Early Photography

“Camera” is the Latin word for vault or chamber. It was adopted as the name for the photographic device because early demonstrations of the basic photographic principle involved a dark chamber, hence “camera obscura,” with a pinhole in one wall, letting in light and forming an image of an external scene on the opposite wall. The Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to describe the camera obscura in 1515. In the form of small wooden box with a simple lens instead of a mere pinhole, the camera obscura became an optical toy. The addition of a prism to reflect the image downward onto paper created the camera lucida, which could be used for tracing a scene or subject. In the eighteenth century, chemical experimenters discovered that certain salts, such as silver nitrate, reacted to light. The next discovery was that an image could be retained by placing an item such as a leaf on a surface coated with an emulsion of silver salts and exposing it to light. The exposed surface darkened, and the covered surface remained unchanged. Images produced by this contact process were called photograms.

In the early nineteenth century, pioneers in England and France invented true photography. In the early 1820s, the French doctor Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce developed his “heliographic” process, whereby a pewter plate coated with bitumen was placed in a camera obscura and exposed to light for eight hours. Another Frenchman, Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, developed the first commercially successful photographic process in 1838. He captured the image on a metal plate coated with silver iodine and used mercury vapor to “fix” the image. However, daguerreotypes were delicate and needed careful handling. They were typically mounted in hinged cases to prevent fading and protect the surface. In 1839, Alphonse Giroux of Paris developed an improved camera for Daguerre, and exposure times began to shorten.

The major disadvantage of the daguerreotype was that the image could not be reproduced. The one-step process was soon superseded by the calotype process, patented by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot in 1841. Fox Talbot’s process produced a negative image, with the black and white portions reversed, which was developed and fixed.

The image was then reversed to produce one or more positive images by placing the negative in contact with photosensitive paper and re-exposing it to light. In 1843, Fox Talbot invented an enlarger, which created a positive photographic print larger than the negative. However, his calotype paper was soon supplanted by more durable and fast-exposure glass-plate negatives. The wet-plate or wet collodion process, developed by the Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851, required the photographer to coat the glass plates immediately before use and develop them straight afterward, a rather messy procedure that tended to discourage amateur interest. The introduction of dry gelatin plates, consisting of glass with a coating of silver bromide, in the 1870s made outdoor photography easier and stimulated amateur photography. It was the invention of roll film in the 1880s, however, that made photography attractive to a mass audience.