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Early Photography

Early Photography

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will examine the invention of photography and some examples of early photography.

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Tutorial

An introduction to early photography.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about early photography. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe types of photographic processes, and explain briefly the history of early photography, and examine examples of early photography.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is camera obscura, literally a vaulted or darkened chamber/room, an optical device that projects an image of the surroundings on a screen or wall. Daguerreotype, invented by Louis JM Daguerre in France, 1839, the first commercial photographic process producing a permanent, direct positive image on a copper plate without the use of a negative. Direct positive process, making a one-of-a-kind photograph without the use of a negative.

Negative prints, photographic film that generates a negative of an image on a strip or sheet of film which can be used to process a reversed-order image called a print. Pinhole camera, a simple camera without a lens and a single aperture, basically a light-proof box with a small hole on one side containing a piece of photographic paper. Calotype, invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1839, it is the first photographic process using negatives and paper.

The big idea for today is that early photography was not considered true art. Photographers developed the pictorialist movement as a way of establishing photography as a valid form of art. The photography examples that we're looking at today date from between 1826 and 1857. We'll be traveling to Dorset, England, the home of William Henry Fox Talbot; Burgundy region of France, where Nicephore Niepce lived and died; and Paris, France, very near to where Louis Daguerre died in 1851.

The camera obscura and pinhole camera were precursors to the invention of photography. A pinhole camera is essentially a sealed container like a box that blocks light except for one tiny aperture or pinhole that allows light to enter. Now, pinhole cameras have no lenses to adjust and invert the image, so it appears upside down.

Now, camera obscura is a form of optical device that functions using the same principles as a pinhole camera, but could be more elaborate, using lenses and mirrors to adjust the image and range in size from tiny portable boxes to huge rooms. And that arrow there is showing you the one opening where the light enters the room.

The beginnings of photography adopted the principles of the pinhole camera and camera obscura, but used photosensitive chemicals on metal plates or paper to capture the image. So there are two early methods. The direct positive plate method involves taking a metal plate typically coated in photosensitive chemicals and exposing it to light.

So the camera housing would be set up with the plate inside. The aperture or opening would be opened. And light from the image would enter the aperture, react with the chemicals on the plate, producing a direct copy, black and white, of the original. The earliest photos by pioneering photographer Nicephore Niepce use this direct positive plate process, as well as Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype, a technique based on this process.

Now, the negative photographic process involves capturing an image where the color values are inverted. Darker colors appear lighter. Lighter colors appear darker. Now, this is the result of using different chemicals that were much more sensitive to light.

The calotype process, invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, is a form of the negative photographic process which served as the precursor to modern photography. So the overall process isn't that different from the direct positive process. A metal or paper substrate covered in photosensitive chemicals is inserted into the camera housing. The aperture is opened for a certain length of time, minutes to hours. And the chemicals react with the light, creating a negative image.

Now, the reason the colors are inverted, early photos would have only been black and white, is because of the high sensitivity of the chemicals used. Lighter colors means more light, which would react more strongly and quickly with the photosensitive chemicals, darkening them. Now the benefit is that in the process of inverting the color values of the negative during the processing, you can create multiple reproductions from an original negative. Now, in direct positive plate photography, the original photo is one-of-a-kind.

Nicephore Niepce is one of the original inventors of photography, and a technological pioneer. Now, he captures this image that we'll see, the first known photograph of nature, using a modified camera obscura instrument with a photosensitive chemically-covered metal plate. The exposure time was many hours, which is why you see shadows, if you can tell, that appear from two sides, not just one, due to the movement of the sun.

Now, Niepce used a chemical called bitumen of Judea, a naturally-occurring asphalt-like material that hardens with exposure to sunlight. The process works something like this. The bitumen-covered plate is heated so that the bitumen dries.

It is exposed to light from an image it's trying to capture. And after a certain amount of time, the exposed area hardens. Niepce then would rinse away the material that didn't set as strongly, revealing the image.

Now, Louis Daguerre, a friend and co-experimenter of Niepce, also experimented with early forms of photography. Upon Niepce's death, Daguerre built upon the process that Niepce had pioneered, resulting in the daguerreotype, a form of direct positive photography that created significantly more detailed results.

Now, with the incredible results and eventual decrease in cost as they got better at doing it, the daguerreotype reigned for many years as the most important form of photography, with people from all walks of life able to afford photographic images.

Daguerreotypes use a silver-coated surface as the substrate, which is the base metal, which tarnished and scratched easily. Now, this meant that they needed to be sealed under glass and kept in a protective case. The direct positive plate process also meant that photos were one-of-a-kind. Now, this led to a somewhat mystical association with the photographs. It was believed by many that the image contained the spirit of the person depicted.

Because of the exposure time needed, early photographs where often of still lifes or scenes in nature. Now, this photo is actually of a rather busy street. But because of the exposure time, which is 10 minutes or so, no cars appear in the final image, only this image of a person who we can assume is purposefully posing in this scene.

William Henry Fox Talbot developed the first form of photography that used paper and a negative in which the color and light values were inverted, as we discussed earlier. Now again, the use of a negative meant that multiple positive images, or prints, could be made from just one negative. This also served as the precursor to the 20th century film camera that dominated until the proliferation of digital cameras near the end of the 20th century.

Early in its existence photography encountered resistance from the art community in declaring it true art. Photographers developed the pictorialist movement as a way of establishing photography as a valid form of art. This example by Oscar Rejlander is an example of pictorialist photography.

Pictorialism involved photomanipulation in order to make the photo look more like a print or painting. Rejlander's The Two Ways of Life is actually a composite of multiple individual images spliced together. It's depicting the two ways of life, virtue and vice, or sin. Here we have the first known image of a man performing the water sprinkler, the greatest sin of all.

So that brings us to the end of our lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms, describe types of photographic processes, explain briefly the history of early photography, and examine examples of early photography?

Once again, the big idea for today is that early photography was not considered true art. Photographers developed the pictorialist movement as a way of establishing photography as a valid form of art.

And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. See you next time.

Notes on "Early Photography"

Key Terms

Camera Obscura

Literally a vaulted or darkened chamber/room; and optical device that projects an image of the surroundings on a screen or wall.

Daguerrotype

Invented by Louis J.M. Daguerre in France 1839, the first commercial photographic process producing a permanent direct positive image on a copper plate without the use of a negative.

Direct Positive Process

Making a one of a kind photograph without the use of a negative.

Negative Prints

A photographic film that generates a negative of an image on a strip or sheet of film which can be used to process a reversed order image called a print.

Pinhole Camera

A simple camera without a lens and a single aperture. Basically, a lightproof box with a small hole in one side containing a piece of photographic paper.

Calotype

Invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1839, it is the first photographic process using negatives and paper.

Citations

Image of Camera Obscura Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Camera_obscura2.jpg; Image of Pinhole Camera Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pinhole-camera.svg; Image of Louis Daguerre Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Louis_Daguerre_2.jpg; Image of Calotype Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Talbot_Harfe.jpg; View from the Window at Les Gras; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras,_Joseph_Nic%C3%A9phore_Ni%C3%A9pce.jpgBoulevard du Temple; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Boulevard_du_Temple_by_Daguerre.jpg; The Two Ways of Life; Public Domain (PD-1923): http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oscar-gustave-rejlander_two_ways_of_life_%28HR,_sepia%29.jpg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Camera Obscura

    Literally a vaulted or darkened chamber/room; and optical device that projects an image of the surroundings on a screen or wall.

  • Daguerrotype

    Invented by Louis J.M. Daguerre in France 1839, the first commercial photographic process producing a permanent direct positive image on a copper plate without the use of a negative.

  • Direct Positive Process

    Making a one of a kind photograph without the use of a negative.

  • Negative Prints

    A photographic film that generates a negative of an image on a strip or sheet of film which can be used to process a reversed order image called a print.

  • Pinhole Camera

    A simple camera without a lens and a single aperture. Basically, a lightproof box with a small hole in one side containing a piece of photographic paper.

  • Calotype

    Invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1839, it is the first photographic process using negatives and paper.