Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum
Series Resources A Brief History of Photography
Dr. Makeda Best
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.
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.
Program 1 A Closer Look (video)
This introduction to the course models the process of analyzing photographs with teachers and students. Photography historian Makeda Best discusses the Focus In method with teachers, and educator Julie Keefe employs the method with students at a photography exhibit on "light and dark." Photography curator at the Portland Art Museum, Julia Dolan discusses how she carefully selects a set of photographs to tell a larger story.
Program 2 Witness (video)
Photographs bear witness to world events and help us to learn more about people, places, and situations -- historical and present day. Middle school teacher Donald Rose guides students in analyzing photos from school integration movements of the 1960s. Documentary film producer Ken Burns weaves photographs into historical narratives to bring the past to life. Photojournalist Louie Palu's photos take us deep into mines and war zones, and engage us with the individuals who take on those tasks.
Program 3 Lives (video)
Lives explores the story of human resilience and perseverance. Middle school teacher Donald Rose uses the Migrant Mother photos by Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange to help students understand what elements a photographer chooses to focus on to create the greatest impact. Historian Linda Gordon, biographer of FSA photographer Dorothea Lange reveals Lange's role in engaging Americans in the plight of those who were most devastated. New Orleans documentary photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick talk about the transformation of their photographs after Hurricane Katrina and working with young photographers to preserve the city's cultural heritage.
video 4 Evidence (video)
An image can show us otherwise invisible processes, previously undiscovered life forms, and dramatic change over time. High school teacher Rima Givot engages her students with highly magnified photos of mouse muscle to study genetically modified organisms. Scientist and photomicrographer Dennis Kunkel demonstrates the fascinating process of creating photographs of the microscopic world. Environmental photographer Gary Braasch reports on his worldwide travels to document the state of the planet through repeat photography.
Program 5 Story (video)
Every photograph tells a story: of struggle, of beauty, of community and culture. Social studies teacher Kim Kanof uses photos from the Protests and Politics collection to teach about protests around in the world in 1968. National Geographic photo editor Pamela Chen details the collaborative process of creating photo-based feature stories with design director David Whitmore. Iowa photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier discusses his work documenting the residents and images of marginalized communities across the United States.