“What is photography?” or “what is a photograph?”; you will surely think that answers to these questions are pretty obvious. Everyone knows what is a photograph! Simply put, photography is the art or act of taking photographs. The device that is used to take photos is called a camera. Photographs are the visual records created by the impressions of light on a variety of light-sensitive surfaces. Literally also, the word photograph means “drawing with light”. The word photograph is made of two Greek words; photo means light and graph means drawing (or record).
Photography, as we see it today, was invented in nineteenth century. And last couple of centuries, the art and science of photography has developed by leaps and bounds. The modern photography is an important medium of conserving information for the coming generations. It is a very common method of communication and expression. Therefore, no surprise that photography has developed into a well-established form of art as well.
Let’s look at the journey of photography through the annals of time. We will see how photography started, developed and reached its present day status.
History of Photography
In 1694, Wilhelm Homberg, an Dutch, observed that exposure to light makes certain chemicals (like silver nitrate and silver chloride) dark in color. This probably was the first step towards the evolution of modern photography.
But before that, there was camera obscura. The camera obscura is a device that can produce a non-permanent, but very accurate image of an object on a wall or a piece of paper. The reproduced image used to be upside-down but later people were able to produce straight image with the help of mirrors.
Camera obscura alone was capable of producing an image but it was not able to create a lasting image or what we call now a photograph. Permanency of image produced by camera obscura was achieved in 1820s.
The very first permanent photograph was created by Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, a Frenchman, in 1826. Therefore, Niépce is, quite correctly, called the father of photography. He used Camera Obscure technique to create the first permanent photographic image and called it “View from the Window at Le Gras”.
Niépce actually had created the first photograph in 1822 on a photographic plate (a plate covered with silver salts). But that ancestor of all photos was destroyed when Niépce was trying to make prints of it. Niépce’s technique is now known as lithography. He used a camera obscura. But instead of a wall or paper, he let the image be produced on a photographic plate. He let the camera and plate stay like that for several hours. Due to long exposure, certain areas of the plate got darker. Plate areas that received higher intensity of light, became more dark. Thus the first photograph was produced.
However, Niépce’s technique had a problem. It used to take at least eight hours to create an image. He worked with Louis Daguerre to reduce the amount of time. After Niépce’s death, Daguerre worked alone and in 1837 he was able to develop a process that reduced the amount of time required to few minutes. This new technique was called daguerreotype. The oldest existing daguerreotype was created by Louis Daguerre in 1837. He titled this daguerreotype as “L’Atelier de l’artiste”
Louis Daguerre reduced the exposure time required to minutes and thereby it became possible to take photograph of people. Earlier when it used to take as much as eight hours to make a photograph, it was very difficult to create photograph of people as they could not sit without moving for so long. The first photo showing human beings was created by Daguerre in 1938. The exposure time was 10 minutes and the photo was taken from a window. This photo shows the Boulevard du Temple, located in Paris.
As Daguerre was developing his photographic process, William Fox Talbot independently developed another process which was the first photographic process based on negative-positive. His process Talbotype, produced a negative image on a paper soaked in silver salts. Once negative was made, a large number of positive copies could be created rather easily. This was the reason why it became more popular than the daguerreotype process.
Photography plates were replaced by thin films in 1870s. A thin layer of light-sensitive chemicals used to be made on surfaces like paper, and when the imaging process was complete, this chemical layer used to be lifted from thin paper and transferred to stronger base. This whole process was pretty clumsy and there photographs were destroyed during the transfer process.
In 1908, Kodak company introduced what they called safety film. Later on film making techniques evolved. Kodak was a pioneering company in developing films. Innovation in making better films made Kodak a house-hold name all over the world. But in the last decade of 20th century, digital photography began to grow roots. Advent of digital photography decimated a global corporation known as Kodak.
Earlier, photographs used to be just black and white. Wherever light fell on light-sensitive surface, it darkened that area proportionate with the light intensity. As a result, a basic black & white photograph would came into existence.
Work on color photography began in early 1840. Famous Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell managed to take the first permanent color photograph, in 1861. Maxwell’s technique involved taking three exactly same photographs through red, green and blue filters. When these three photos were merged a color photographs will became visible. Red, blue and green are the basic colors whose mixture can create any other color. All you need to do is to add these three colors in right proportions. Therefore, Maxwell’s technique is called additive method of color photography.
Kodak film reigned supreme in most part of the 20th century. Decline of film-based cameras began in 1981 when Sony Corporation unveiled a camera that did not need a film. This camera was named Sony Mavica and it saved digital photograph on disk instead of printing it on a paper.
Since then the digital photography has not looked back. Today, we have cameras that can click hundreds of photographs in one second. Photographs are extremely sharp, full of details and can contain every possible color. Cameras have also become so small that they can fit in a regular shirt pocket. Advent of digital photography brought a massive revolution in the field of photography.
Photography as an Art
As the science of photography evolved, people began to find a channel of expression in photographs. Visual artistic expression which earlier used to be made on paper using brush, had now found a new medium. Art of photography also began to develop. Framing, angles, composition of a photograph became important. Cameras made is possible for anyone to take photographs —but taking good, artistic and visually appealing photographs required an eye of an artist. Ansel Adam‘s photographs are so good that they made him one of the best fine art photographers of 20th century.
“A picture says a thousand words” is an old saying and it is very truth. They also say that the camera doesn’t lie. The ability of a camera to make an exact record of a particular moment makes this device very intuitive part of journalism. Words can be manipulated but a camera always speaks truth of that moment.
In the era of digital photography, however, digital photos can be easily manipulated using software like Photoshop. This gives rise to fake photographs. Although, with tests, it is possible to tell a fake photograph from a real photograph —but general public would often believe in manipulated photos. Consequently, fake photographs are a big nuisance of modern times. Using the power of Internet and social media to spread, fake photographs can easily cause problems.
Nevertheless, photo journalism is a very important profession. Photo-journalists are people who use their camera to document an event. There are war photographers as well, who would go the conflict locations and try to record what is going on at ground zero. Here on my website, I have written about a number of famous photographs that were taken during wars.
On this website I have written hundreds of articles on famous photographs. These are photos that remained etched in the memory of public and keep on reminding us of some significant moments in history. Photographs freeze time. They bring back memories. Photographs tell us stories of the olden times.
I hope you will like my series on famous photos. Please feel free to let me know your valuable feedback.