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A Brief History of Photography

The first photograph was an image recorded on a pewter plate by a Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in 1826. It showed the view from an upper story window in his home.

Great strides in photography would not take place until the next decades, when Louis Daguerre created images on silver-plated copper, coated with silver iodide, which developed with mercury.

In daguerreotypes, the images seem to float above the highly polished silver.

At first, there was no agreement about what to call the new process. Among the terms bandied about were No daugerreotype, crystalotype, talbototype, colotype, crastalograph, panotype, hyalograth, ambrotype, and hyalotype. Ultimately, a new word won out - photography, which means writing with light.

Daugerreotypy was a cumbersome and time consuming process. The biggest problem was that it was impossible to duplicate daguerreotypes. But by the end of the 1850s, the daugerreotype had been replaced by a new method of photography known as the wet plate process. A British photographer named Frederick S. Archer discovered that a glass plate coated with a mixture of silver salts and an emulsion made of collodion could record an image. The image had to be developed immediately, before the emulsion dried. But it was now possible for the first time to make unlimited prints from a negative. It was also possible for photographers to take pictures outside of a studio.

A key figure in early American photography was Matthew Brady, who was just 22 years old when he took up photography in 1844. At first, many of his photographs were portraits of famous Americans, such as Senator Daniel Webster.

These photographs tended to portray individuals in solemn poses that reflected the republican emphasis on dignity and virtue and made no effort to show the background or setting.

Brady gained lasting fame for his Civil War photographs, which have created lasting images of the conflict in terms of rotting corpses and raved cities. Yet however lifelike these pictures seem, we must realize that they were not accurate depictions of wartime realities. Photographers like Brady and Alexander Gardner carefully arranged the scenes, and even moved corpses to ensure that they appeared where he wanted them.

Senator Daniel Webster

During the Civil War period, the process of taking photographs was complex and time-consuming. Two photographers would arrive at a location. One would mix chemicals and pour them on a clean glass plate. After the chemicals were given time to evaporate, the glass plate would be sensitized by being immersed -- in darkness -- in a bath solution. The photgrapher would then place the plate in a holder and insert it in the camera, which had been positioned and focused by the other photographer.

Exposure of the plate and development of the photograph had to be completed within minutes; then the exposed plate was rushed to the darkroom wagon for developing. Each fragile glass plate had to be treated with great care after development -- a difficult task on a battlefield.

Cold Harbor, Va.Photographer's wagon and tent (Between 1860 and 1865)
Library of Congress
[Gettysburg, Pa. Four dead soldiers in the woods near Little Round Top].1863.
Photograph by Alexander Gardner
[Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road]. 1862.
Photograph by Alexander Gardner
[Confederate and Union dead side by side in the trenches at Fort Mahone]. 1865
Selected Civil War Photographs at the Library of Congress

In 1885, American inventor George Eastman introduces film made on a paper base instead of glass, wound in a roll, eliminating the need for glass plates. Three years later, he introduced the lightweight, inexpensive Kodak camera, using film wound on rollers. He also began to develop films in his own processing plants. No longer did amateur photographers to process their own pictures.

Some professional responded to the growth of amateur photography by attempting to transform the photograph into a work of art.

One of the most famous American photographers, Alfred Stieglitz, experimented with camera angles, close ups, and focus to created photographs that resemble impressionist paintings.

Cultural historian Bram Dijkstra wrote that "it was Stieglitz who... provided the essential example of the means by which the artist could reach out to a new, more accurate mode of representing the world of experience."

“Winter on Fifth Avenue”, 1897, photogravure from Picturesque Bits of New York, 1897.
"The Steerage." 1907.
Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.


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