In fact, the majority of photos end up on Facebook, filled with duck faces and horribly posed self-portraits taken with the aim of getting some sort of self-worth out of seeing the little red notification window pop up when someone comments about how purrrty the new ‘celebrity-look’ makes them seem.
But it was not always so. Camera obscuras (basically a lens that projected an image onto a screen to be traced by hand) had been used for quite a long time (since ~1000AD) before the first permanent photo was ever developed. However, the problem with camera obscuras was that the result was only ever as good as the person’s skill at tracing the image. As William Talbot (about whom we will talk soon enough) said after trying to use the camera obscura:
“When the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold [...] How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!”
Such was the need for photography! The first photo that was ever taken used a type of oil-soluble bitumen as a drying agent on a pewter-plated plate. This process was called Bitumen of Judea and was first used in 1826, more than 800 years after the development of the camera obscura. It involved exposing the tar-covered plate to direct sunlight for 8 hours, which was then dipped in oil and polished. The areas of tar that reacted to the sunlight would set to the plate, and the unexposed areas would dissolve and wash away. The plate was then etched in acid, forming a printing plate. The first print from this plate can be seen below:
The next few discoveries came mainly from the development of the silver-emulsion process. Back then the photographic pioneers must have been rich! They used silver in everything, and it seems as though they just vaporised chemicals through other chemicals until they found something that reacted and made some photos. In the end, they found many things that worked, but the following became the most popular.
The first photographic ‘negative’ was produced by a guy (Talbot) who coated paper in silver chloride, which could be used to reproduce positive prints. This method (called the calotype process) produced smoky-looking prints because when the paper was wet with silver it became transparent! Photos still needed to be exposed for a few hours or more, so it wasn’t yet very practical for taking photos of people. Eventually, a refinement of this method was created by George Eastman (none other than the founder of Kodak), which is basically the method that modern film cameras still use today, albeit with many improvements in production and processing.
These methods laid down the groundwork for the development of photography for the next 150 years. Of course, people continued to muck around with different chemicals and mediums, producing different effects, methods and results. But most of the development during that time came from the expansion of photography around the world, and in how subjects were composed. It must have been a pretty magical time, I’m thinking. Imagine the excitement when seeing a detailed image of a scene appear before your eyes during development, it must have been like witchcraft!
So from sketching images on a glorified pinhole camera, to producing the fascinating image above, photography had already come a long way by the 1900s. But in comparison to today, it still has so far to go! Part 2 of this series will look at colour photography and the shift into the digital age…