Figure 1:  Yosemite Valley from the "Best General View” No. 2, 1866, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum

A Brief History of Photography: Part 14 – Photography in Yosemite B.A. (Before Ansel)

In 2009, renowned documentary cinematographer Ken Burns released “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” to broad acclaim and helped inspire a surge in tourism and interest in the U.S. National Parks. One of the oldest and most popular of these is Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, and it has come to symbolize the American focus on the environmental and conservation movements. It can be argued that Yosemite has come to be regarded as a national beacon for preserving our nation’s national resources in large part through the influence of the photographic medium; the long reach and emotional impact of great photography captured the public’s attention and compelled government to take action to protect these national treasures. For this, we in the photography world can proudly applaud the extraordinary talents and achievements of – Carleton F. Watkins.

Figure 1:  Yosemite Valley from the
Figure 1: Yosemite Valley from the “Best General View” No. 2, 1866, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum

Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 14 – Photography in Yosemite B.A. (Before Ansel)”

Leica_Logo

A Brief History of Photography – Part 13: The Early Story of Leica, Short Version

Leica_LogoLeica. The word alone conjures images of exquisite mechanical craftsmanship, unsurpassed optics, and the epitome of photographic quality; it is bathed in a near mystic aura in the photographic world. The almost fanatical obsession of Leica-philes for all things Leica is matched perhaps by only the extreme loyalty of Harley-Davidson lovers to that motorcycle brand. The story of how Leica reached this lofty position has been minutely dissected before by numerous more qualified devotees of the mark than this writer, so it is perhaps a bit audacious to attempt to give an abridged account of the Leica story. At the risk of riling the faithful, what follows is the early story of Leica, the short version. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography – Part 13: The Early Story of Leica, Short Version”

Figure 4: "Struggle", Robert Demachy, 1903

A Brief History of Photography: Part 12 – Movements: Pictorialism versus Straight Photography

When George Eastman’s Kodak box camera was introduced in 1888, its popularity spawned an identity crisis of sorts within the photographic community. The widespread availability and relatively low cost of the Kodak camera and its ease of use resulted in an explosive surge in the number of new photographers. This led to the creation of millions of photographs, characterized by a small number of strong images obscured in a sea of mediocrity. While the huge “snapshot” market provided the financial strength to sustain the growing photography industry, it challenged serious amateur and professional photographers to differentiate their work from that of casual shooters. It seemed the solution could be found in two parts: through either technical excellence, or through artistic merit.

Ironically, this divided answer to photographic distinction paralleled the differences between the two most popular processes in early photography. The daguerreotype exhibited exquisitely high image sharpness, resolution, and detail, arguably capturing a more accurate rendering of the subject. In contrast, the calotype presented a softer, grainier, more ethereal image quality, perhaps encouraging a more artistically interpretive approach to the subject. The debate over these two approaches, to either document a technically accurate record of the subject, or to exercise aesthetic interpretation, has fueled contentious photographic art movements from the 1880’s to the modern day.

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Figure 14:  Sarah Bernhardt, 1865, Felix Nadar, public domain

A Brief History of Photography: Part 11 – Early Portrait Photography

Baby pictures, graduation pictures, wedding photos, senior portraits, party snapshots, and even cellphone “selfies” all share a common theme – a desire to capture moments that hold personal significance, generally of loved ones, family, friends, and self. This need to record and hold dear memories is not a new one; throughout history, we have attempted to record ourselves and others by the best means available, via cave drawings, hieroglyphics, paintings, sculpture, and in the past 200 years, through photography. While modern cellphone cameras and prolific social media venues have made portrait making and sharing an almost trivial undertaking today, the easy access to portraits of friends, family, and self we enjoy is the result of years of technical and aesthetic development in the field of photography. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 11 – Early Portrait Photography”

Figure 1: Sputnik 1 Satellite, painting by Detlev Van Ravenswaay

A Brief History of Photography: Part 10 – Sputnik & Digital Photography

In October 1957, with the launch of Sputnik, the Russians, under the leadership of Sergei Korolev, won the first leg of the space race over the American program led by Werner Von Braun. And so the quest to develop digital photography was launched.

Figure 1: Sputnik 1 Satellite, painting by Detlev Van Ravenswaay
Figure 1: Sputnik 1 Satellite, painting by Detlev Van Ravenswaay

What did the space race have to do with photography? Wasn’t it about putting a man in orbit, space stations, landing on the moon, and intercontinental nuclear weapons delivery? In fact it was about all those things, but in 1957 the biggest interest and concern regarding satellites was their ability to carry cameras that could spy on your enemies. The goal then was to capture an image from space, but the technology of the day required film, which had to be returned to earth either by recovering the satellite itself or by recovering a film capsule ejected by the satellite. This process entailed the risk of imagery loss if the aerial or sea recovery procedure failed. Even when recovery was successful, the imagery was not immediately available in a time-sensitive situation. These limitations led to research on the means of capturing imagery data and transmitting that data electronically to ground stations. This research led to the development of imaging sensors and processors that have brought us the digital photography we take for granted today. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 10 – Sputnik & Digital Photography”

Edwin Land with SX-70 Camera on the cover of October 27, 1972 issue of LIFE

A Brief History of Photography: Part 9 – Polaroid & Instant Film

Consider, if you will, an ambitious young man entering Harvard University at age seventeen. After a year of study there, he finds that the established curriculum is stifling his creative spirit. He drops out after his freshman year and starts up his own research corporation, which transforms into a successful manufacturing concern that shakes up the marketplace with his breakout invention. This relentless spirit of innovation continues, with his company introducing a range of farsighted new products, culminating in a paradigm-shifting blockbuster new technology. While the parallels are certainly there, we are not speaking of Bill Gates and Microsoft, nor Steve Jobs and Apple, but of Edwin H. Land and Polaroid. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 9 – Polaroid & Instant Film”

Afghan Girl

A Brief History of Photography: Part 8 – Kodachrome & Color Film

The additive screen color photography techniques, as theorized by Maxwell, and as realized in the practical sense through the Dufaycolor and Autochrome processes discussed in the previous installment of this series, failed to gain broad and lasting acceptance due to some fundamental shortcomings. Additive techniques required color filters to be somehow maintained in register both for the initial image exposure and then to view the final product. These filters introduced image-degrading artifacts in the forms of lines, crosshatches, or grain patterns. The filters also screened out a significant percentage of the light hitting the film emulsion, effectively lowering their sensitivity and use in lower light situations.

Beginning in 1869 with the published papers accompanying his patents on the subject, Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron set forth basic concepts of using subtractive color theory in color photography. The subtractive process removes certain colors from white light while allowing other colors. The three subtractive primary colors (cyan, magenta, yellow) are the complementary colors of the three additive primary colors (red, green, blue), and in combined use as filters can generate almost any color. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 8 – Kodachrome & Color Film”

Ist Photographic Color Image

A Brief History of Photography: Part 7 – The Dawn of Color

While the advancement of photography steadily progressed from daguerreotypes, through calotypes, wet plate collodion, dry gelatin plate, on to celluloid film, one aspect of this progress was a constant – the images obtained were monochromatic or gray scale, exhibiting a tonal response from white through gray to black. All of these methods failed to address a key limitation posed by the silver-based emulsions they all shared. They did not capture the natural world as the human eye perceived it – in color.

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1888 Kodak Camera Advertisement

A Brief History of Photography: Part 6 – KODAK & The Birth of Film

In 1883 George Eastman had just expanded his photographic dry plate mass production operation in Rochester, New York, and seemed to be in a strong position to dominate the market. Eastman’s initial entry into the photography world had introduced him to the complexities and physical burdens the early technology entailed; toxic chemicals, heavy equipment, short working times, and a need to technically master these challenges. As a result, his entrepreneurial efforts were fueled by a compulsion to continually improve the science of photography, to make it easier for the common man to employ, and to broaden its appeal, “to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.” This compulsion, combined with the technical contributions of his associates and competitors, led to photographic innovations that still serve us today. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 6 – KODAK & The Birth of Film”

Period British Dry Plate Advertisement

A Brief History of Photography: Part 5 – Dry Plate Photography

The photography enthusiasts of the mid-19th century were witness to a remarkable series of technological innovations and advancements, beginning with Niepce’s bitumen-based discovery in 1826, through the introduction in 1851 of wet-plate collodion as a high-image-quality, reproducible, and commercially viable process. However, the strict time constraints of the collodion process (the photographer needed to prepare, expose, and develop his photographic plates within 10-15 minutes) meant that the photographer needed to assume a near-professional approach to the task to address these demands. The photographer needed to be able to bring all the required chemistry on-site, and required either a permanent studio or transportable darkroom facility to prepare and develop his plates. For photography to find a wider circle of participants, a less demanding means was needed. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 5 – Dry Plate Photography”

Pouring Collodian.
Freestyle Photographic Supplies website

A Brief History of Photography: Part 4 – Wet Plate Collodion

As an aspiring photographer in 1850, one would be faced with a choice of two avenues to pursue, the daguerreotype process or Talbot’s calotype process.  Daguerre’s process offered extremely detailed positive images, but the limitation of only one-off image production; each image produced was a non-reproducible original.  Conversely, the calotype yielded softer, less sharp negative images, but one that could be used repeatedly to make multiple positive copies.  The new challenge then was to combine the strengths of these two processes while eliminating their shortfalls.

This was the dilemma facing Englishman Frederick Scott Archer (1814-1857), a sculptor who had been using calotype portraits to facilitate his sculptural work.  Archer realized the limitations imposed by paper as a carrier for the light-sensitive emulsion; even papers made translucent by waxing still softened the captured image, and transmitted the paper’s textures to the image.  Archer realized that a better carrier for the emulsion would be glass, but the light-sensitive chemicals would not adhere directly to glass; a binding agent, obviously clear, was required. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 4 – Wet Plate Collodion”

Portrait of William Henry Fox Talbot, Antoanine Claudet, 1844

A Brief History of Photography: Part 3 – The Birth of the Negative

Shortly after Louis Daguerre presented the results of his pioneering photographic work to the world in 1839, the daguerreotype appeared to stand alone as a unique technological achievement.  It seemed to address the primary concerns of the photographic experimenters of the time; to capture real-world images using a relatively short exposure time; to yield an image of acceptable resolution and aesthetic value; and   to create an image demonstrating a fade-free permanence. That the daguerreotype did all this so well, with no legal or patent restrictions on the practitioner, it was no wonder that the process quickly found a near fanatical following throughout the world.

Before the formal unveiling of Daguerre’s achievements in August 1839, word had begun to spread throughout Europe that the Frenchman had succeeded in developing an innovative method of recording camera images.  These rumors prompted an English scientist and mathematician, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), to hurriedly present the details of his independently developed process to the Royal Society in January and February 1839.  Unaware of each other’s efforts, both Daguerre and Talbot had been simultaneously working to solve the early riddles of photography.  While it turned out that each man had taken decidedly different technical approaches to the problem, Talbot had naturally assumed that Daguerre’s method mirrored his own, and he was attempting to establish a claim to priority.

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Louis Daguerre, 1844 photographer Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Biot

A Brief History of Photography: Part 2 – Daguerre

As noted in Part 1 of this series, Joseph Niepce is generally acknowledged as the first successful photographer, through his achievement in 1827 of capturing, via his heliography process, an image that remained light-fast (did not continue to darken when further exposed to light). This process was limited by the extremely long exposure time required by the materials involved.  Shortly after this achievement, he was introduced to French artist and businessman Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787-1851) through their optician, Charles Louis Chevalier, who manufactured the lenses for their cameras obscura. Together they strove to improve the process Niepce had fathered. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 2 – Daguerre”

View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

A Brief History of Photography: Part 1 – The Beginnings

The term “photography” was coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839 from the Greek, “phōtós,” meaning light, and “graphê,” meaning “drawing,” or “drawing with light.” Photography today has a different meaning for different people; for some it is a profession, for others an avocation.  Regardless, all photography today still addresses a primary need first articulated by prehistoric man painting on cave walls – to record images of himself, his activities, and the world around him, both for documentary purposes and for artistic expression.  While the technology has progressed, this basic principle has endured, and the efforts of those before us to achieve these ends both inform us and build the foundation from which we can move forward to advance the art. Continue reading “A Brief History of Photography: Part 1 – The Beginnings”