The Development of Photography

The first permanent photographic image was made in 1826, using a camera obscura to burn an image onto a pewter plate rubbed with chemicals. Showing the view from a window, of the French country side, it was created by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. He called the process heliography or sun drawing. The exposure time was eight hours.

Thirteen years later, Niépce’s partner Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre showed a number of images to the French Académie des Sciences using a more refined process. He called the images daguerreotypes. They, like Niépce’s heliography, were also printed to a metal plate, this time silver plated copper. They were much clearer images, done with a shorter, more manageable exposure time. Niépce died in 1833 but the invention was a product of Daguerre and Niépce’s work and research. Exposure time was still several minutes hence many types of modern photographs were still impossible to capture. In the first photograph of a person, taken by Daguerre, people moving by on the street blur and do not appear in the photo, however a man who stopped for a shoe shine stood still enough to be recognizable as a human form. Another person to contribute to the early technology of photography was William Henry Fox Talbot. He invented a process called calotype that used paper coated with salt and silver nitrate which he developed separately but around the same time as Niépce and Daguerre. To begin with his process was much better suited to capturing the images of small objects pressed to paper, exposed to sunlight, and the paper then salted again to prevent further development. However, with the competition of Daguerre’s presentation to the French Academy, he knew that he would have to come up with a way to cut exposure time and produce a permanent image. The first part he achieved in 1840. He found a way to take a picture with an exposure time of a few seconds (compared to Daguerre’s minutes). The image wasn’t immediately apparent on the paper but could be brought out with an coating of gallic acid solution. His images however still had a tendency to fade and the problem was never fully fixed within his lifetime.

From the start photography emerged to have two purposes. That of art, and that of science (used for documentation). Eadweard Muybridge used photography to study motion. He started in the 1870s when the Governor of Sacramento Leland Stanford wanted a photograph of his racehorse at full speed. Stanford believed that during full speed there must be a point where all four hooves of the horse would be off the ground but had not been able to find a way to prove it. Muybridge told him he thought this was impossible to do with photography in its current state but the governor convinced him to try. He was successful and went on to create serial images of several types of movement. He combined his work with a device known as a Zootrope which would play images in succession giving a stuttering illusion of movement. He was eventually backed financially by the University of Pennsylvania to further experiment.

One of the early names to explore photography for artistic purposes was Oscar Rejlander. In 1857 he created the work “The Two Paths of Life”. It was based loosely on a Renaissance piece by Raphael (“School of Athens”) and was pieced together from thirty negatives. The piece takes after its inspiration in being highly staged and symbolic. In the center stand two youths guided into life by an old man, one youth looks to vice and the other to virtue. Julia Margret Cameron is another to see the symbolic ability of photography. She is know for her portraits which she would intentionally capture slightly out of focus to give emphasis on the lighting. She would try to record “the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man”. Her piece “The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty” is a capture of personality. The model looks directly at the camera, seemingly starting at the viewer with an intense look that carries an undefinable dignity. The title of the work comes from a line out of a poem by John Milton.

Photography is an example of humanity’s ability to take technology and use it to create beauty and to aid in the pursuit of information. It shows the instinctive search for knowledge and for aesthetic our species is well known for. It also shows how an idea, a curiosity drive, can make an invention leap forward-the camera obscura existed in the 16th century but it was three hundred years before people would seek and find a way to capture the image permanently.


(2006) Julia Margaret Cameron: The mountain nymph, sweet liberty

(2011). Photography, history of. In Encyclopædia Britannica .

(2011) First motion pictures.

Daniel, M. (2004) William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) and the invention of photography.

Daniel, M. (2004) Daguerre (1787-1851) and the invention of photography.

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