People & Events
Photography Becomes a Profession
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
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
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