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A Brief History of Photography

Dr. Makeda Best

Boulevard du Temple. 1838-1839. Paris, France. (Louis Daguerre)

During the 1830s, two different kinds of photographic images developed in France and England. The metal-based and mirror-like daguerreotype was invented in France in the 1830s by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce. The daguerreotype, named after Daguerre, who introduced it to the world in 1839, was made through a process that involved coating a copper plate with silver iodide, which was subsequently inserted into the camera and exposed. Later, to make the image appear, the plate was then exposed to mercury vapor, and made permanent with a salt solution. Concurrently, in England, William Henry Fox Talbot worked to create another photographic technique. His paper-based photographic technique, called the calotype, involved coating a sheet of paper with silver chloride, and exposing it to light in a camera, which produced a negative image. During this period, slow exposure times and bulky equipment meant that most photographic images were portraits and landscape views. Photographers all over the world followed Daguerre’s instructions and began making their own daguerreotypes. In the United States, for example, daguerreotype portraits were more popular than anywhere else in the world. Meanwhile, scientists such as Anna Atkins used Talbot's process to document the natural world.

Antietam, Md. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand; another view: Photograph from the main eastern theater of the war, Battle of Antietam, September-October 1862. October 3, 1862. Antietam, Maryland. (Alexander Gardner / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpb-04326)

Around 1851, both of these techniques were largely replaced by a new technique called the wet collodion process, which was invented by Frederick Scott Archer of England. Instead of glass or paper, Archer’s process used a glass plate. The plate was coated with a sticky solution called “collodion” (cellulose nitrate) and iodine. After being placed in a silver nitrate solution to create silver iodide, the plate, “wet” with the photosensitive chemical solution, was immediately and carefully placed in the camera and exposed. Wars of this period were documented with the wet collodion method: During the mid-1850s, Englishman Roger Fenton documented the Crimean War. During the American Civil War, photographers—led by Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady—laid the groundwork for contemporary photojournalism. Meanwhile, in the American West, photographer Carleton Watkins produced the first views of sites such as the Yosemite Valley. It was not until 1871 that a “dry” version was invented. Dry plates were precursors to modern film, and could be mass-produced and stored for later use.

In 1889, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, revolutionized photography with his camera kit intended for mass audiences. Until Eastman’s “Kodak” cameras, photography had required specific skills and facilities and expensive equipment. Eastman introduced easy-to-use cameras in 1889, and later pioneered roll film. For the first time, everyday people could make photographs—“snapshots”—of their lives. In fact, Eastman’s innovative advertising inspired users to do so.

In 1936, a new camera, fast and lightweight—called the Leica—made it possible to document life in real time. Although photographers since the late 1880s had been working to photograph motion—Eadweard Muybridge, for example—the Leica ushered in the modern era of capturing life as it unfolded. Parallel developments in printing technologies supported a burgeoning magazine industry, and soon, throughout the world, people learned about contemporary events through photographs. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, photography expanded its presence in use across a variety of fields and in everyday life through magazines, newspapers, and other printed media. At home, the production of photographs became synonymous with domestic and familial life.

Although inventors and artists had experimented with color photography during the nineteenth century, color photography did not become viable until the early 1940s, which was soon after Eastman’s Kodak company introduced the first 35 mm color films. During the 1960s, color photography emphasized the harsh realities of the Vietnam War, and it expanded our perception of the universe through color photographs of earth. Color film dominated as a popular format until the late 1990s, when digital photography came into widespread use.

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