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Photography Becomes a Profession


Wetplate When it was first introduced, the daguerreotype was a cumbersome prospect, requiring not only perfect stillness from the subject but tremendous patience from the photographer as he labored to bring the image to fruition. It didn't take long, however, for other innovators to begin making improvements on the technology.

Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot, for one, was fast on Louis Daguerre's trail. In 1833 Talbot attempted without success to sketch a scene at Lake Como using a variation on the camera obscura known as the camera lucida to project images from nature onto a tracing surface. "How charming it would be," Talbot later wrote, "if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed on paper!" To that end, he applied himself, and by 1839 -- the year of Daguerre's success -- he was publicizing his own method. Two years later, he had improved on daguerreotype with the calotype, which could generate multiple positives from a single paper negative.

Another breakthrough came in 1854, with James Cutting's ambrotype: a thin collodion negative on a glass plate. The ambrotype, which yielded multiple positives while giving a clearer image than Talbot's calotype, was the first truly viable example of wet-plate photography. As the technology evolved further, it became possible to create paper positive prints from wet collodion glass plate negatives. This wet collodion process dominated photography from 1860s to the 1880s, and with it, photographers who once felt constrained by their equipment began to leave the studio in search of more exotic subjects.

In America, this meant a headlong rush toward the frontier, in a trend that came to be known as expeditionary photography. One of the most famous photographers from this era was Carlton E. Watkins of San Francisco, whose images of Yosemite won him international fame. Even more famous again, though ultimately for different reasons, was Watkins's pupil, Eadweard Muybridge.

Born Edward Muggeridge on April 9, 1830, in Kingston-on-Thames, Muybridge sailed for America in 1852 on the scent of California gold and worked a string of obscure jobs until 1860, when he was injured in a stagecoach accident and had to return to England. By 1867 he was back in the States, studying with Watkins in San Francisco. Soon he was selling his photographs in sets of 20, for $20. Frustrated that exposures for the sky and the earth varied so greatly, he developed a method of painting clouds onto photographs -- his first invention.

Like Watkins, Muybridge was often in the wilderness. In 1867 he organized his own expedition to Yosemite Valley and captured the grandeur of El Capitan and the Bridal Veil Falls on whole plate negatives and stereoscopic slides. A year or so later he received a commission from the federal government to photograph the newly purchased Alaskan territory. In 1873 he photographed the Modoc Indian War, a gruesome conflict with the whites in which this tribe virtually perished from the face of the earth. The mid-70s saw him in Central America working under the "pseudonym" Eduardo Santiago Muybridge, documenting the cultivation of coffee, the ruins of great Mesoamerican cultures, and the local life of Mexico, Guatemala and Panama. Needless to say, all of the expeditions required tremendous physical endurance.

Muybridge was a capable expeditionary photographer, but if it hadn't been for his association with Leland Stanford, he probably would not be remembered today. In 1872 Stanford, the ex-Governor of California and an accomplished industrialist, hired Muybridge to settle a gentleman's wager: whether there was a moment when all four legs of a moving horse were in the air. In pursuit of the answer (which was yes), Muybridge developed a camera with a faster shutter speed, which not only captured a horse in motion but allowed him to use photography as a basis for the study of living motion and, from there, to invent the zoopraxiscope: an early motion-picture device.

Meanwhile, the lure of expeditionary photography was making its mark back East as well. In 1877 the Grant administration was considering Hispaniola as a potential spot to build a new naval base. As a result, the property values spiked around Santo Domingo and land speculators took note.

One of these speculators was George Eastman, who was looking to expand his horizon beyond the Rochester Savings Bank where he worked. A fellow employee suggested that the best way to document his prospects would be with a camera. In the end, the voyage never materialized, but Eastman found his vocation. "In making ready," he later said, "I became totally absorbed with photography."


written by David Lindsay

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