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|
|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|
|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.