A History of Photography And How It Shaped The World


It’s hard to imagine a world without photography. From selfies and family portraits to school pictures and wedding photos, photography has become so ingrained in our modern culture that it’s almost second nature, making it easy to forget that it’s a relatively new concept. Yet the history of photography is a rich one. Both digital cameras and analog cameras are very important parts of the history of photography.

Article by Jordan Boggs for Light Stalking

It may surprise some to learn that since its birth less than two hundred years ago, photography has recorded an intense history fraught with bitter competition, the use of lethal devices, and intense international rivalries. The entire history, from camera obscura to mirrorless digital photography, is rather exciting!

Additionally, the field has seen a race for the development of game-changing technology that has been used in several other disciplines—from color animation to military tracking and explosive technology.

Dive into the history of photography and learn some of its best-kept secrets. Explore the figures who have helped shape the modern world and helped create some of the devices we use and take for granted daily. Digital photography has become a norm today, something that everyone uses – not just photographers!

history of photography timeline infographic
History of Photography Infographic by Jasenka for Light Stalking

Let’s get started…

The history of photography started with the discovery of two important principles:

  1. Camera obscura image projection
  2. Sensitivity of certain substances exposed to light

The third discovery would be digital cameras, but more about them later!

What Is Camera Obscura?

Camera obscura is a Latin word meaning “dark room” and is also referred to as a pinhole image.

The camera here represents a box or a chamber or room that lets light in through a small opening on one side and projects it on the other side. Obscura means dark or darkened.

Camera obscura works on the natural optical phenomenon where the image of a scene projected through a small opening appears inverted on the opposite surface.

camera obscura
Image by Dr Bob

During the second half of the 16th century, camera obscura with a lens in the opening was used, and it helped with drawing, painting, and entertainment. This was further developed into the photographic camera obscura during the first half of the 19th century when boxes with light-sensitive materials were used to project the image.

If you know what a pinhole camera is, it can be thought of as a camera obscura device without a lens. More often, pinhole cameras are made at home, and they usually use photographic film or paper to record the image.

The camera obscura device consists of a box or room with a small hole on one side. Light from a scene outside the box passes through the opening and falls on the surface opposite to the hole. An inverted scene is produced, which is the image, but it maintains the colors and perspective of the original scene. This is how camera obscura works.

camera obscura principle
Illustration of the camera obscura principle. Image from Wikipedia, author unknown

The criteria for a clear image is the aperture (the opening on the surface) has to be about 1/100th or less the distance between the hole and the screen. The smaller the opening, the sharper the image, but this can lead to dimmer images. Making the opening very small can also affect sharpness due to diffraction.

In practical applications, a lens is used in camera obscura rather than just a pinhole. A mirror can be used to project the image from the right side up without being inverted.

camera obscura box
Drawing of a camera obscura box. Image by Meggar
  • Before the 11th century, there were mentions of camera obscura, and it was used to study the behavior of light and learn how images are produced with it. It was only in and after the 11th century many scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and astronomers projected the image produced by camera obscura on a screen. 
  • In the 13th century, the camera obscura was used to safely observe the solar eclipse, and it was also used as a projector for entertainment.
  • In the 15th century, artists started using camera obscura for drawings.
  • Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta added a lens to the camera obscura in the place of a pinhole opening, and he used it to explain how the human eye works.
  • A lot of variants of the camera obscura were invented. They were wooden boxes instead of large rooms or tents with a lens in the place of the pinhole that can be moved to the front or back to maintain focus. It also hosted a mirror that rotated the inverted image so the image could be projected correctly on the screen instead of an inverted one. These formed the basis for the early photographic equipment with camera obscura.
modern-day camera oscura
A modern-day camera obscura used indoors. Image by The Bearded Man

Prior to the 18th century, there were no records or evidence to indicate images captured in light-sensitive materials. Around 1717, Johann Heinrich Schulze captured words using stencils by allowing sunlight to fall on a bottle of a light-sensitive mixture (chalk and silver nitrate in nitric acid), proving that silver salts were sensitive to light. Around 1800 Thomas Wedgwood made use of a durable surface coated with light-sensitive chemicals and was able to capture silhouettes or shadow images to create photograms because they were unable to fix these images.

Note: A photogram is a photographic image made without a camera. The object that needs to be photographed is placed directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material like photo paper and exposed to light. The result is a negative shadow that shows variations in tone depending on the transparency of the subject used. Areas that received no light appear white, those with short exposure (semi-transparent regions) appear shades of grey depending on the transparency, and fully exposed areas appear black.

photographic paper with lemon slices
A photogram made by placing several slices of lemon directly onto colored photographic paper, thus creating an image of their transparency. Image by Cormaggio
plants and soil photo suite
Photogram with plants and soil, from Jonn Leffmann's photo suite “Herbarium” 1999. Image by Jonn Leffmann

The Technological Development Of Photography

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

first photograph
Image by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

No history of photography is complete without starting with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Born in Chalon-Sur Saone, France, he spent the first half of his life with no interest in the scientific invention. During his youth, Niepce, who baptized Joseph but would later take the name “Nicephore” after the Saint Nicephorus, served as a staff officer under Napoleon.

Poor health would eventually force the young officer to resign his position, but Niepce was able to use his name and career to become the Administrator of the district of Nice. In this role, Niepce was reportedly an unpopular figure, and many experts attribute his eventual resignation to this. Officially, however, Niepce left to pursue “scientific research” with his brother Claude. His exit from the political sphere marked a dramatic turning point in his life—and in world history.

As early as the 1790s, Niepce had begun to show interest in using light to reproduce images. The topic of capturing light and using it in image production was hardly new; in fact, it had been around since the Renaissance. Despite this, there had yet to be a successful attempt at using light to recreate real-life scenes—and there wouldn’t be one for nearly thirty more years. Niepce and his brother would spend the majority of the next three decades working on one of the world’s first combustion engines.

But the thought of image production never left Niepce’s mind. Though it was not his main focus, Niepce spent several years developing a system that would capture light and reproduce it to form an image.

Inspired by lithography—a new art form that involved the transfer of ink from stone to paper via the printing press—Niepce endeavored to create a process that used light-sensitive material to recreate superimposed engravings in sunlight. Eventually, Nicéphore Niépce succeeded. Using the light-sensitive asphalt bitumen of Judea, Niepce was able to produce the world’s first photographic copy of an engraving in 1822. He would call this process “heliography.” Today, this process is documented as the world’s first successful photographic system.

dutch engraving old photography
A history of photography – oldest known photograph by Nicephore Niepce This photograph, the oldest known in the world, represents a Dutch engraving showing a man leading a horse. It was made by the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce in 1825.

In 1826/1827, Niepce used a camera to capture a view outside his workroom window. The image was fixed on a pewter plate coated with bitumen, which was later washed with a solvent and put over an iodine box.

The result was a plate that contained both light and dark aspects. Initially, researchers believed the exposure time to be around eight hours, but subsequent experiments have shown that Niepce’s method took days to reach completion. The images produced by this process seemed to fade away, and the ability to “fix” an image to make it permanent came long after this.

This image still exists today. it is part of the Gernsheim collection and has the distinction of being the world’s oldest photograph.

Niepce would later sign a business deal with Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a fellow inventor with an interest in Niepce’s heliographs and a desire to develop better photographic processes. The two would be partners for the next four years when Niepce died of a heart attack.

Today, Niepce is considered the world’s first photographer. His legacy now remains unquestioned, though he himself would remain relatively unknown in the decades following his death. Much to his son’s chagrin, much of the credit for the invention and popularization of photography would go to his partner, Daguerre, which leads us to…

Louis Daguerre

During the mid-1800s, scientists and photographers were experimenting with efficient ways to take and process photographs. Frederick Scoff Archer, in 1851, invented the wet plate negative or collodion process that involved a process of adding a soluble iodide to a solution of collodion (cellulose nitrate). He coated glass with light-sensitive silver salts and this was a more stable option compared to the coating on paper.

louis daguerre
A history of photography – photo by Louis Daguerre

Following Niepce’s death, Louis Daguerre would take the field of photography to the masses. Daguerre, who strived to find a process more efficient than Niepce’s heliography, would eventually sell his patent to the French government. In doing so, he received a hefty state pension, as did Niepce’s son Isidore.

The result of Louis Daguerre’s work is known as the “daguerreotype.” The production process of these photographic pieces varied significantly from Niepce’s heliography. The work would start with a simple silver copper plate. Using hide or velvet, the daguerreotypist would buff the silver side of the copper plate; the work was meticulous. If any plate section were tarnished, the resulting image would be compromised. For extra care, nitric acid would be applied to the plate after the buffing process was complete.

Once this stage was complete, the daguerreotypist would place the plate in a dark room and expose it to halogen fumes. Daguerre’s original process called for the use of iodine, which would cause the plate to become coated with silver iodide.

Following this, the plate would be carried to a camera and placed inside for exposure. The exposure process would take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Once the plate was removed from the camera, it would be placed into a developing box, where it would be exposed to heated mercury fumes for several minutes. This would cause the image to gain visibility. Research indicates that Daguerre’s process was sixty to eighty times quicker than Niepce’s heliography—a fact that no doubt had a huge impact on Daguerre’s widespread success.

old daguerrotype
A history of photography – daguerreotypeImage Attributed to Nicholas H. Shepherd , based on the recollections of Gibson W. Harris, a law student in Lincoln's office from 1845 to 1847. – Library of Congress, Public Domain

The daguerreotype gained commercial popularity in 1839 and would remain the dominant photographic form for the next twenty years. Though Daguerre’s model would eventually be overtaken by newer and quicker processes, his photographic innovation is noteworthy. As a result of his work, photography was brought for the first time to the masses. In essence, Daguerre commercialized the exclusive art form that scientists and artists alike had been seeking since the age of the Renaissance.

Despite building off Niepce’s work, Daguerre enjoyed much more fame during his day. Today, his legacy remains as one of the most influential in the history of photography. In recent years, daguerreotype has become an exclusive art form, though slight modifications to the process have been made. Today’s daguerreotypes do not use loose mercury fumes as Daguerre’s did. Other modern upgrades have helped make the process more efficient and have helped the art form gain traction with a modern audience.

Henry Fox Talbot

Around the time when Louis Daguerre was creating his silver plate daguerreotype method, Great Britain’s Henry Fox Talbot was creating his own “salt paper” method of photography. Talbot’s method involved bathing writing paper in weak solutions of normal table salt and then coating them with light-sensitive silver chloride. The process could be used to capture the images captured by the lens of cameras and marked the first time a silver-salt method had been able to effectively capture images that would not completely darken out post-exposure.

Henry Fox Talbot would follow this up with his calotype (or talbotype), which used silver iodide in place of silver chloride, as well as gallic acid and silver nitrate, to produce clearer images with drastically-reduced exposure times. Talbot’s calotypes could be exposed within one to two minutes. Importantly, unlike the daguerreotype, the calotype could be reproduced quickly through contact printing. This made reproduction easier than other methods, but as a result of the paper required in production, the calotype was never as sharp or clear as the daguerreotype.

fox talbot work
A history of photography – William Henry Fox TalbotImage by William Henry Fox Talbot – DVD “5000 Meisterwerke der Photographie”, The York Project, Berlin 2003. ISBN 3-936122-17-2., Public Domain

Interestingly, despite the announcement by the French government that the daguerreotype was “free to the world,” the process was not free in Great Britain. Perhaps as a result of centuries of heated animosity between the two countries, Daguerre’s agent applied for both English and Scottish patents. The result was that England and Scotland were the only nations in the world where a license was required to produce and sell daguerreotypes.

This emphasized a further battle between France and Great Britain. In 1839, both Daguerre and Talbot announced the creation of revolutionary photographic processes. It was the beginning of a photographic “competition,” where Daguerre would win the short-term in popularity and success. It was Talbot’s process, however, that eventually took hold in modern photography. Because Talbot’s process produced negative images on paper that could be reproduced, it played a bigger role in the development of modern photographic methods.

History remembers Henry Fox Talbot as a brilliant scientist who played a monumental role in the history of photography. It also remembers him as a penny-pincher, notorious for his calotype patents (which were charged against anyone seeking to use calotypes outside the scientific domain) and eventual lawsuit. Without a doubt, Talbot played a major role in the technological revolution that led to modern-day photography.

George Eastman And The Roll Standard

No history of photography would be complete without considering the massive accomplishments of George Eastman and the Kodak company. American entrepreneur George Eastman proved critical to the technological development of photography in the late 19th century. His efforts would eventually lead to the creation of the Kodak film company—which remains a powerful force in photography to this day. Eastman’s work would prove to change the standard of film technology, and some of his discoveries are still in use today. Simply put, roll film was a major discovery, and eastman kodak was the pioneer of this new approach.

george eastman
A history of photography – George EastmanImage Published by B. C. Forbes Publishing Company, New York, 1917 – https://archive.org/details/menwhoaremakinga00forb, Public Domain

Eastman got started in photography with a dry-plate-producing company that streamlined the work of photographers. Eastman’s company, known as the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, used a gelatin-coating process that centralized many of the efforts that went into producing early photographs.

Photographers were able to use Eastman’s company to reduce the effort involved in creating images and to subsequently expand their own practices.

old kodak camera
A history of photography – Kodak cameraPhoto By Håkan Svensson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Eastman capitalized on the growing consumer demand for photography with the invention of the first Kodak Camera in 1888. He invented film with a base that was flexible, unbreakable, and could be rolled, which meant there was no requirement to constantly change the solid plates. This is how roll film was born!

Photographic Emulsions were coated on a cellulose nitrate film base and this made one of the earliest cameras, the box camera, a reality. The camera could hold rolls of film enough for 100 exposures and come with a single fixed focus lens with no focus adjustment systems and a single shutter speed.

The first camera to hit the mass market the Kodak; he then worked to increase commercial access to photography. With the Kodak camera, consumers were able to take their own images; however, they would have to be sent back to the manufacturer to be developed.

At the time, the Kodak camera included enough film for 100 images. When the film had all been used, consumers sent the camera back to Kodak, where the images were developed, and the camera’s film reloaded.

A true pioneer in the industry, Eastman continued working on technological advancements for the camera—with one of his longest-lasting contributions coming in 1889. It was then that he would acquire the rights to roll film technology. Originally produced by Peter Houston in 1881, roll film technology was used in Eastman’s 1888 Kodak camera before Houston sold the rights to Eastman in 1889.

Roll film technology allowed film inclusion into Kodak and other cameras and easy disassembly when the film needed to be developed. In this sense, eastman kodak was a very practical product of collaboration.

kodak film roll
Kodak film rollPhoto By Dnalor 01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Eastman’s work set the standard for film and camera technology.

The earliest cameras used a variety of medium format film standards such as 120, 135, 127, and 220, with each of them about 6 cm wide and producing rectangular or square images depending.

In 1912, Eastman Kodak purchased Frederick Wratten’s photographic supply business, which was best known for the photographic filters still named after him, the Wratten filters. Eastman became a leading worldwide figure in the photography industry until his death in 1932. At that time, he monopolized the American photography industry and had a net worth of over a billion dollars in today’s money.

Eastman committed suicide in 1932 at the age of 77. The game-changing entrepreneur drafted a suicide note saying, “My work is done. Why wait?”

On the estate of George Eastman, is located the George Eastman Museum, which was founded in 1947 as an independent non-profit institution. It is the world’s oldest photography museum and one of the oldest film archives.

The museum has holdings that include displays dated back to the announcement of the medium’s invention, which is 1839 up till the present day. The collection represents the full history of photography with works by renowned masters of photography.

The museum's “History of Photography Gallery” is dedicated to rotating installations that change twice a year. These demonstrate the historical path of photography through photographs and cameras from the collection.

Oskar Barnack And The 35mm Camera

Oskar Barnack
A history of photography – Oskar Barnack Photo By Oskar Barnack

Oskar Barnack proved another pivotal figure in the development of photographic technology. Born in the latter half of the 19th century, Barnack’s work saw the development and eventual adoption of the 35mm camera.

Barnack’s desire to produce the 35mm camera was fueled by his passion to reduce the size of cameras. Barnack, who had asthma, sought the production of a camera that could be easily carried by photographers.

A German engineer, Barnack joined the Ernst Leitz Optical Firm in 1911 and had finished the first prototype for a 35mm camera by 1913.

It would be time before his efforts saw the light of day, however, as World War I ravished Germany, and the ensuing economic collapse delayed the production of the camera.

Though it would go on to be the first miniature camera available commercially in 1924, Barnack had to convince Leitz to start production on the camera. Leitz agreed to manufacture thirty-one prototypes of the 35mm device in 1923 before officially launching the product, named Leica I, a year later.

leica camera
A history of photography – Leica cameraPhoto By © Kameraprojekt Graz 2015 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The initial prototypes for Leica I received mixed-to-positive reviews, but Leitz decided to push through with the camera’s launch in 1924. In doing so, Barnack and Leitz revolutionized the market by making miniature cameras available to the mass public for the first time. For consumers like Barnack, who found it difficult to travel and take photographs with previous heavier cameras, Leica streamlined the art of photography and made it more accessible to the masses.

The camera made use of 35mm film developed by Thomas Edison and William Dickson with stock provided by Kodak Company. This film would go on to become a standard for motion picture cameras.

Photographic sequence shot by Eadweard Muybridge and animation by Waugsberg

The introduction of the Leica I saw an increase of competition into the market as other major camera manufacturers looked to capitalize on the portable camera. Kodak entered the arena in 1938 with its own portable camera known as the Retina I, and it competed against the Leica I as well as several other newly-designed devices.

Over the course of the next thirty years, 35mm would become cemented as the film and size of choice for personal cameras. Canon, which entered the American market from Japan following the Korean War in the 1950s, also made use of 35mm film in its film cameras.

Dr. Edward Land And The Polaroid

Edward Land revolutionized the industry with the invention of the Polaroid in 1948. The new device utilized cutting-edge technology that made it possible to develop a photograph in less than a minute.

The Polaroid quickly became a consumer favorite, as it eliminated the previous long-development process. Prior to the invention of the Polaroid, photographers had to wait a considerable amount of time for images to be developed.

polaroid camera
Photo by Thomas Backa

A student of Harvard University, Land was at the forefront of polarizing technology. Throughout the early 20th century, Land worked to develop the polarizing film as well as filters capable of polarizing light.

He joined George Wheelwright in 1932 to form the Land-Wheelwright Laboratories. It was here that he pushed ahead with his work and developed the first Polaroid camera. Much of his work was geared toward the development of sunglasses, but the technology he developed went on to be used in a variety of fields, from photography to color animation and even to military endeavors.

He would later go on to assist the American military in the Cold War with the development of photo reconnaissance technology.

Polaroid introduced the color film in 1963 and created the folding camera SX-70 in 1972. With the advent of digital photography in the 1990s, the dominant brand Polaroid began to decline, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 2001. In 2010, the Impossible Project began manufacturing film using Polaroid’s instant film formats, and in 2017, the company rebranded itself as Polaroid Originals.

The Development Of Digital Cameras

The introduction of the digital cameras in 1994 changed the trajectory of the history of photography. The digital cameras would come to dominate the market and make previous cameras nearly obsolete to the general public. Because of this, it was natural to expect that digital photography will replace analog photography.

steve sasson digital camera
Steve Sasson holding his invention the digital cameraPhoto by Stewart Wolpin, Steve Sasson holding his creation

The development of the digital camera can be traced back to George Eastman. Despite his death in 1932, it was through Eastman’s Kodak company that the first digital camera was born. Camera technology continued to evolve with companies like Nikon, Canon, Leica joining the race. Each manufacturer added components to their cameras like interchangeable lenses, light meters, flash etc., which are all part of the modern cameras that we use today.

Designed as a joint effort between Kodak’s Steve Sasson and Gareth Lloyd, the digital camera hit the market in 1994 after the pair found a way to digitize a captured photo that had been converted into an electric signal.

The impact of the digital camera was felt almost immediately, with those in journalism quickly adopting it as the camera of choice.

Though initially too expensive to be bought by the general public, increased competition in the market has seen prices for digital cameras fall drastically. With the majority of Americans now owning some form of digital camera—and with the addition of cameras into the smartphone—it has become the primary mode of photography in today’s modern era.

Photography In The 1850s

As technology continued to progress in the 1850s, the use of photography expanded. Through the efforts of early photographers, real-life events began to be documented—including war.

The British pioneered early war photography with commissioned photographs documenting the Crimean War. Much like televised broadcasts would do a little over a century later, these first photographs brought home never-before-seen images of the battlefield.

Early War Photography

The first images of the battlefield began to trickle out in the late 1840s, but the bulky daguerreotype equipment of the time prevented any attempt of action or battle shots. Instead, the photos focused on still shots of soldiers and locations.

Many such photos were taken in the Mexican-American War of 1847 by an unknown photographer.

war photography
SCOTT IN MEXICO CITY, 1847. American General Winfield Scott and his army entering Mexico City, 17 September, 1847. Contemporary lithograph. Lithograph by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot after a drawing by Carl Nebel

The next earliest war photographs came the following year from John McCosh. McCosh, a surgeon in the Bengal Army in the Second Anglo-Sikh War, was limited by the technology of the time in the subject matters he photographed.

Despite these early steps for war photography in the late 1840s, the first official attempts at securing war photographs in any real sense came with the British during the Crimean War beginning in 1853.

Roger Fenton

The British realized the potential effects of introducing war photography into the battlefield during the outset of the Crimean War in October of 1853. The Crimean War, fought by the British, French, Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia against the Russian Empire, proved highly unpopular in the United Kingdom, and a forward-looking British government took creative steps to boost its popularity back at home.

Hoping to establish support for the war among its citizens, the British sought to document the war in photographs that would win public support.

In order to do so, Thomas Agnew of the British Empire hired Roger Fenton to take the first commissioned war photographs of the Crimean War in 1854.

crimean war photograph
A history of photography – Roger Fenton Crimean WarPhotography By Roger Fenton – Taken from A World History of Photography ISBN 0789203294 Original in the Science Museum, London.also available in Roger Fenton Crimean War photograph collection as: LC-USZC4-9217, Public Domain

Fenton, whose job was to win public support for the cause, took posed and staged pictures that hid the true horrors of the battlefield from the public. These pictures would later be published in The Illustrated London News as an effort to disperse the photographs to as wide a readership as possible.

These early war photographs differ from the image we hold of them today—with our modern lens conjuring images of the battlefield, soldiers, and mutilated bodies. The push for these types of graphic images soon followed Fenton’s early work and would come from another pair of British photographers.

James Robertson And Felice Beato

James Robertson and Felice Beato took over Fenton’s position as war photographers near the end of the Crimean War, and their artistic approach stood in stark contrast to their predecessors.

Whereas Fenton had made a point to take images that made the war look better than it really was, Robertson and Beato immediately began to showcase images that showed more of the destructive side of the war.

james robertson photograph
James RobertsonPhotograph of James Robertson by the Abdullah Brothers (photographer and engraver)

Though they didn’t immediately begin to take pictures of corpses and the battlefield, the duo did show the devastation the war had on buildings and other stationary objects.

The pair’s attempt serves as the first time in world history that photographs showing the darker side of war ever reached the public eye and ultimately foreshadowed future journalistic practices.

Following their work in the Crimean War, Robertson and Beato took their realistic style of war photography even further with the first photographed images of dead soldiers in the Indian Rebellion of 1858.

Remains of Indian rebels were photographed, but experts disagree on the authenticity of the images, as it appears as though Robertson and Beato may have rearranged the remains for dramatic effect.

War Photography Reaches North America

As history continued, so did the history of photography. Photograph technology continued to progress throughout the 1850s, with war photography becoming increasingly common.

The first example of war photography in the North American continent came from the American Civil War.

By this time, however, the technology still did not allow for the photographing of moving subjects, so images of actual warfare remained impossible.

This led to the staging and arranging of several images as photographers attempted to capture images of a certain effect.

Photographers at the time were becoming more adept at using photography as a means to sway public opinion, and unlike Fenton’s work at the start of the Crimean War, efforts began to be increasingly in favor of showing the horrific and heartbreaking side of war.

Haley Sims and Alexander Gardner

Haley Sims and Alexander Gardner are two of the most famous photographers of the American Civil War. The duo followed much in the footsteps of Robertson and Beato in showing the reality of the battlefield.

Because they were limited by the technology that couldn’t capture moving images, the pair would stage photos of dead bodies, similar to what had been done in the past.

They took it one step further, however, by creating entire images of the battlefield.

Gardner would also continue forward to work with Matthew Grady, and the duo’s work became famous for rearranging fallen bodies to heighten the dramatic effect of an image.

Sims, Gardner, and Grady all had a similar goal in informing the public of the horrors of war and did so by distributing the photographs to news media at the time. Their work still survives and serves as a testament to one of the bloodiest wars fought in American history.

George S. Cook and the First Images of Combat

George Cook war photographer
George Cook war photographerBy Unknown photographer – https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/the-southern-matthew-brady/?ref=opinion, Collection of George S. Whiteley IV., Public Domain

Despite the limited technology of the time, the first images of actual combat came out of the Civil War in 1863. The wet-plate photos taken by George S. Cook, show the Union bombardment of the then-Confederate stronghold of Fort Sumter. Because of the limited technology of the time, the images are hard to decipher, but ships can be seen firing on Fort Sumpter. The USS Passaic, USS Montauk, and USS Weehawken are believed to be about two miles away from the fort during the attack captured by the photograph.

War Photography Enters The 20th Century

The 20th century saw a devastating number of wars rip across the globe—and a growing number of photographers prepared to cover them.

Photographic technology made developmental leaps throughout the 20th century, and cameras became notably smaller.

Every major war of the 20th century was caught by a photographer, as access to cameras began to spread. Journalism began to rely even more on photography, with images being mass circulated across the globe.

Robert Capa and Dickey Chapelle were two of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century, and both died on the battlefield while taking pictures.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took one of the most iconic war photos of the 20th century.

Rosenthal is best known for his photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, an image depicting American soldiers erecting a flag on the battle-torn island of Iwo Jima during World War II.

The image became a symbol of American victory in the Pacific and was later immortalized in statues, film, and other forms of media.

Rosenthal would later become an honorary marine.

Photography As A Means To Record Human Progress

Since the 1830s, the use of photography has expanded in areas other than war. As the world continues to increase its technological capabilities throughout the Industrial Revolution, we see the history of photography beginning to document the history of human progress.

Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge

The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was completed in 1855 and marked the world’s first working railway suspension bridge.

Connecting Niagara Falls, Ontario, with Niagara Falls, New York, the bridge allowed for rail transportation between the United States and Canada.

The bridge was ultimately dismantled in 1897 but not before serving as one of the most important bridges in American history.

Initial plans for the bridge were laid out by Canadian politicians, but both American and Canadian companies worked on the construction of the bridge. Its completion saw a boom in the Niagara Falls regions of both countries.

Designed to increase railway traffic between the two countries, the bridge also became a favorite of a different kind of railroad.

Niagara falls bridge
A history of photography – Niagara Falls Suspension BridgePhoto By Unknown – From the Niagara Falls Public Library, Public Domain

The Underground Railroad utilized the bridge to help to flee slaves make it to safety across the Canadian border prior to the American Civil War.

Photographs of the iconic bridge still remain, providing one of the first instances in human history where a past market of human progress has been preserved for posterity. Though the bridge has been gone since 1897, generations of history students have been able to catch a glimpse of the landmark.

William England

William England captured one of the most famous photos of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge in 1859.

A British photographer, England became famous throughout the world for his photographs depicting international landmarks and ways of life.

England put together a United States of America Series of photographs—in which the image of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was included—in order to give Europeans a real-world view of America.

His work helped introduce foreign wonders into the international sphere, offering a glimpse of worldwide landmarks to domestic audiences across the globe.

His work led him to become the official photographer of the International Exhibition in London in 1862. England was paid 3,000 guineas (some sources estimate that one guinea would be worth nearly seventy pounds in today’s market) to produce a series of 350 images that would immortalize the International Exhibition of 1862. He would go on to photograph the Dublin International Exhibition the following year in 1863 before becoming an independent photographer.

England would eventually pass away in 1896.

Reinhold Thiele And Flashlight Photography

One of the more prominent photographers of the 19th and 20th centuries, Reinhold Thiele is best known for being one of—if not the—first press photographer.

Thiele worked with England during his photo tours and later established his own photography studio. It was here that he would develop flashlight photography—a precursor to today’s flash technology. This allowed him to take photographs of subjects without asking them to pose because it gave him better exposure, even in low-light conditions.

Developed while he was taking images of workers in assembly-line plants, flashlight photography helped revolutionize photography at the time.

Additionally, Thiele set the trend by becoming the world’s first press photographer by having his photos printed in the Daily Graphic and other British newspapers.

historical flash photography
Historical flash photographyPhoto By Race Gentry

The content of his work varied, with Thiele specializing in sports photography. His expertise led him to cover major press events at the time, such as the funeral of British Prime Minister Edward Gladstone. The event marked one of the first instances in which the media reported on a major political event with the inclusion of photographs.

Thiele’s work with the Daily Graphic redefined the journalism industry by setting a new trend in press photography. Now common, the idea of including real-time photographs of political happenings revolutionized the print industry at the time.

The Daily Graphic commissioned Thiele to cover the Boer War in 1898, marking a continuation of earlier war photography. Thiele remained true to the theme of most war photographers of the latter half of the 19th century by taking images that showed first-hand the brutality of the war. In fact, reports indicate that some of the photos were deemed too graphic for print by publishers with the Daily Graphic, marking one of the first instances of journalistic censorship of photography in human history.

Thiele, who died in 1921, produced a body of work that would prove to lay the foundation for many standards in photography today.

The Wright Brothers

In 1903, photography was used to document the first case of human flight. Taken in Kittyhawk, North Carolina, photographs of the birth of human aviation depict the Wright brothers as they successfully manage the first flight.

wright brothers
Wright Brothers first flightPhoto By John T. Daniels – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wright_first_flight.tif, Public Domain

The images show still shots that prove the flight's success, making them an important marker of human technological advancement.

Presidential Photographs

With the rise of photography, the age of portraiture nearly came to an end. As photography became more accessible and reliable, it began to replace portraiture as a means to record one’s appearance.

US Presidents were among the first political leaders to have their photographs taken. John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, became the first President to have his picture taken. Adams, who left office in 1829, was not photographed until 1843.

The first photograph taken of a sitting US President came with James Polk in 1849. Polk served as the eleventh President of the United States.

It wasn’t long before photography was used to capture important historical events—such as the inauguration of James Buchanan in 1857.

With the invention of the digital camera in 1994, individual photographs are now quite common, but it wasn’t until the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008 that a US President had their official photograph taken by a digital camera.

The Future Of Photography

With the digital photography market estimated to be worth USD 110.79 billion by 2021, both the art and the use of photography continues to grow. With digital technology making photography accessible to billions across the globe, the push for continued development among leading manufacturers constantly produces higher-end products. With digital photography technology built into smartphones, computers, and other devices, the use of photography has reached an all-time high, and interest in the art and history of photography continues to evolve.

Since the time of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, the past two hundred years have seen tremendous leaps in photography technology. From the birth and death of film to the rise of the digital era, photography has cemented its place in our modern global culture.

We hope you've enjoyed this history of photography. If you'd like to add any points or if you'd like to see more on this topic, please leave us a note in the comments below. In the meantime, please take a look at some of our other stories on the fascinating history of photography.

About Author

Rob is the founder of Light Stalking. His love for photography started as a child with a Kodak Instamatic and pushed him into building this fantastic place all these years later, and you can get to know him better here.
Rob's Gear
Camera: Nikon D810
Lenses: Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8

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