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A Brief History of Photography

Digital History TOPIC ID 51

The development of photography in the mid-19th century made images an integral part of American life. Today, it is more important than ever to develop visual literacy and understand how to “read” a photograph.

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 process of capturing an image. Among the terms bandied about were 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 But by the end of the 1850s, the daugerreotype had been replaced by a new method of photography known as the wet plate process.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. Brady carefully arranged the scenes, and even moved corpses to ensure that they appeared where he wanted them.

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.

Another group of professional photographers used photographs as an instrument of social reform. The two most important early documentary photographers were Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

A Danish immigrant, Jacob Riis was the pioneer in the use photography as an instrument of reform. A crusading newspaper reporter who took his camera into urban slums.

Riis gained lasting recognition as a result of a book entitled How the Other Half Lives. In the past, he wrote, “the half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath.” But he wanted to rectify that omission.

Reading Riis's book today can be a disturbing experience. His book is filled with condescending and insulting generalizations. Italian immigrantss were “content to live in a pig-sty.” Chinese immigrants were “in no sense a desirable element of the population. For Eastern European Jews, he wrote, “Money is their God. Life itself is of little value compared with even the leanest bank account.” About African Americans, he wrote, “Poverty, abuse and injustice alike the Negro accepts with imperturbable cheerfulness.”

The son of an Oshkosh, Wisconsin storekeeper, Lewis Wickes Hine was one of America's most successfully socially-conscious reform-minded photographers. No one was more effective in arousing public passion over child labor than Lewis Wickes Hine. Hired by the National Child Labor Committee in 1908 to document child labor, he took over 5,000 photographs of children working in agriculture, canneries, coal mines, factories, mills, and sweatshops, mainly in the South. His photographs revealed the brutal conditions of child labor and the inadequacy of existing child labor laws. His photographs awoke the nation's conscience in a way that statistics and reports had failed to accomplish.

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