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

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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”

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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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”

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”