The beginnings of Photography
Werner Hammerstingl © 1999.2001


The invention of photography did not occur - as some would have it, in a moment of inspired insight. Nor should the invention of photography (in my oppinion) be credited simply to Daguerre. But history has a way of simplfying what are often very complex matters and events.
Before commencing this brief (and again, oversimplified) discussion about the beginnings of the photographic medium, we might need to reflect on what the world would be like, if photographs and photographic processes were never invented.
Only when we try to immagine this, does the true magnitude of photography's role in our life (personal and communal) become evident.

We take television for granted and accept motion pictures as an important aspect of entertainment and leisure but we rely heavily; (more heavily than most of us immagine) on photography.
Magazine and newspaper photographs are an obvious manifestation of the photographic medium today. But photography is so omnipresent, it is involved, directly or indirectly, in almost everything we experience.

It wasn't always like this. Newspaper and magazine reproduction of photographs was still a novelty at the beginning of this century. Color photography was in its infancy in 1910. Sound onfilm recording was introduced to the motion picture industry in the 1920s. And television, which seems to have made the whole world picture conscious, was still new to most people in 1950.

Considering the fascination that image making has always held for people, it sometimes seems surprising that it took so long for photography to be invented. But it wasn't just invented: it evolved and that evolution was a long and convoluted process.

The Discovery and Evolution of Photography

Discovery of Image Formation by Light
No one knows when the first camera was constructed, but it was long before there was any real use for it. It was probably inspired by the observation of some naturally formed image. Aristotle mentioned the images of a solar eclipse formed on the ground by sunlight passing through little gaps in tree foliage, and his comments indicate that he had some grasp of the principles involved.
In view of Aristotle's obvious recognition of the principles, the first camera could have been constructed by some unknown Greek. More likely, though, it came more than a thousand years later Roger Bacon discussed the camera obscura knowledgeably about 1267 and is presumed to have learned about it from the writings of tenth century Arab scholars.
In its earliest form, the camera obscura was what the name implies—a dark chamber or room Leonardo da Vinci described one in some detail about 1490, pointing out that the image was viewed through the back of a screen of paper, which "must be very thin.'' He also specified that the hole "should be made in a piece of very thin sheet iron."
In 1558 the camera obscura was described fully by Giovanni Battista della Porta. In the first edition of his Magiae Naturalis, he specified that a conical hole be installed in the shutter of a darkened room and that the image be shown on a white screen. He said that the image would appear upside down and reversed from left to right, and that the image size would be proportional to the distance from the hole to the viewing screen—all of which are equally valid observations for the cameras we use today. Porta recommended that the camera obscura image be used as a guide for drawing and then went on to invent a method for producing an erect image using lenses and curved mirrors. With this apparatus, he astounded viewers with the images of elaborate theatrical productions staged outside and supposedly was even accused of sorcery for his trouble.
The application of lenses to the camera obscura after 1550 was a significant step. The image could then be made both sharper and more brilliant because a lens can admit much more light than a simple hole and can also focus the light rays to finer points. Camera's began to be refined in design and construction as more and more people became interested in them By about 1575, the first movable cameras appeared . They were, at first, wooden huts or tents that completely enclosed the viewer and viewing screen Later, more elaborate models, such as sedan chairs, were constructed.
From that point on, the evolution was rapid. Smaller models were designed, which permitted the operator to view or trace the image from outside the main enclosure. Finally, completely portable cameras appeared. A reflex camera, one in which the image is reflected up onto a topmounted viewing screen by an inclined mirror behind the lens, was built in 1676; a ballandsocket mount (like some modern tripod heads) appeared in 1680; and a telephoto lens was installed in a camera obscura in 1685. The camera was ready, but for what?
Camera evolution was rapid but chemical investigations proceeded slowly.....

The Chemical Investigations
Photographic chemistry started late and proceeded slowly. In 1614 Angelo Sala noted that silver nitrate turned black when exposed to the sun, but he apparently saw nothing significant in the change and did not ascribe it to the action of light.
The first discovery of importance was made in 1725 by Johann Heinrich Schulze, a professor of anatomy at the University of Altdorf. He had mixed powdered chalk into a solution of nitric acid in an attempt to make a phosphorescent material (the aluminous stone" of the alchemist, Balduin) and was amazed to discover that the mixture turned dark violet in sunlight. He traced the discoloration to a contaminant in the acid, silver, and eventually proved that silver compounds were visibly changed by the action of light rather than heat or exposure to air, as had been previously suggested. Schulze made numerous stencil prints on the sensitive contents of his bottles, but apparently he never applied the solutions to paper or made any attempt to record natural images.
In 1777 Carl Wilhelm Scheele, the Swedish chemist, investigated the properties of silver chloride and made some interesting discoveries. Like Schulze, he established that the blackening effect on his silver salt was due to light, not heat. He also proved that the black material was metallic silver and he noted that ammonia, which was known to dissolve silver chloride, did not affect the blackened silver. If Scheele had realized the importance of this last discovery, he could very well have become the inventor of photography because by this time the essential processes were known. Silver chloride could be reduced to black metallic silver by exposure to light; ammonia could preserve the image by dissolving the silver chloride without harming the image tones; and, of course, the camera was still waiting in the wings. But Scheele's investigations were only noted in passing. The world was not yet ready for photography. The fantastic possibility of producing images by the action of light had simply not occurred to anyone as a serious thought.

This essential idea finally came to Thomas Wedgwood, the youngest son of the famous potter, Josiah. In addition to being an outstanding craftsman and artist, Josiah was a brilliant and respected member of the English scientific community. Thomas was familiar with the camera obscura because his father had used it as an aid in drawing scenes for use on his pottery. The Wedgwood family also owned the notebooks of William Lewis, who in 1763 had described Schulze's and his own experiments with the silver compounds. These circumstances and natural curiosity prompted young Thomas to begin experiments of his own, probably about 1795. Thomas Wedgwood narrowly missed becoming the inventor of photography for two reasons. He gave up attempts to make pictures with the camera obscura (his exposures were not sufficient), and he was unable to fix the silver images he did produce by direct printing.
In France, meanwhile, Joseph Nicephore Niepce and his son Isidore were busy experimenting with lithography at the family estate near Chalon. When Isidore, who had been copying drawings onto the stones for his father, joined the army, and Nicephore began to explore lightsensitive varnishes, hoping to find a coating for the stones that would record the drawings by exposure to light. He must have made some progress because in 1816 he set out to take pictures from nature using a camera and paper sensitized with silver chloride.
Niepce had limited success almost immediately, but he was displeased because the image tones were reversed from nature (they were negative) and he could not make the image permanent. He realized that the tonal reversal was an inherent part of the silver process and tried to produce a positive print by reprinting one of his negatives, but his attempts were unsuccessful. He also found that nitric acid helped to preserve the image for a while, but it only postponed disaster and could not prevent it. He began to experiment with other materials.
Finally, in 1822 he produced a copy of an engraving by exposing through the original onto a glass plate coated with bitumen of Judea, a type of asphalt. Light hardens this material, so when Niepce washed his exposed plate with the usual solvents, only the unexposed portions were floated away, leaving the image in permanent lines. He called his process heliography (sunwriting). He made a number of similar heliographs in the next few years and continued his efforts to record a camera image. At last, in 1826, he succeeded. The world's first permanent camera image shows the view from Niepce's second floor window and is little more than an impression. It is a bitumen image on pewter, showing only masses of light and dark tones. The exposure supposedly took about eight hours.

The Daguerreotype Period
In January 1826 Niepce received a letter from a Parisian painter, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, who mentioned that he also was working with light images and inquired about Niepce's progress. Niepce was initially cautious, but after visiting Daguerre while on a trip through Paris, his suspicions were somewhat allayed. After occasional correspondence, he finally suggested to Daguerre in 1829 that they form a partnership to do "mutual work in the improvement of my heliographic process." Daguerre accepted and visited Niepce to work out the details. They became friends and corresponded frequently, but they never met again.

Until the time of their partnership, Daguerre had not produced a useful light image, although he had implied that his work was rather well advanced. The agreement with Niepce seemed to spur him on. He became a tireless experimenter and mentioned his growing interest in silver iodide in a letter dated May 21, 1831. "I think after many new tests that we ought to concentrate our researches on 20," he wrote, "this substance is highly lightsensitive when it is in contact with 18." They were writing in code: "20" meant iodine, "18" meant silver plate.

Niepce could not contribute much in this direction. His early experiments with silver compounds had left him prejudiced against them. Finally, impoverished and discouraged, he died. Daguerre was saddened, but resumed his work with Isidore Niepce as his partner. He was now completely committed to working with the silver compounds.
In 1835 Daguerre discovered (quite by accident, if the story is true) that treatment with mercury vapor would produce a visible image on an iodized silver plate that had been briefly exposed to light. He also managed to stabilize the image with a strong solution of salt.
In 1838 he contacted a group of leading French scientists, among them Francois Arago, and solicited their help. Arago was immediately impressed with the invention and made a brief announcement of it at the Academie des Sciences in January 1839.
Daguerre had supported himself quite handsomely during most of the period of his research with the proceeds from his Diorama, a kind of light show that combined enormous paintings on translucent screens with some real objects, controlled light effects, and music to create illusions of famous scenes or ceremonies. It was a disaster for him, then, when the Paris Diorama was totally destroyed by fire in March 1839.
Arago immediately sprang to his aid and succeeded in convincing the government that French national honor was at stake. A bill was passed granting life pensions to Daguerre and Niepce, and the details of the process were announced to a frenzied public in August 1839. Although the French government had announced that the process was now public property, this was not entirely true. Daguerre had secretly patented it in England just a few days before the formal French announcement.
News of the daguerreotype process spread like wildfire. Enthusiastic experimenters, French and foreign, were soon happily engrossed in the new technique, but there was dismay in England. A respected member of the Royal Society of London, William Henry Fox Talbot, saw the new process as a threat to his own investigations. In an attempt to establish priority, Talbot had written Arago on January 29,1839, claiming that he had been the first to find a method for taking pictures with the camera obscura and for fixing them. He overstated his case. He had not accomplished much more than Niepce had in his experiments with silver chloride, and his method of fixation was far from satisfactory.
Having heard that silver nitrate was lightsensitive, Talbot made his first attempts with silver- nitrate coated paper. He quickly found it unsatisfactory and turned to silver chloride, at first coating paper with the prepared salt, then producing it in the paper by successive washes of sodium chloride (common salt) and silver nitrate. He soon found that too much salt reduced the sensitivity of the paper and turned, as Daguerre had done, to the use of a strong salt solution for fixing the image. Before long, Talbot ran across the accounts of the experiments of Wedgwood and Davy and investigated them fairly thoroughly, apparently without discovering much of real value. He had not yet heard of the work of either Niepce or Daguerre.
Although his early experiments were confined to making prints of objects laid directly on the paper surface, Talbot had succeeded by the summer of 1835 in taking pictures with a tiny camera obscura fitted with a microscope lens (his wife called his little cameras l'mousetraps"). The pictures were only about an inch square, but he had found larger ones impossible to make due to the length of the exposure time required.

The Calotype Period
The news that had stunned Talbot also greatly intrigued Sir John Frederick William Herschel, son of the famous Germanborn English astronomer and a prominent mathematician, astronomer, and chemist in his own right. Within a week, Herschel was at work in his laboratory near London investigating the various known processes and keeping careful notes of his procedures.
It is an indication of Herschel's intelligence and acuity as an investigator that in less than two weeks he successfully tested several silver salts for sensitivity, took several successful pictures, printed a negative to make a positive paper image, and fixed the images with a chemical he had described twenty years previously, which he called "hyposulphite of soda."
At the height of this investigation, less than two weeks after hearing about Arago's momentous announcement, Talbot visited Herschel at his laboratory, bringing with him samples of his work. Herschel showed Talbot his results and described them in full detail, including his use of hypo for fixing. Talbot, on the other hand, revealed nothing. He referred airily to his own method of fixing the image, without explaining how it was done, and convinced Herschel that he should not mention the use of hypo until Talbot had announced his process. Herschel agreed, later writing admiringly that Talbot's method of fixing "must be a very chemical jewel," and gave Talbot permission to announce the use of hypo with his own process.
In Talbot's letter of disclosure to a member of the French Academy, he outlined his own methods of fixing, then described Herschel's hypo as being "worth all the others combined." Daguerre immediately applied it to his own process .
Niepce, Daguerre, and Talbot can each be called the "inventor of photography" with certain justification, but so can a fourth man who is less well known, Hippolyte Bayard. Bayard lived in Paris and was a minor employee of the Ministry of Finance. His experiments with light-sensitive materials probably began about 1837 and, initially, seem to have paralleled Talbot's. His first images were negatives on silverchloridetreated paper. On learning of Daguerre's discovery, he set out to produce direct positive images. Within a few months he succeeded with a process that involved blackening a conventional silver chloride paper in light, then coating it with a solution of potassium iodide, and exposing it in the camera. The exposing light bleached this paper, producing a direct positive image, which he then fixed in hypo.
Bayard was apparently a very quiet, retiring man of modest means. Many of his pictures are stilllife arrangements or details of his house and garden. In some of these views he appears seated in a doorway or in his garden surrounded by flowerpots and garden tools. Although he did make a few tentative attempts to gain recognition and support, he was not very successful. Perhaps, too, he was uniucky in his choice of consultants. He showed some prints to Arago in May 1839 and asked for his help, but Arago was interested in Daguerre's career at that point and arranged for a token grant of six hundred francs to help Bayard finance his experiments, counseling him to remain quietly in the background until Daguerre's process had been publicly revealed. After that revelation, of course, Bayard's work seemed anticlimactic and insignificant, and he was virtually ignored by the public and the government alike.
Understandably bitter at this callous treatment, Bayard expressed his hurt by photographing himself as a halfnaked corpse and explained, in a long and piteous caption that this was the dead body of the unhappy Bayard who, unrecognized and unrewarded, had thrown himself into the water and drowned.
Although he was never really given the credit he deserved during his lifetime, he did eventually receive a little prize of three thousand francs. He is now remembered as a significant figure, a victim of circumstances who might have been as well known as Daguerre if things had worked in his favor.
Photography, a name generally credited to Herschel, languished in England. The daguerreotype process was patented, and Talbot immediately began to secure his own processes by patents so restrictive that even amateur experiments were inhibited. Talbot improved his original papernegative process by subjecting the exposed paper to development in gallic acid and silver nitrate solution, thus shortening the necessary exposure time considerably. He called the new process calotype (also later referred to as talbotype) and included in its patent the use of hypo for fixing—blatantly appropriating Herschel's discovery.
Talbot must receive credit for inventing the photographic process as we now know it, but he must also be remembered as a stumbling block in its evolution. As new procedures were announced, Talbot promptly laid claims to them on the grounds that they were only modifications of the basic principles of his patented processes. Although these tactics created a great deal of antagonism and various suits were threatened, Talbot was generally successful in controlling photography in England until 1855.

The Collodion Period
The two decades following the invention of photography were years of rapid technical evolution and experimentation. The daguerreotype process was sufficiently refined to permit studio portraiture by about 1841. Talbot's calotype process was improved by LouisDesire BlanquartEvrard; Gustave LeGray went a step further by sensitizing waxed paper to produce negatives of greater sharpness and translucency; and Claude Niepce de St.Victor's glass plates,sensitized with an albumin emulsion, gave photographers still another alternative. All of these processes were in use in 1851 when Frederick Scott Archer announced the details of his collodion process and gave it freely for all to use.
The process was not free for long. Talbot, displaying his typical lack of scruple, claimed that it was covered by his patents and announced that he would prosecute anyone who used it without his license. A number of challenges were made to this outrageous claim. Finally in December 1854 the courts found Talbot's claims illegal and his tyranny ended.

Timeline of camera-related discoveries
Timeline of photochemical discoveries
Back to top of page

© Werner Hammerstingl, 1999