A Brief Lesson on the Origins of Photography

Many photographers may have never taken the time to study the birth and roots of the beautiful, surprising, challenging, and artistic medium that is photography. When we take a glance back in time, we find several innovative trailblazers who have the same general goal: to document or record the world around them.

Imagine sitting among the group of modern thinkers that is the French Academie des Sciences in Paris, France. The year is 1839, January 7th to be precise, and something astonishing, even magical, is about to be displayed for the first time in this group of innovators. A crowd of bystanders gathers, surprised and enchanted by the invention they see. Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a respected artist in several mediums, stands and demonstrates his latest work process. “Daguerreotypes,” as he calls them, are unique and detailed lifelike visual representations printed on copper. They are unlike anything seen prior to right now. They are the predecessors of the modern photograph. How did he do it? Are there others who have invested time and thought in this genius method of work?

The truth is, Daguerre had been working on his daguerreotypes for the last almost-twenty years. The idea crossed his mind while working with his Camera Obscura. A Camera Obscura was a tool widely used by artists or architects to project an image in order to trace it and create accurate drawings or sketches of the environment in which they stood. Many of them were wooden boxes with a small opening or lens on one side and a mirror inside to reflect a right-side-up view of the world on the back wall of the box where the master sketcher would tack paper and begin tracing.

Diagram of a man using a Camera Obscura to make a drawing
Daguerre wanted to create a way to make that projected image permanent. And he wasn’t the only one. Joseph Nicephore Niepce, a French thinker, shared Daguerre’s curiosities and became his aid in finding appropriate chemistry for making these permanent images. Niepce had some prior small successes around 1826 dabbling with scientific materials. Daguerre worked with him from 1829 until Niepce passed away in 1833. At the same time, an Englishman by the name of William Henry Fox Talbot who knew nothing of Daguerre’s fascination or method was struggling with very similar frustrations. As a man who enjoyed drawing in his sketchbook, Talbot says this of his work with the Camera Obscura, “the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus- fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away…. how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper. And why should it not be possible?”*
Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Still Life, 1837. Daguerreotype. 

So, as Talbot began experimenting with his own chemistry, in 1834 he found that a salt-coated paper painted with silver nitrate turned a dark color when left in the sun. He then began pressing botanical samples of foliage and leaves against these coated sheets of paper and leaving them out in the sun. This created beautiful likenesses of the specimens. Talbot called the process “the art of photogenic drawing.”

William Henry Fox Talbot, Asparagus Foliage, early 1840s, Photogenic Drawing Negative
As Henry Fox Talbot’s methods advanced, he came full circle to the idea of using the Camera Obscura to create these works and in 1835 he made silhouette-like images of the houses and nature in his surroundings. All the while, Daguerre was in France perfecting his process and making strides in the chemical processes that him and Niepce had slaved over together. Daguerre polished plates of copper and sensitized them with a layer of silver and iodine fumes. He, similar to Talbot, used large camera boxes to expose the copper plates to light. The box captured and projected an image onto the copper plate. He would then expose the copper plate with mercury. He even discovered that salt water would fix the image to establish permanence. Daguerre announced and demonstrated his process openly for the French Academy of Science on that day of January 7th in 1839 and patented the tools one would need to create daguerreotypes of their own.

So, when Talbot in England, learned of Daguerre’s announcement of invention in France, he tried to stake a claim in the invention of his own unique process. Talbot presented his methods before the Royal Society of England later in February of the same year. His announcement of these “photogenic drawings” was a break-through in recording and studying items via direct contact. [The photogenic drawing later evolved into the calotype or Talbotype.]

Daguerre on left, Talbot on right

Both men spent the rest of their lives devoted to developing these processes and coining new and useful ones. They are both widely considered founding fathers of the modern photographic process. From its origins, photography has been used as a method of useful and scientific recording of data, as well as its own art form.

* Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) and the Invention of Photography.”

– Kelly Latos

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