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)”

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 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”