Researchers often visit the Old Academy Research and Genealogical Library looking for photographs of certain events or individuals from the 17th and 18th centuries. On more than one occasion, I have had to pause and explain the evolution of photography and the idea that capturing a detailed still image is relatively new. Ambrotypes, Daguerreotypes, tintypes, photographs, slides and negatives are terms that the general public is not always familiar with.
The modern idea of a photograph originated in the 1400s with a practice referred to as camera obscuras. Cameras obscuras used a pinhole of light, much later covered by a lens, to reflect light into a darkened space. In 1827, Joseph Nicephore Niepce created the first heliograph or sun image using the camera obscura method on a piece of metal coated with bitumen. The imprint was only temporary. Louis Daguerre was the next individual to contribute to the development of photography and examples of his method remain in historical collections throughout America. Daguerre partnered with Niepce determined to develop the cameras obscuras method to display a permanent image. Niepce passed away prior to Daguerre’s 1838 reveal of the Daguerreotype, a “one-of-a-kind photographic image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized (or fixed) with salt water”(Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Daguerreotypist André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patented the
carte-de-visite in 1854 making photography a necessity of the upper
classes. Carte-de-visite, or calling cards, was the first rapidly
(within 48 hours) mass-produced photographs. These small photographs
remained popular until the 1860s, when larger photographs became the new
trend (International Photography Hall of Fame).
Ambrotypes were a new photographic medium that Americans preferred over
the Daguerreotypes, beginning in 1855. Ambrotypes were more desirable
due to the lack of a reflective surface. They were collodion glass-plate
negatives against a dark mounting. The ambient light allows the clear
areas to appear dark and the opaque areas bright. Another photographic
medium invented in the 1850s was the tintype, which was far more
durable, inexpensive and less popular. The tintype was similar to the
ambrotype, as it was also a collodion negative, but on metal.
Photography was used for calling cards and family images, but it was the
photographs of tragedy that truly demonstrated the power that a still
image can have. Matthew Brady and his staff worked photographing the
Civil War between 1861 and 1865,
showing how devastating warfare was. Jacob Riis used the new invention
of flash photography when he published How the Other Half Lives in 1890,
illuminating New York City tenement life and demonstrating the class
divide in America. The Farm Security Administration captured the rural
destitution in the 1930s during the Great Depression using the same
The inventions of color photography, roll films,
moving pictures and the increasing case of use of cameras by amateur
photographers continued to develop over time. Today, we think of
photographs as everyday objects and forget that they did not exist prior
to the 1830s. Next time you look through your digital camera and
instantly capture the moment in full color, knowing that you can edit
something in or out in the future, reflect back on the inventors and
experimentation that made that possible.
1400s – Camera
ra method originates.
1827 – Niepce created the first heliograph.
1838 – Daguerre re
1850s – Ambrotypes and tintypes introduced using collodian negatives.
1854 – Disdéri patented the carte-de-visite.
1855 – Americans preferred Ambrotypes to Daguerreotypes.
1861-1865 – Matthew Br
staff photograph American Civil War bringing warfare closer than ever before.
1890 – Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives with flash photography.
1900 – Kodak Brownie c
amera is introduced.
1907 – First commercial color film prod
uced by Lumiere brothers.
1914 – 35 mm Movie Film introduced.
1921 – Man Ray creates photograms.
1932 – Technicolor introdu
ced for movies.
1935 – Farm Security Administration hired Roy Stryker and began the initiative to photograph rural America.
1963 – Polaroid introduces the first instant color film.
1990 – Adobe Photoshop introduced.
2000 – First camera phone introduced.
2001 – Polaroid goes bankrupt.
2004 – Kodak ceases production of film for cameras.