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The Wizard of Photography | Article

Important Events in Photography


The First Fixed Photographic Images
The dream of photography may be as old as the human eye, which, in processing colors and shapes for the brain, essentially does what a camera does. The first evidence of any kind of mechanical visual reproduction, however, comes from Saudi Arabia, where unknown caravan riders noticed, at a time now lost, that a hole in their tent projected the inverted image of a passing camel onto the opposite wall. In 989 A.D. the Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan described this accidental invention and gave it a name: the camera obscura. The principle of the camera obscura had arrived in Europe by 1267, when the English philosopher-scientist Roger Bacon published his "Perspectiva" and "De Multiplicatione Specierum." 

The Italian architect Giambattista della Porta is credited by some with inventing the first camera, although this is largely a matter of defining the word. As far is known, he built the first working camera obscura, which he used beginning in 1569 to project the images of unsuspecting guests into a special room for the delight of a few select spectators -- the first spy camera. Della Porta was also the first to suggest that artists could use a camera obscura to trace images onto a surface, and to use a concave mirror placed at a 45-degree angle, which rendered his subjects in their proper perspective.  

Others followed fast on the heels of della Porta, including Robert Hooke of England, who designed a portable camera obscura that ended up in the hands of mathematician Johannes Kepler in 1600. By the 18th century, many painters were using the camera obscura, or variations on it, to capture the subtle nuances of the human form, especially that most challenging of human expressions: the smile. 

Meanwhile, chemists studying the properties of chemical compounds were laying the groundwork for fixing images. Key among them was Carl Scheele, who in expanding on the findings of alchemists discovered that, under the right conditions, light would turn silver solutions black. The ability to fix an image onto a surface, however, only began in earnest with the efforts of Josiah Wedgwood, a British manufacturer of porcelain and fine china.

In 1773 Wedgwood was commissioned by Catherine the Great to produce a line of china decorated with famous scenes from England. Using a camera obscura purchased in London through a friend, Wedgwood attempted -- and failed -- to burn these images into the plates. Josiah's son Thomas took up the cause from there. Thomas Wedgwood had studied the relation between heat and light at the University of Edinburgh but in 1797, finding this knowledge to be insufficient, turned to his friend Humphry Davy for help.

A native of Cornwall, Humphry Davy was a poet, chemist, and electrical pioneer who eventually rose to fame as a charismatic lecturer at London's Royal Institution. In 1799, when his greatest acclaim lay ahead of him, Davy attended the Pneumatic Institute, an organization in Clifton, England, founded by Dr. Thomas Beddoes and dedicated to exploring the effects of various gasses. While primarily a scientific undertaking, the Pneumatic Institute was also a favorite haunt of Romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who dropped in at times to take in the "airs."

Davy seems to have taken the Romantic impulse in stride. While at the Pneumatic Institute, he isolated nitrous oxide and looked upon it as something close to divine inspiration. He was known to alternate between large doses of nitrous oxide and wine, and at one point conspired with the steam-engine inventor James Watt to build a nitrous-oxide chamber, in which he could fully absorb this marvelous new vapor. Once, on emerging from his chamber, Davy exclaimed: "Nothing exists but thoughts. The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasure and pain." Another time, he saw fit to compose an ode to nitrous oxide in the lofty style of the era: 

Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre fill'd
Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound
Yet are my limbs with inward transports fill'd 
And clad with new-born mightiness around.

It was with this expansive soul that Wedgwood set about trying to make good on his father's promise. Together, Wedgwood and Davy coated insect wings and leaves with silver nitrate, laid them on various surfaces (paper, white leather and glass being favorites) that had been treated with chemical compounds, and then exposed the entire assemblage to the sun. These experiments did indeed bring about results, but the fixed images faded quickly -- much, one imagines, like the intoxicating mood around the Pneumatic Institute.

From the smiles of Renaissance portrait sitters to the laughter of a genius, photography was associated with pleasure from its earliest stages. But many years lay ahead before this union could be called complete.

The Daguerreotype is Invented
While credit for the invention of photography is highly contested -- and is bound to be for the foreseeable future -- there is no denying that Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis J. M. Daguerre both played central roles.  

The son of a Counselor to King Louis XVI of France, Niépce survived the French Revolution with his family fortune intact, which allowed him to pursue his interest in inventions. In 1816 he obtained a camera obscura and began taking images of landscapes on paper soaked in photosensitive silver chloride. At first, these images were blurry and faded to nothing after a day. When he began producing positive prints from the original plates, he was able to obtain longer-lasting images, but the results were still crude. A chance discussion in a shop where camera obscuras were sold then brought Niépce to the attention of Louis Daguerre. 

Originally a specialist in trompe l'oeil effects (optical illusions), Daguerre was already famous in Paris for the sunlit stage he had painted in February 1822 for the Paris Opera's production of "Aladdin," and more so for his Diorama, a 350-seat theater at 4 rue Sanson that presented backlit images on a stage for the enjoyment of large audiences. Daguerre's profession naturally led him to be curious about Niépce's work, and by 1829 they were collaborating. Niépce and Daguerre generated images exposed by the sun on bitumen, but Niépce never lived to see these joint efforts bear fruit. As it was, Daguerre, who continued after Niepce's death in 1833, met with success only by accident. In 1835 he placed his plates in a cabinet, not knowing that a container of mercury had a leak in it and was emitting vapor into the enclosed space, thus creating the first daguerreotype.

With his first successful picture in hand in 1837, Daguerre paraded his invention by cart through the streets of Paris, hoping to solicit licenses for its use. This approach achieved limited success, but in 1839 the eminent scientist Francois Arago promoted the process and the daguerreotype became a veritable sensation. Before the year was out, Daguerre's instruction booklet ran to 30 editions and was translated into eight languages. By 1845 Parisians were buying 2,000 cameras and three million plates a year. 

Upon seeing his first daguerreotype, the painter Paul Delaroche declared, "From today painting is dead," and Samuel F. B. Morse, an accomplished painter as well as the inventor of the telegraph, apparently agreed. Morse happened to be in Paris just as the daguerreotype craze was blooming, and he arranged to meet Daguerre on March 2 and 9 of 1839. Looking through a microscope at Daguerre's plates, he was amazed to be able to read every letter of a street sign. It was, he said, "Rembrandt perfected." (In one of fate's cruel twists, Daguerre's Diorama was burning to the ground even as this meeting was going on.)

Back in New York, Morse set himself up as a daguerreotype instructor to pupils that came to include Matthew Brady, whose Civil War photographs achieved lasting fame, and Edward Anthony, who would go on to become one of George Eastman's first dry-plate clients. The daguerreotype thus began its American career on a respectable note. The aura of high art did not last long, however. 

While Britain required licenses for the taking of daguerreotypes, America placed no such restrictions on the profession. In rural areas, a daguerrotypist could go so far as to pose as a magician before the unsuspecting villagers, "especially," writes photography historian Robert Taft, "if he had a smattering of phrenology." 

A long debunked science, phrenology espoused the doctrine that a person's character, as concealed in the brain, was revealed by the shape of the skull. By 1846 the twin crazes of phrenology and the daguerrotype had become so inextricably entwined that the journalist E. Littell could write:

Daguerreotypes properly regarded are the indices of human character. Lavater judged of men by their physiognomies; and in a voluminous treatise has developed the principles by which he was guided. The photograph, we consider to be the grand climacteric of the science.… It has been said that the inhalation of exhilarating gas is a powerful artificial agent for disclosing weaknesses of human nature. In reality, however, the sitting for a daguerreotype, far surpasses all other expedients.

In this sense, the daguerreotype invoked something vaguely evil. The "New York Sunday Courier," picked up this theme with "The Magnetic Daguerreotype," the story of a scientist who captures a woman's image by "electro-galvanic" means. From then on, the woman is haunted by the scientist's ability to see her innermost thoughts, even as he becomes plagued by her seemingly living portrait. The power to steal souls had been born.

Yet people demanded to be robbed at the drop of a hat. By 1841 New York City boasted 100 studios, each set up after the fashion of elegant parlors. By 1853 there were 37 parlors on Broadway alone, and on the banks of the Hudson, a town one mile south of Newburgh had been named Daguerreville.

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 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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