Relic: The History of Photography




The saying goes,”A picture is worth a thousand words: ‘That means in every photograph, there is a story being told and something to interpret. Storytelling through images has been around since the dawn of humankind, and in conjunction with written text, images have been used to pass down stories from generation to generation. Images have been around for thousands of years, but photographs, although relatively younger, are just as powerful as the images.

The production of images was made a lot easier with photography, but it would take centuries before photography as we know it today would surface. The Chinese and the Greeks described the pinhole camera as early as between the fifth and fourth century BC, and the Byzantines experimented with a crude prototype of the camera obscura in the sixth century AD. The Arabs further developed the idea of both the camera obscura and the pinhole camera throughout the late 1 Qth and early 11th centuries.

A major breakthrough came through Albertus Magnus (more famously known as the teacher of major Catholic theologian and Doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas), who discovered silver nitrate, one of the biggest ingredients in early photography. Silver nitrate was used in making photographic film by treating it with halide salts of sodium or potassium to form the insoluble silver halide, which was then applied to strips of tri-acetate or polyester. Georges Fabricius then discovered silver chloride in the 16th century, and Daniel Barbaro described the diaphragm (which prevents the passage of light aside from that in the aperture in its center) in the 16th century as well. Wilhelm Homberg described the photochemical effect (how light darkened some chemicals) in the 17th century, and a novel, Giphantie, by Tiphaigne de Ia Roche, which had a passage that described the modern day process of photography by the 18th century. So, in essence, photography was gradually being “invented” over the centuries.

By 1790, Thomas Wedgwood put it all together, although the term “photography” would not be used for another 50 years. He was the first person to think of and develop a method to copy visible images chemically to produce a photograph. He would chemically stain an object’s silhouette to paper by coating the paper with silver nitrate and then expose the paper, object side up, to natural light, and then preserve it in a dark room. Since it was repeatable, the mass production of photographs was possible as early as the late 18th century, and thus, Wedgwood became the first “photographer.”

Many newspapers caught on to Wedgwood’s process, and other chemists and scientists sought to improve on his work. By the 1820s, Joseph
Nicephore Niepce was able to capture images formed in a camera. His attempt to use paper and silver chloride in the 1810s failed because he was unable to prevent the coating from darkening all over when exposed to light for viewing, and thus abandoned the more popular silver compounds being used in photography at the time. He produced the photograph on a polished pewter plate. Instead of using silver nitrate, he used bitumen, a naturally occurring petroleum tar, and dissolved it in white petroleum, applied it to the surface of the plate and allowed it to set before use.

However, the process took anywhere between eight hours and several days, and to get an image, a solvent had to be applied to remove the unhardened part of the bitumen, and then to see the image plainly, the plate had to be lit and viewed so that the bare metal was dark and the bitumen was light.

He collaborated with another well-known name in photography, Louis Daguerre, to reduce the exposure times to hours instead of days, but Niepce died in 1833, leaving Daguerre to continue his work. Daguerre went back to the silver-based compounds that Niepce disregarded, and experimented with photographing camera images directly onto a silver-surfaced plate fumed with iodine vapor, thus forming silver iodide, but the exposure times were still way too long. Daguerre then allegedly solved this problem by making an important discovery-that an invisibly faint latent image on a silver-surfaced plate could be “developed” via mercury fumes, which brought exposure time down to mere minutes, and then a hot solution of common salt could then stabilize or fix the image by removing the remaining silver iodide. Daguerre brought his idea to the French Academy of Sciences, and the first instructions on photography were published in 1839, and his photos were thus known as daguerreotypes. William Henry Fox Talbot and John Herschel (who coined the term “photography” itself) also developed their own solutions. Instead of using Daguerre’s hot salt water solvent, Talbot substituted it for hyposulfite of soda (sodium thiosulfate) to dissolve the silver salts, and Daguerre also began to use it. Calotypes, however, also lacked fine clarity because  of its translucent paper negative, but was seen as a good thing for portraits, softening the appearance of the human face. However, in an unprecedented move, Talbot patented his process, which resulted in numerous lawsuits until he gave up on photography.


Although there were many attempts to make photography quicker and as hassle-free as possible, the daguerreotype remained the photography
method of choice until 1884, when George Eastman developed dry gel on paper, otherwise known as film, to replace the photographic plates and toxic chemicals that photographers had to carry around. In 1888, the camera as we know it was finally “invented” after years of experimentation and hard work. Eastman’s Kodak camera went on the market in 1888 with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.”The Kodak Brownie came into the market in 1901, and it was known as the first popular camera, so that anyone who was interested in photography could buy a camera and do it.

By the 20’h century, photography was developing as an industry and commercial service. Color photography also developed side by side with
photography itself, but it met dead ends everywhere because many of the solutions were impractical or even impossible, as the experiments often resulted in temporary color, not permanent as they were intended to be. Kodak, who invented the first popular camera, also invented the first
popular color film, the Kodachrome, the brainchild of Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, Jr. The two were classical musicians who ended up working for Kodak’s Research Laboratories. Kodachrome had three layers representing the three additive primaries: red, green, and blue. However, the processing was rather complicated: as each layer was developed into a black-and-white silver image, a dye coupler caused a cyan, magenta or yellow dye image to be created along with it. The silver images were then removed, leaving only the three layers of dye images in the finished film.

Even as late as the 1950s, black-and-white snapshots were still the norm, but by the 1960s, as technology began to advance, color photos were
beginning to replace black-and-white ones, and by the 1970s, they were the preferred norm. Instant color film also came via Polaroid in the 1960s.

Digital cameras also came onto the scene in the 1970s. The megapixel sensor was also invented by Kodak in 1986, but the ability to record them as a computerized file like most digital cameras can do nowadays (and thus do away with traditional film) came in the Fuji DS-1 P of 1988, which
had 16MB of internal memory. The JPEG and MPEG standards were also invented in the same year. The Kodak DCS-1 00 was one of the most important digital cameras as it had a 1.3 mega pixel sensor, but it cost USD 13,000, putting it far out of the reach of the consumer market. The first to have a LCD on the back was the Casio QV-1 0 in 1995, the first to also be able to record video, the Ricoh RDC-1, also came out in 1995, and the first to use CompactFiash was the Kodak DC-25 in 1996. Digital cameras were still out of reach for the consumer market, but by 2002, mega pixel and 2 mega pixel cameras were going for less than USD 1 00.

Traditional film essentially was killed off In the 2000s, with digital point-and- shoot and DSLR cameras taking center stage. The rise of digital cameras also meant changes in the companies that produced cameras. Most notably, Kodak, the company which invented the first popular consumer camera, the first color film, and the mega pixel sensor, eventually went under, and even filed for bankruptcy in 2012, namely because Kodak did not adjust as quickly to digital photography as their competition did. Nowadays, photography is readily available to anyone, with other devices integrating a camera into it, such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. The rise of photo sharing sites such as Facebook, Flickr. Picasa, lnstagram and Photobucket all allow people to share their photos with their friends and relatives, and some cameras even allow you to instantly share photos that you just took.

The history of photography was a long and tedious process, but photography eventually grew into one of the biggest hobbies in the world, and also helped make it into a lucrative profession as well. If a picture is worth a thousand words, we have infinite opportunities to describe the world around us using a camera.

First published in Gadgets Magazine, April 2013

Words by Jose Alvarez