Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Brief History of Photography

We owe the name "Photography" to Sir John Herschel, who first used the term in 1839, the year the photographic process became public. The word is derived from the Greek words for light and writing. The innovations which would lead to the development of photography existed long before the first photograph. The camera obscura (Latin,literally translating to "dark room") had been in existence for at least four hundred years, but its use was limited to its purpose as an aid to drawing. It was discovered that if a room was completely darkened, with a single hole in one wall, an inverted image would be seen on the opposite wall. A person inside of the room could then trace this image, which was upside-down (similating the way that images actually enter our eyes). The earliest record of the uses of a camera obscura can be found in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who may have used it as an aid to understanding perspective. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a table-top model was developed. By adding a focused lens and a mirror, it was possible for a person outside of the box to trace the image which was reflected through it.

It was a French man, Nicephore Niepce (pronounced Nee-ps) who produced the first photograph in June/July 1827. By using chemicals on a metal plate, placed inside of a camera obscura, he was able to record an obscure image of the view outside of his window. He called his process "heliography" (after the Greek "of the sun"). The image is difficult to decipher, but there is a building on the left, a tree, and a barn immediately in front. The exposure lasted eight hours, so the sun had time to move from east to west, appearing to shine on both sides of the building. Another problem is that he had difficulty "fixing" the image so that it would not continue to darken when exposed to light.

Daguerre (pronounced Dagair) is the most famous of several people who invented more successful and commercially applicable forms of photography. He regularly used a camera obscura as an aid to painting in perspective, and this had led him to seek to freeze the image. In 1826 he learned of the work of Niepce, and in January of 1829 signed up a partnership with him. The partnership was a short one since Niepce died in 1833, but Daguerre continued to experiment. He was able to reduce the exposure time to thirty minutes, and in 1837 he discovered a chemical process which would permanently to fix the image. This new process he called a Daguerreotype. Drawbacks at this time included the fact that the length of the exposure time ruled out portraiture; the image was laterally reversed (as one sees oneself in a mirror); and that the image was very fragile. Another drawback was that it was a "once only" system (since it was fixed to metal). Soon, exposure times were reduced to a matter of seconds, and portraiture became a commercially viable purpose for the new technology. It would be up to George Eastman to introduce flexible film in 1884, allowing multiple images to be produced on light-sensitized paper. Four years later he introduced the box camera, and photography could now reach a much greater number of people. With his slogan "You press the button, we do the rest" he brought photography to the masses.

Couple Holding a Daguerrotype is one of my favorite historical photographs because of its unique commentary on the value of photographs as a record of the real world. There is a sadness apparent in the couple's faces which tell me that the persons in the photograph are either deceased or separated from a long distance. Daguerre's invention made it possible for anyone of moderate means to have a portrait created, and photographers profitted from traveling to towns across the United States. In addition, any large town had dozens of photographic studios available for people to travel to.

Most people embraced this new technology with great enthusiasm. A few religious zealots, however, claimed that it was the work of the devil. Many artists who had trained for years in the techniques of portrait painting were also to find it a threat to their livelihood. Some painters dubbed the new invention "the foe-to-graphic art." A number of artists turned to photography for their livelihood, while others cashed in on the fact that the images were in monochrome, and began coloring them in. Some painters also used photography to assist them in painting (some of these artists were Gauguin, Cezanne, Courbet, Lautrec, Delacroix and Degas). Photography would eventually change the purpose of painting from one which focused on outward facts of reality to more emphasis on personal vision.

Anyone who was famous after 1839 had their likeness captured for future generations. Abraham Lincoln credited the success of his presidential election to two things: his widely known speech (the Gettysburgh Address) and his photograph, which was widely distributed. In addition to Lincoln's portrait, Matthew Brady is also famous for his images of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allen Poe. Julia Margaret Cameron was also well known for her photographs of famous men (Charles Darwin among them) as well as for her images of "fair women", She preferred a soft-focus effect, which have a poetic, haunting quality.

In addition to portraits of famous men, Matthew Brady is known for his portraits of Civil War generals and for his images of vast fields littered with the corpses in the aftermath of battle. This was the first time that the destruction of war was captured on film, and would change the way we look at war forever. Brady is sometimes thought of as the century's most important photographer and the man who invented photojournalism. He also took credit for hundreds of photographs which were done by his employees, the most famous of these artists was Timothy O'Sullivan, who is believed to have moved corpses to attain more successful compositions.

One of the greatest pioneers of motion photography was Eadweard Muybridge . Muybridge's main claim to fame was his exhaustive study of movement of both animals and humans. The story goes that an owner of race horses bet a friend that when a horse gallops all four feet are, at one point, off the ground simultaneously. He hired Muybridge to prove the claim was true. Using twenty four cameras, Muybridge was able to photograph a horse galloping, each triggered off by the breaking of a trip-wire on the course. In the 2nd and 3rd frame of the photograph, you can see that the horse-owner was right. In 1884, the University of Pennsylvania commissioned Muybridge to make a further study of animal and human locomotion. The report, "Animal Locomotion" was published three years later and still ranks as the most detailed study in this area. It contains more than twenty thousand images. In 1878 an article in Scientific American published some of Muybridge's sequences, and suggested that readers might like to cut the pictures out and place them in a "zoetrope" so that the illusion of movement might be re-created. Intrigued by this, Muybridge experimented further, and in time invented the zoopraxiscope, an instrument which in turn paved the way for cine photography

Thomas Eakins (who is probably more famous as a realist painter) was also influential to the development of motion pictures. He invented a camera which could record several sequential exposures of a moving person in a single photograph. The camera was able to do this with the means of a rotating disc.

One way that a photograph differs from the way that we perceive things in reality is that our eyes see in stereoscopic vision, whereas a photograph flattens all sense of three-dimensional depth. To compensate for this difference, the stereograph was invented. A camera would take 2 simultaneous images, and the developed image could be viewed by a stereoscope, which converged the 2 images into one 3-dimensional image. Viewing these images continued to be a very popular past-time until the invention of television.

Lewis Hine was hired to research child labor in the early 20th century, when the practice was common. His photographs of children working in factories, on railroads, and other dangerous working environments brought greater awareness to this problem. Soon after his photographs were published, child labor laws went into effect.

Here are a couple of humorous photographs which relate to changes near the turn of the century. Votes for Women is a staged photo, where men are making fun of the women's movement's efforts to establish rights for women. Biplane Tennis is also obviously staged (and I doubt that they were able to keep the ball going for long), but it comments on the beginnings of air transportation.

A momentous event of the 1930s was the building of the Empire State Building, which was the largest building in the world at that time. Hine's documentary photos focusing on the builders is an incredible testimony of the courage of these underpaid workers. The explosion of the German airship The Hindenburg was perhaps the first disaster to be thoroughly documented in photographs

Another disaster of the 1930s was the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange was commisioned to create a portfolio of photographs documenting the migrant farm workers in California. Her famous image, Migrant Mother, captures the despair of the times.

When the allies marched into the Nazi Germany in 1945, they were shocked to discover the living conditions of the prisoners in the concentration camps. Though this is not one of the more devestating photographs (compared to those of stacked human bodies), it is certainly a compelling image.

Civil rights demonstrations are usually covered by photojournalists covering the stories for newspapers, and many great photographs have been the result of these events. I believe that photos such as these are the prime example of the phrase "A picture tells a thousand words". One can get a better sense about the event from the photographs than from any article written about them (or telecast, in the case of this video still of Tianamen Square). This image is testimony to the power of one individual to make a difference through a single act of extreme personal courage. It has become a symbol for the conflict, and was likely instrumental in invoking a world-wide protest of the massacre.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

International Photos & Humor

Photos & Humor