History of Photography Talk
I recently had the opportunity to attend an evening talk on the history of photography by Matthew Dols, an Assistant Professor of New Media in the College of Arts and Creative Enterprises at Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi campuses), organised and hosted by Gulf Photo Plus, Dubai.
Dols is passionate about photography and this has led him to examine the very beginnings within the medium. He began by talking about the camera obscura1, which is Latin for dark room, which is the earliest form of camera. It basically, was a hole in a tent of box that allowed an image to be projected and then traced to make a permanent image. Dols noted that this may have been in use as far back as 5BC which is much longer ago than the 1569 date that Clarke (1997, p238) offers as it’s date for development.
He also briefly mentioned the work of Muslim scholar, al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham, whom I had not heard of before, who is rumoured to have invented the pinhole camera over 1000 years ago.
The discussion also covered the techniques used by Niépce (1765-1833) heliograph2 which was used to capture ‘View from the Window at Gras’ c.1826. However, it was the work by Frenchman, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre who developed the first published photographic process, the Daguerreotype3, in 1839 and Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot who introduced the Calotype4 in 1840. Dols outlined the processes both men had used and wondered out loud that of the two men who should be considered to be the ‘inventor’ of the photographic process. Should it be Daguerre as he was chronologically first or should it be Talbot as his process allowed a negative/positive process and is therefore the basis of photography proper?
Dols brought example of original daguerreotypes that he has collected and very generously allowed these to be passed around the audience for a closer look. This was perhaps the section of the evening that I enjoyed best. Up until point I hadn’t realised that because of their sensitive nature daguerreotype’s had to be protected by glass and were framed in a small, leather bound boxes to seal the images. The daguerreotypes were made of silvered copper plate and as such had to tilted to a certain angle for the image to be seen. The combination of holding the decorative box and the image revealing itself to me felt quite magical.
I also had the opportunity to hold and look at a stereograph5 in a stereoscope5. The stereograph felt quite flimsy in comparison to the daguerreotypes. It also seemed more ‘fun’ than the serious daguerreotype portraits in their leather-bound boxes, almost like a child’s toy.
At the request of audience members Dols provided the following as suggestions for reading on the history of photography and working with old medium in photographic work.
Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital By Todd Gustavson
Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography By Robert Hirsch
A World History of Photography By Naomi Rosenblum
On Photography By Susan Sontag (I have had this one sitting on my book shelf for a while, but since this talk have began to read it)
The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes By Christopher James
Primitive Photography: A Guide to Making Cameras, Lenses, and Calotypes By Alan Greene
Photographic Possibilities: The Expressive Use of Ideas, Materials and Processes By Robert Hirsch & John Valentino
In addition to working at the university, Dols is also a photographer and fine artist. His work can be viewed via his website by clicking here http://matthewdols.com
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
The definitions below are taken from the glossary in Clarke (1997).
1 Camera obscura: a ‘dark chamber’, which constituted the earliest, form of camera, although it did not record a permanent image. Developed in 1569 by Battista delia Porta for use by artists, it consisted of a hole in a tent or box, which allowed the entry of light on to a flat surface. The projected image appeared as inverted, but with the use of mirror the artist was able to trace what he saw.
2 Heliography: the process invented by Niépce, it is the earliest form of photographic image, used to produce the famous ‘first’ photograph from 1826. It was based on a copper plate covered in a solution of bitumen. Its obvious drawback was the number of hours required for each exposure.
3 Daguerreotype: the first published photographic process, in France (1839), developed by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Based on experiments he had made (with Niépce) since the 1820s, this consisted of a silvered copper plate made sensitive by iodine vapour. It was easily damaged and, once developed, had to be protected by glass to prevent the surface becoming scratched. To begin with, exposure times were up to twenty minutes, although they were rapidly reduced to seconds. There was no negative, thus each daguerreotype was unique. Despite its popularity it was rapidly supersede by Talbot’s negative/positive process.
4 Calotype: the basic process developed by Talbot in 1840, it consisted of a paper sensitized with a salt solution and silver nitrate. This was the basis of his photogenic drawings in 1834 but the calotype allowed a negative/positive process and is therefore the basis of photography proper. An earlier but different version was the salt print, which Talbot used in 1834.
5 Stereograph: an image based on the stereoscopic camera, which had two lenses set apart in relation to the eyes. Each ‘print’ had two exposures and when placed in the stereoscope (a viewing machine) produced the illusion of a three-dimensional image. Especially popular in the 1850s particularly for travel photography.