The Invention of Photography


Photography was invented in the early 1800’s but the concepts of the two main components of photography: the camera and light sensitive chemicals, were known much earlier. By the late 1800’s photography was more than an invention, it had become mainstream for the middle classes. In the year 1900 this all changed as the Kodak Brownie camera was released for purchase for $1, making photography available to all classes (US News, 2001). Throughout the 1900’s, photography continued to improve in quality, ease of use and functionality to the point today where it is part of our everyday lives. The roots of the development of the many uses of photography in the 1800’s led to the many aspects of photography we have enjoyed throughout the 1900’s and we are benefiting from in the 2000’s: motion pictures led to video’s and to You Tube, aerial photography led to satellite remote sensing, Google Maps and to Google Earth, text with images in advertising  led to imaged based advertising with little or no text, photographs of war led to photojournalism and documentaries to name just a few applications of photography. Imagery is everywhere and it is used in the most unexpected places, even millions of miles away.  For example, before the United States could put a person on the moon, they needed to know where to land, so they sent several unmanned lunar orbiteers to fly around the moon taking pictures with a specially built Kodak Lunar camera. The pictures were brought back to earth and used to map the moon’s surface to find the ideal landing spots for the Apollo missions in the late 1960’s (American Society of Cinematographers, 2009). Who would have thought only 20 years ago that you could take a photograph with a camera or a telephone, and instantly send it around the world for friends and family to see?

The term photography was first used by either John Herschel or Johan von Maedler in 1839. Photography derives from the Greek words photos (light) and graphe  (to draw) thus “drawing with light” (Wikipedia, 2011a). The Oxford Dictionary (2011) defines photography as “the art or practise of taking and processing photographs”. Wikipedia (2011a) has a more robust definition and uses the term “images” and “photographs” and talks about durability and recording light or electromagnetic radiation. Photographs are associated with a chemical process through light-sensitive material, whereas imagery is associated with electronic capture through a sensor. Today we use the two interchangeably however photographs usually refer to hard copy pictures and images are electronic or digital taken from digital cameras.

 Before Photography

The first reference in the literature of a camera is from the 4th and 5th century BC when Mo Ti in China and Greek mathematicians Aristotle and Euclid described the principle of the camera. They only described how a camera worked and the resulting inverted image in a dark box; they did not describe how to capture the images permanently. Alhazen, an Arab Scholar in 1038 described the model for the camera obscura or a dark room. By the end of the 17th century, a portable camera was in use that cast an image; this was used by artists to trace a subject for a permanent record (Wilgus and Wilgus, 2004; Bellis, 2011; Wikipedia, 2011b; see also National Geographic, 2011 and US News, 2011)

Concurrent with the development of the camera from 1200 to 1800, several people discovered and experimented with photo chemicals that reacted when exposed to light (US News, 2001). In the early 1800’s, retired French Army officer, Joseph Nicephore Niepce brought the camera and knowledge about light sensitive photo chemicals together, and photography was born.

 Invention of Photography

Joseph Nicephore Niepce is credited with creating the first photograph in 1826 with the camera obscura and a pewter plate coated with bitumen. The resulting photograph of his courtyard in France, is still visible today. He may have created photographs as early as 1814; however they later faded and did not survive (Belis, 2011). Niepce used a polished pewter plate coated with a petroleum derivative exposed to the sun for eight hours to capture his first photograph.

Louis Daguerre is credited as the inventor of the first practical photographic process. Daguerre and Niepce where aware of each other’s interest in photography and formed a partnership in 1829 to further develop the photographic process. They turned their attention to the use of silver nitrate which is sensitive to sunlight, but Niepce died in 1833 before they produced any photographs with this process. Daguerre continued working on the process that he later called the Daguerreotype. He coated polished copper plates with silver and exposed them to iodine, and then after the photograph was taken, the plates were exposed to mercury fumes and fixed or stopped with a salt bath (Nelson, 2011). Daguerre announced to the world the Daguerreotype process in January 1839 and later at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in August 1839 he introduced the process and sold the patent to the French government. This process resulted in finely detailed photographs that quickly became popular (Bellis, 2011; US News 2001). Daguerre’s first photograph had reduced the eight hour exposure time of Neipices process to 30 minutes, and through later enhancements, reduced exposure times further. The first photograph of a person was taken by Daguerre in 1839 of a Paris Street scene from his apartment window. Due to the exposure time of several minutes, most of the activity of the street was not captured. However a man in the image had stopped for a shoe shine and was still long enough to be captured in the image (National Geographic, 2011). The Daguerreotype quickly became popular as an affordable alternative to the middle classes to the expensive portrait painted by artists and popular by the wealthy in the early to mid-1800’s. By the 1850’s millions of Daguerreotypes had been created mostly portraits of people, and photography become commonplace (Nelson, 2011). A visit to the Daguerreotype collection in the American Library on Congress reveals that the majority of the Daguerreotypes are portraits.

Also in 1839, Alexander Wolcott received a patent for the first camera. Wolcott’s camera used a mirror to focus light on the photographic plate which further reduced exposure times.

 Development of Photography

Over the next 60 years to the year 1900, many people improved the camera and the photography process. William Henry Fox Talbot heard about Daguerre’s process and rushed to get his paper based negative system developed. Talbot’s process patented in 1841 permitted the making of multiple paper copies from a negative, which was not possible with the one of a kind Daguerreotype plate system (Nelson 2011). Talbot’s process is called the calotype, which is Greek for beautiful picture. The calotype process did have one major disadvantage; it did not capture the detail of the Daguerreotype thus the Daguerreotype remained the method of choice for many years. Talbot is also credited with developing three primary elements of photography: developing, fixing and printing (BBC Interactive 2011).

Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype in 1842. Cyanotype process created bluish photographs   which were not widely accepted. However the process was adopted for technical drawings and is currently widely used for blueprints. Frederick Scott Archer introduced the collodion or wet plate process in 1851. This process was cumbersome as it required the exposed wet plate be developed immediately so photographers needed to carry their processing laboratory with them. The big advantages of Archer’s collodion process is exposure times were down to several seconds, it produced a negative which could produce multiple prints and the detail approached that of the Daguerreotype (Info Please, 2011; Wikipedia, 2011c) . The introduction of the collodion process and its advantages coincides with the decrease in popularity of the Daguerreotype in the early 1850’s.

Richard Maddox invented the gelatin dry plate process in 1871. This permitted the photographer to process negatives later thus the need to carry around a processing lab was eliminated (Wikipedia, 2011d). Frederic Ives patented the halftone process in 1881. The halftone process simulates a continuous tone through a series of dots varying in size, shape or spacing. It is a binary image of only black dots on a white page but creates an optical illusion that blends the dots into smooth tones by the human eye. The halftone process and later improvements paved the way for including pictures with text in the publishing industry. Halftone pictures appeared regularly in popular journals in the early 1890’s (Wikipedia, 2011e).

George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, formed the Eastman Dryplate Company in 1881 with business partner Henry Strong. They invented and patented the rollable film in 1884 as an alternative to the glass plate. The rollable film was introduced in 1888 along with the Kodak roll film camera, the first mass marketed and easy to use camera. George Eastman went on to change people’s lives by bringing photography to the mainstream. The rollable film also paved the way for the invention of motion picture film by Eadward Muybridge and Louis Le Prince. (George Eastman House, 2011; Wiki 2011f). George Eastman’s “Brownie” introduced in 1900, brought photography to all classes and set the stage for photography to flourish and branch out into many uses throughout the 1900’s and into the 21 first century.

 Implications of Photography

Daguerre’s first Daguerreotypes were embraced by the middle classes as an affordable means of capturing family portraits. This was perceived as a threat by the portrait painters to their way of living. However, Daguerreotypes were not subjective like paintings were, the painter could hide or not include features or certain aspects of a subject, but the photograph captured it as it was. This truth captured by photographs also changed the value and glory of war. Painters of wars previous to 1839 were free to glorify the great battles as they saw fit or as they were commissioned to do. However the truth of the great battles and everyday life in the battlefield captured by photographs after 1839, illustrated the stark realities of war not previously captured in paintings. The Harvest of Death by Timothy O’Sullivan is a photograph of a battlefield aftermath in 1863 from the American Civil War. The photograph shows bodies strewn across a field representing the hundreds and thousands of dead soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg (Getty Museum, 2011).

Daguerre’s first photograph of a person in 1839 of the Paris street scene is the first surveillance photograph – a picture taken of a person who did not know that it was taken. Surveillance type photographs were also taken from the air starting with the first aerial photograph taken over Paris, in 1858 by Nadar. This picture did not survive but an aerial photograph over Boston from 1860 provides the first documented aerial view of this city. Aerial photographs and satellite imagery provide a data source for making and updating maps. Google Earth has taken these images to the next step and provide detailed aerial photographs and satellite imagery stitched together in seamless images of our towns, cities and countries all available on the Internet to view for no charge. These images, augmented with Google Street View images, provides detailed images of streets from several angles as snapshots in time that captures buildings cars and people, anything in the view of the lens at the time. Surveillance photographs and videos are now captured everywhere and not just by authorities, but by everyday people and they are freely posted on the Internet for everyone to view – images on Flickr, and videos on You Tube and other sites. A Google search of the term “Vancouver Riots 2011” and narrowed to “videos” results in hundreds of user posted videos of the riots in June 2011. There is even a disturbing video where someone has taken the You Gotta Be Here theme for the 2010 Olympics and inserted video clips of the riots calling it You Gotta Be Here Vancouver Riot 2011.

The documentary would not be possible without photographs, images and video. A documentary film is non-fictional, intended to document some aspect of reality for instruction or for recording a historical event (Wikipedia, 2011g). In 1936, Life Magazine changed from a general interest magazine to a documentary type production with a focus on photojournalism. Life ran until 1972.  Similarly, Look Magazine started in 1937 and ran until 1971 as a general interest magazine but with an emphasis on photographs. Photojournalism records events in text and pictures as they happen. The image of the Hindenburg exploding in 1937 could stand alone without the text to describe what happened.

Travel magazines and travel photography bring the world to you. National Geographic is a geographic and travel magazine. They published their first photograph in 1889 in their third issue and in following issues explored the world including a South African bride and groom in 1896, the first photo series published in 1905 of Lhasa Tibet, the first photos of the north pole in 1909 and their first colour photograph in 1914 from Ghent, Belgium. National Geographic also specializes in videos and movies related to the environment, travel and adventure (National Geographic, 2011).

These are just some of the impacts of the invention of photography. With the snapping of photographs and the viewing of photographs and images comes the responsibility of ethics and an understanding of how to read and interpret images through media literacy. Like paintings of the great battles, we need to consider why we are taking the picture and who interests are being served. Visual literacy and media literacy awareness is necessary to help us navigate, read and understand the bombardment of images and videos that we are exposed to everyday. Going back to the first photograph of Niepce of the courtyard in France, why did he take it and what is it? The picture of Daguerre’s Paris street scene with the first person photographed, if a person did not understand the long exposure time as a limitation of the technology, they would believe that the streets of Paris were basically empty, except for a man getting a shoe shine that very moment.


The invention of photography is one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century and has had a large impact on human society (Kestenbaum, 1981), some of which are introduced in this work.  In 1839, the world changed with Daguerre’s first photographs as they lead to 170 + years of innovations of photographs and images displayed in many different forms, media and for many different reasons. We also saw the beginnings of privacy, ethical and literacy issues in 1839 that have grown with the innovations and are with us today and show no signs of going away.

Gallery of First Photographs

First permanent image – Niepce, 1826: Le Gras, France

First Photo of a person – Daguerre 1839: Paris, France

First surviving aerial photograph – Black 1860: Boston, USA

First colour photograph – Maxwell 1861, Scotland: Ribbon

Early war Photo – Gardner 1862: American Civil war

First action photo – Muybridge 1877, England: Galloping Horse

First Underwater Photo – Boutan 1863: 164 feet underwater

First view of earth taken from the vicinity of the moon 1966: Earth Rise

View of the earth from near the moon from Apollo 8 1968: Colour earth rise


American Society of Cinematographers (2009). The Kodak Lunar Orbiter Camera. Retrieved from Accessed October 23, 2011

BBC Interactive. (2011). William henry Fox Talbot. Retrieved from Accessed October 5, 2011

Bellis, M. (2011). Photography Timeline. Retrieved from Accessed October 5, 2011.

George Eastman House (2011) About George Eastman. Retrieved from Accessed October 5, 2011.

Getty Museum (2011). A Harvest of Death.  Retrieved from Accessed October 24, 2011

Info Please (2011). The Collodion Process. Retrieved from Accessed October 5, 2011.

Kestenbaum, J. (1981). The Photograph: A new “frontier” in Cultural History. Journal of American Culture, 4(1) 43-46. Retrieved from Accessed October 15, 2011.

National Geographic (2011). Image Collection: History of Photography. Retrieved from Accessed October 22, 2011.

Nelson K. (2011). A thumbnail sketch of the Daguerreotype. The Daguerreian Society. Retrieved from Accessed October 5, 2011.

Oxford Dictionary. (2011). Photography. Retrieved from Accessed October 22, 2011.

US News (2001). Photography’s Storied History. U.S. News & World Report 131 (2, 48). Retrieved from Accessed October 5, 2011.

Wikipedia, (2011a) Photography. Retrieved from  Accessed October 22, 2011.

Wikipedia, (2011b). Timeline of Photography technology.  Retrieved from  Accessed October 5, 2011

Wikipedia, (2011c).Collodion. Retrieved from Accessed October 5, 2011

Wikipedia, (2011d) Dry Plate. Retrieved from Accessed October 22, 2011.

Wikipedia (2011e) Halftone. Retrieved from Accessed October 23, 2011.

Wikipedia (2011f).  George Eastman. Retrieved from Accessed October 22, 2011.

Wikipedia (2011g) Documentary Film. Retrieved from Accessed October 24, 2011.

Wilgus, J. and B. Wilgus, (2004) The magic mirror of life: an appreciation of the camera obscura. Retrieved from Accessed October 22, 2011.

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2 Responses to The Invention of Photography

  1. Jasmeet Virk says:

    Your entry emphasizes how hypertext remediates text. If I had read this on a paper without all the hyperlinks, I would have been very lost. I would have hit many roadblocks and not understood the concept well and probably given up. Your links helped me clarify those roadblocks and actually they made your paper more interesting!

  2. Doug Connery says:

    Hi Jasmeet:

    I am glad the hyperlinks helped. It was fun to do but a lot more work then if I had done it just as a paper to hand in. I needed to keep track of the resources and citations plus all of the other interesting stuff such as images and videos. Then many decisions on what to keep and where to insert the hyperlinks.


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