What is Photography?
Photography is the practice where an image is created by recording light onto light-sensitive material. While photography is considered an art form, it is also used across varying industries, such as science and manufacturing, to document different processes. This is called representational photography. Commercial photography, wildlife photography and photojournalism are some of the most popular uses of photography outside of fine art photography.
History of Photography
The term photography is rooted in the Greek words for “light” and “drawing” which, when combined, mean “drawing with light.”
Photography as we understand it today is the result of many early experiments and related technological discoveries that allow humans to record images with light. These discoveries include the invention of the camera obscura and the pinhole camera, which were later coupled with light-sensitive chemicals such as silver nitrate to record images on metal, leather, paper and even wood.
Photography dates back to ancient China and Greece, where the camera obscura was used by many prolific scientists and mathematicians to study light and optics in relation to other natural phenomena. The traditional camera obscura is a dark chamber, usually a box, with a convex camera lens placed behind a hole on one side of the box. Light filters through the hole and the lens, projecting an image of an object outside of the darkened area onto the interior surface opposite of the hole and lens.
The camera obscura and pinhole camera are similar in function and were a favorite of Renaissance painters seeking to sketch complicated landscapes before painting. However, there was still no way to achieve a permanent image. It was only in the 13th and 16th centuries that photosensitive chemicals, such as silver nitrate and silver chloride, were discovered and then used to capture images projected by the camera obscura.
Some of the earliest examples of fixed images are Thomas Wedgwood’s shadow images. Wedgwood used a substrate, usually leather or paper, treated with silver nitrate to capture the shadows of objects placed onto each surface under natural light. Due to prolonged light exposure, these images eventually darkened, which signaled that the light and silver nitrate continued to react and eventually darkened the entire image.
Shortly after, this chemical reaction would be refined to include chemicals that stop silver nitrate from reacting with sunlight after the initial exposure. However, there were still a few pressing issues to resolve, including how to shorten the exposure time and how to create a permanent photograph.
In the early 19th century, French inventors Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre attempted to curb the lengthy exposure times necessary to record an image produced by camera obscura. By introducing new chemicals, such as light-sensitive resin, they managed to create a post-exposure processing method that produced an accurate representation but still required many hours of exposure. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce is credited with the first permanent photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, from 1826.
Louis Daguerre is credited with the invention of the daguerreotype process, a method of photography that captures images quickly and permanently. The daguerreotype was a significant advancement in the invention of photography mainly because it shortened exposure time to mere minutes rather than many consecutive hours. Exposure time could also be adjusted according to how brightly lit the subject was.
By 1837 the daguerreotype process consisted of a few essential elements: A silver-plated surface that is polished to a mirror-finish, sensitized by iodine vapor, exposed according to the brightness of the subject, developed using mercury vapor and finally fixed, or made permanent, using a hot salt water rinse. The metal plate is then dried and sealed within a protective glass enclosure.
Daguerreotypes captured fine detail at what we know today as a very high resolution, similar to that of a modern digital camera. Daguerre’s process was proven after his first successful photograph, or daguerreotype, was produced, called View of the Boulevard du Temple in 1838. Daguerre’s View of the Boulevard du Temple is also the first daguerreotype to include a person – a man having his boots polished who, coincidentally, remained seated for the entire exposure time.
In 1839 the daguerreotype became known to the French public and soon gained international popularity. The daguerreotype process was popular in the 1840s and 1850s but was soon rivaled by two similar yet distinct types of photographs known as ambrotypes and tintypes. The photographic process was also being experimented with all over the world, including in Brazil, England, and the United States.
Film and Negatives
Until this point, existing photographic processes produced a unique image that could not be reproduced. In 1840, after setting out to compete with Daguerre’s process, English inventor Henry Fox Talbot invented the calotype process which improved on the daguerreotype process in two significant ways: Reduced exposure time and included a translucent negative. Reduced exposure time was certainly noteworthy, especially for human subjects who now only had to sit for a few minutes to have their portrait taken. However, it was the use of a negative that was truly exciting. The negative could be used to print many positive copies of an image – a process that still exists to this day using photographic film or digital reproduction. The earliest known negative is a tiny image of a window taken by Henry Fox Talbot in 1835.
Talbot and Daguerre, as well as their contemporaries, Hippolyte Bayard and John Herschel, were continuously experimenting with the chemical processes used to capture and fix images. Herschel invented the cyanotype process and is widely recognized as the first inventor to use the terms foundational to modern photography: negative and positive. Herschel even formalized the use of the term “photography” to describe the process itself.
Glass negatives were most popular until the late 1880s when pliable plastic film was introduced. This new medium was expensive and so it was less accessible than glass or metal already used by many amateur photographers and professional photographers. Soon after, the technique of “post processing” would make it possible to edit photographs by combining parts of multiple negatives into one image.
In 1885, George Eastman, founder of Kodak, introduced the nitrate film. Nitrate film was the first transparent roll film marketed to consumers. It was also highly flammable and by 1908 was replaced with Kodak’s “safety film,” which was a less hazardous alternative made from cellulose acetate.
By the mid-20th century, film photography had gone through many iterations and was accessible to international markets. Popular film cameras such as the Kodak Brownie were among the first cameras that were affordable and as a result more accessible to the general public. Color film was introduced in 1935, making color photography even more popular than black and white photography.
Photography eventually became a part of daily life, with the film negative process maintaining immense popularity well into the 21st century. In the early 1960s, instant color film, which printed a positive directly from the camera and developed in a few short minutes, rendered the darkroom portable. It also limited exposure to the harsh chemicals used in the developing process, which made taking pictures even easier than before.
The advent of digital photography in the early 1980s made analog processes more costly and film developing services less widespread. By the end of the 20th century, digital photography made it almost unnecessary to even possess a camera, as cell phones and other personal devices now had cameras built-in. Today, nearly two hundred years after the invention of the daguerreotype, digital photography is so widespread that millions of photographs are taken daily using digital cameras, whether a DSLR camera or via smartphone.
Fine Art Photography
Photography is widely used as a creative medium that supports the expression of a concept, message, or feeling. Fine art photography became popular as a hobby and career almost right after the invention of the daguerreotype. Using photography as a vehicle for creative expression led to the development of many sub-genres within fine art photography, including abstract photography, documentary photography, fashion photography, street photography, portrait photography, landscape photography and more.
Nudes, portraits and landscapes are among some of the most popular subjects in fine art photography, made especially popular in the twentieth century by monumental photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Walker Evans. In fact, Alfred Stieglitz was a champion of fine art photography, having gifted many photos to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1928 and beyond.
Many modern art movements made use of photography, especially Dada and Surrealism. Photographers like Man Ray experimented with existing photography techniques, even formalizing their own techniques. Man Ray, for example, called his photographs “rayographs” which was his artistic spin on a photogram.
Photography was a new medium that allowed artists to explore an idea through a unique perspective. As digital photography gained popularity among artists, knowledge of editing techniques also changed. Once limited to complicated combinations of timed exposures, photographers could now use photo editing tools, like Photoshop, which allowed them to edit aspects of photos with ease. Even with its digital competitors, film photography remains popular among many contemporary fine art photographers.
- Hippolyte Bayard, 1801-1887, French
- Louis Daguerre, 1787-1851, French
- Thomas Wedgwood, 1771-1805, English
- William Henry Fox Talbot, 1800-1877, English
- Man Ray,1890-1976, American
- Lászlo Moholy-Nagy, 1895-1946, Hungarian
- James Van Der Zee, 1886-1983, American
- Dora Maar, 1907-1997, French
- Annie Leibovitz, b. 1949, American
- Ansel Adams, 1902-1984, American
- Steve McCurry, b.1950, American
- Dorothea Lange, 1895-1965, American
- Henri-Cartier Bresson, 1908-2004, French
- Richard Avedon, 1923-2004, American
- Dianne Arbus, 1923-1971, American
- Carrie Mae Weems, b. 1953, American
- Brassaï, 1899-1984, Hungarian/French
- Cindy Sherman, b. 1954, American
- Lorna Simpson, b. 1960, American
- Vivian Maier, 1926-2009, American
- Claude Cahun, 1894-1954, French
- Sebastiāo Salgado, b. 1944, Brazilian
- Robert Mapplethorpe, 1946-1989, American
- Nan Goldin, b. 1953, American
- Walker Evans, 1903-1975, American
- Andreas Gursky, b. 1955, German
Related Art Terms
- Conceptual Photography
- Tableau Vivant
- Photo Etching
- Camera obscura