Photography (Way) Before the iPhone

Say you’re with your friends and you see something interesting that you want to photograph. So you whip out your camera/phone and click, it’s done, easy-peasy. It’s hard to believe that photography was once difficult and dangerous. But it was.

Before the late 1830’s, there was no such thing as photography. If you wanted a picture of your friend you hired a miniature portrait painter to paint one for you. If you went somewhere on a vacation or holiday and you didn’t sketch, you would just have to describe your experience in words to your friends back home.

But then, in 1835, in Britain, William Henry Fox Talbot invented a process he called the “calotype”, or “talbotype” (after guess who) that could imprint a photographic image on a piece of specially prepared paper.

Using light to reflect an image onto a surface is a very old idea—Renaissance artists knew about it and they used it to paint realistic paintings. What you do is build a light-tight room with white walls and leave a tiny little opening in one wall. The little opening lets in light that shows an upside image of the outside scene. It sounds like a giant camera, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what it is. As a matter of fact, it was called a “camera obscura”. Getting light to reflect an image onto a surface was not a problem, getting it to stay there was.

In 1689, the philosopher John Locke wrote about the camera obscura in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Methinks the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut   from light with only some little opening left to let in external visible resemblances of ideas of things without…

And then Locke goes on to predict the invention of photography—150 years before.

…would that the pictures coming into a dark room but stay there, and lie so   orderly as to be found upon occasion…”

What Talbot did was find a way to “fix” the image onto the paper, so it “could lie so orderly”. He did this by soaking a piece of writing paper in a table salt (sodium chloride) solution, drying it, then dipping it in a silver nitrate solution. The silver nitrate and sodium chloride reacted together to form silver chloride, a chemical compound that turns dark—tarnishes—when exposed to light. Once the paper was dry, Talbot placed it into a small camera obscura—simply a light-tight box with a pinhole in it to let in the light that forms the image. He pointed the box towards what he wanted to photograph, undid the cover over the pinhole and let the light imprint the image on the light sensitive paper. Then he covered up the hole, and moved the box to a darkroom, took the paper out, developed it in water to remove the extra salt, and “fixed” it in another chemical (sodium thiosulfate) to prevent further tarnishing. The image he ended up with was a negative, so to make a positive print, he sandwiched the negative with another coated paper and exposed the whole thing to light and then developed the “positive” the same way as before.   And that’s how the first photograph was made.  It was a commercial flop.

Only a few years after Talbot invented his process, another, completely different photographic process was invented by a Frenchman named Louis Daguerre, and it was called the daguerreotype (I’m seeing a trend here). Using silver-plated polished copper metal sheets made light sensitive by iodine vapor, the daguerreotype produced a razor sharp positive image right off the bat. The fuzzy talbotype could not compete, and the daguerreotype became very popular for portraits. Although if you’ve ever wondered why our ancestors look so grim and tense in their portraits, it’s because of the long exposure time of the daguerreotype– 5 minutes or more–during which the sitter had to sit completely still or the portrait would blur.

The daguerreotype was popular, but it was expensive and the chemicals used were poisonous and explosive. And it wasn’t portable–you could only have your picture taken in a studio. This left the door open for the invention of a third process, the albumen print.

The albumen print was invented in 1850, in France, by Louis Blanquart-Evrard. It was actually a refined version of the talbotype.   Instead of soaking the paper in a table salt solution, a flat plate of glass was coated with a solution of table salt and egg white (albumen). This dried to a clear film, and then the silver nitrate solution was brushed over it. The glass was placed in the camera obscura, but by now, the pinhole had been refined with lenses for an even clearer image and shorter exposure time. The photograph was taken by opening the lens and allowing light in. The glass plate was then developed in the dark room. The resulting glass plate negative was placed against a sheet of albumen-coated sensitized paper and again exposed to light (this is called contact printing) to make the positive photograph.

Being less expensive than a daguerreotype, and with a shorter exposure time, the albumen print became a big commercial success. In fact, it was a sensation. All the fashionable people had albumen likenesses of themselves taken and mounted on a small card, called a “carte-de-visite”, literally “a visiting card”. They dropped one of these off at people’s houses when they stopped in to visit if the people weren’t home (or the maid said they weren’t home) perhaps with a little message scribbled on the back of it.   It was a sort of early Facebook. At the height of the albumen photo popularity, the Albumenizing Company in Dresden, Germany was using 60,000 eggs daily!

Although using large plate glass negatives was cumbersome, the relative ease of the albumen process sparked an interest in photographing—documenting—far away places and far away events. John K. Hillers (1843-1925) became the first person to photograph the Grand Canyon, and Frances Frith (1822-1898) photographed in Egypt and Jerusalem. It’s hard to believe now, but this was the first time most people in America had seen pictures of these exotic places. And during the Civil War, a photographer named Matthew Brady, along with his assistants, photographed the aftermath of battles, sometimes even moving corpses to make a better composition. These photographs shocked the public, and they helped people realize that war, instead of being glorious, was full of horror and destruction.

Today we don’t think twice about taking a photograph, and couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t include regular selfies and photo updates. But not so long ago, that world was just wishful thinking in the minds of a few.

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