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 a history of photography is a rich one.
Article by Jordan Boggs for Light Stalking
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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.
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 every day.
Let’s get started…
The Technological Development of Photography
Joseph Nicephore Niepce—The “Father” of Photography
No history of photography is complete without starting with Joseph Nicephore Niepce. Born in Chalon-sur Saone, France, Joseph Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833) spent the first half of his life with no interest in scientific invention. During his youth, Niepce, who was 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 a result of 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 endeavoured to create a process that used light-sensitive material to recreate superimposed engravings in sunlight. Eventually, Niepce 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.
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.
This image still exists today. Housed in a research center at the University of Texas at Austin, 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…
Daguerre and the Photographic Revolution
Following Niepce’s death, Louis Jacques Mande 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 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 section of the plate 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 into 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.
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, which 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.
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.
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 and could be reproduced, it played a bigger role in the development of modern photographic methods.
History remembers 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 would lead 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.
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.
Eastman capitalized on the growing consumer demand for photography with the invention of the first Kodak Camera in 1888. 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 for the inclusion of film into the Kodak and other cameras as well as the easy disassembly for when the film needed to be developed.
Eastman’s work set the standard for film and camera technology, and he 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 that simply said, “My work is done. Why wait?”
Oskar Barnack and the 35mm Camera
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.
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.
The introduction of the Leica I saw the 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 their 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.
Dr. Edward Land, the Polaroid, and the Age of Instant Photography
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 favourite, 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.
A student of Harvard University, Land was at the forefront of polarizing technology. Throughout the early 20th century, Land worked to develop 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 to 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 endeavours.
He would later go on to assist the American military in the Cold War with the development of photo reconnaissance technology.
The History of Photography in the Modern Era: The Development of the Digital Camera
The introduction of the digital camera in 1994 changed the trajectory of the history of photography. The digital camera would come to dominate the market and make previous cameras nearly obsolete to the general public.
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.
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: The Birth of War Photography
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.
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 World’s First Commissioned War Photographer
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.
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.
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: the American Civil War
As history continued, so does the history of photography. Photograph technology continued to progress throughout the 1850s, with war photography becoming increasingly common.
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 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
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 ships, 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.
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.
The Development of Photography as a Means to Record Human Progress
Since the 1830s, the use of photography expanded in areas other than war. As the world continued to increase its technological capabilities throughout the Industrial Revolution, we see the history of photography begin 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 boon 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.
The Underground Railroad utilized the bridge to help fleeing 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 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 a trend by becoming the world’s first press photographer by having his photos printed in the Daily Graphic and other British newspapers.
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 of 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 and the Flight of the First Airplane
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.
The images show still shots that prove the success of the flight, making them an important marker of human technological advancement.
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.
Further Reading on the History Of Photography
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.
- A Brief History of Landscape Photography
- The 1850s: A Visually Stunning Photographic History of the Crimean War
- A Visually Absorbing History of the Great Depression in the U.S – Photographs We Won’t Forget
- Some Of The Most Iconic Photographs In History – A Few Will Stun You!
- The Polaroid Camera, A History Of A Magical Device