The Wonderful World of Early Photography.

If we take a look at the state of photography today, such as the advances of digital camera, artful image manipulation by photoshop, and even the role of paparazzi in media - and the pervasiveness of photographic images in our lives, it is easy to forget that the first photograph ever was taken just 180 years ago.

Photography was probably an inevitable invention - the surprise was that it took so long for it to develop, especially given that the scientific principles that are responsible for it - physical principles such as our understanding of lens and optics and chemical processes that are required to affix permanent images, have actually been known for long before the invention of the first photograph.

The development of photography was quite fast: since Niépce took the world's first photograph in 1826, it took only about 30 years for photograph became a product for mass consumption with the introduction of carte-de-visite. Before long, the world's first concealed cameras were introduced to help detectives document the dalliances of cheating spouses!

But enough small talk - let's take a look at some fun facts about the development of early photography, famous and "first" photos, weird cameras, and more:

Camera Obscura

Before we talk about the birth of modern photography, let's talk a little about an ancient technique that served as a precursor - say, "proto-photography" if you will.

This device is called a camera obscura (latin for dark chamber). It is literally a dark room or a box with a small hole in one wall. An inverted image from outside the hole would appear on the opposite wall. This device could thus be used to aid drawing (artist could trace the outline of the image on a canvas hung on the wall) and was considered quite significant in the development of proto-photography.

The invention of camera obscura (latin for dark chamber) was attributed to an islamic mathematician, astronomer, and physicist named Ibn al-Haitham [wiki] or better known as Alhazen, in the 11th century Egypt. However, the principle of camera obscura was probably known to thinkers as early as Aristotle (300 BC).

Camera obscura was widely known to early scientists: Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Kepler, and Athanasius Kircher [wiki] all wrote about this optical device.

Giphantie: Prediction of the Invention of Photography

In 1760, decades before the invention of photography, French author Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche predicted its invention.

In a story titled Giphantie (yes, an anagram of his name), Tiphaigne de la Roche wrote about a race of secret supermen in an imaginary wonderland who could fix a reflected image onto a canvas coated with a sticky substance!

Link [Google Translation]

World's First Photograph

The grainy picture above is the world's first photograph called "View from the Window at Le Gras" (circa 1826), taken and developed by French photographer pioneer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. He called this process "heliography" or sun drawing - it certainly was a long process: the exposure time was about 8 hours.

Link | Nicéphore Niépce [wiki] | Niepce

World's First Daguerreotype

Although daguerreotype [wiki] was not the first photographic process to be invented, it was the first commercially viable process (earlier techniques required hours and hours of successful exposure and therefore weren't suitable for taking people's photos).

This technique was developed by French chemist Louis Daguerre [wiki], with collaboration with Niépce (see above). The daguerreotype above, titled "L'Atelier de l'artiste" was probably the world's first daguerreotype, made in 1837.

In 1839, the French government acquired Daguerre's French patent and announced his invention "a gift free to the world" - but simultaneously, Daguerre had acquired patents abroad, where he stringently controlled the use of daguerreotype.

And just like with any technology, the first adopters turned out to be erotic photography [wiki, nsfw - obviously].

Posing for a daguerreotype wasn't trivial: because the exposure time is about 15 minutes, the subject's head had to be held still with a clamp!

World's First Human Portrait

In 1839, Robert Cornelius, a Dutch chemist who immigrated to Philadelphia, took a daguerreotype portrait of himself outside of his family's store and made history: he made the world's first human photograph!

Robert Cornelius [wiki]

You're looking at Dorothy Catherine Draper, sister of NYU professor John Draper and model for the first daguerreotype portrait of a woman in the United States in 1839. She was the first woman to be photographed with her eyes open!

The earliest American attempts in duplicating the photographic experiments of the Frenchman Louis Daguerre occurred at NYU in 1839. John W. Draper, professor of chemistry, built his own camera and made what may be the first human portrait taken in the United States, after a 65-second exposure. The sitter, his sister Dorothy Catherine Draper, had her face powdered with flour in an early attempt to accentuate contrasts.

The Man Who Coined "Photography"

Also in 1839, the term "photography" was coined by Sir John Frederick William Herschel [wiki], a british mathematician and astronomer (side note: his father, Sir Frederick William Herschel, also a famous astronomer, discovered the planet Uranus!)

Herschel also coined the terms "negative" and "positive" in the context of photography, and also of the vernacular "snapshot."


The principle of stereoscopy (or 3D photo) actually preceded that of photography - it was described in as early as the 1500s by Giambattista della Porta [wiki].

In traditional stereoscopy [wiki], a pair of 2-D images - each representing a slightly different perspective of the same object, creates a perception of depth and tricks the brain into seeing a 3-D image.

The invention of daguerreotype sparked interest in stereoscopy in the Victorian era.

World's First Photomontage

In 1858, Henry Peach Robinson [wiki] made the world's first photomontage by combining multiple negatives to form a single image.

Robinson's first and most famous composite photo, called "Fading Away", was a composition of five negatives. It depicted a girl dying of consumption (or tuberculosis), and quite controversial as some objected to the morbid subject of the photo.

World's Oldest Surviving Aerial Photo

The first aerial photo was taken by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar [wiki], in 1858, using a tethered balloon over the Bievre Valley, France.

Unfortunately, Nadar's aerial photos were lost - so the oldest surviving aerial photo, shown here, was that of Boston in 1860, taken by James Wallace Black [wiki], also using a balloon.


In the late-1850s in Europe, Andre Disdéri popularized photos-as-calling-cards called carte-de-visite.

Carte-de-visite became popular and Disdéri became famous when French ruler Emperor Napoleon III en route to Italy with his army, stopped by his studio to pose for a photograph! (Never mind that the story might be apocryphal, it was still a good story!)

Because it is cheap to produce, carte-de-visite was mass produced for the public and became a huge fad in the Victorian era.

This carte-de-visite is of an interesting character called Eugen Sandow, dubbed the first modern bodybuilder who gained fame in late 1800s.

Do All of a Galloping Horse's Hooves Leave the Ground?

In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge, a British-born photographer, was hired by Leland Stanford (who later founded the university), to settle a question (some people say a $25,000 bet) whether there was a point in a horse's full gallop where all four hooves were off the ground.

Muybridge arranged 12 cameras alongside a race track and attached a string to the camera switches across the track. When the horse ran through the string, it triggered the shot. The series of photographs showed that indeed, all four hooves leave the ground when the horse is in full gallop.

Muybridge went on to develop systems and techniques to photograph motion of people and animal.

Eadweard Muybridge [wiki]

World's First Color Photograph

The oldest known color photograph was taken by Louis Ducos du Hauron in 1872. The photo is of a view of Angouleme in Southern France.

The Birth of Photojournalism

Amongst many pioneering photographers of the era is John Thomson [wiki], a Scottish Victorian photographer and traveler, whose work documenting the street people in London laid the foundation of social documentary and photojournalism.

This photo is called The Crawlers (cir. 1876 - 1877), a part of Thomson's work called Street Life of London, which documents in earnest the hardship of life of the transients and the poor in that era.

Photographic Gun

In the 1880s, French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey wanted to learn how birds fly, so he invented a photographic gun, which uses a rotating glass plate to take 12 consecutive pictures per second!

The Pioneers: Étienne-Jules Marey | EJ Marey [wiki]

Vintage Concealed and Gun Cameras

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, we saw a boom in the design and production of cameras concealed in everyday objects. Many of these cameras were sold for detective works, whereas some (like the matchbox camera) were designed specifically for spying activities.

For a fantastic collection of vintage cameras, it's hard to beat George Eastman House's online archive:

World's First Underwater Photo

The first underwater camera system was developed by French scientist Louis Boutan in 1893.

The image on the left was the world's first underwater photography - the model was so excited that he held the identification plate upside down! | Another Link

Mammoth Camera

In 1900, George R. Lawrence built this mammoth 900 lb. camera, then the world's largest, for $5,000 (enough to purchase a large house at that time!) It took 15 men to move and operate the gigantic camera.

The photographer was commissioned by the Chicago & Alton Railway to make the largest photograph (the plate was 8 x 4.5 ft in size!) of its train for the company's pamphlet "The Largest Photograph in the World of the Handsomest Train in the World."


World's Most Expensive Photo

You're looking at Edward Steichen's photo of a pond in Long Island, New York, in 1904. Don't laugh: this rare print has set the world record for most expensive photograph, sold for $2.9 million in February 2006!

BBC Article | Edward Steichen [wiki]

Thousands Posed for Mole and Thomas' War Photos

In 1918, photographers Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas took a photograph of 30,000 military officers and men at Camp Custer, Michigan. A special 70-foot tower was built for this purpose.

Mole and Thomas actually specialized in taking these types of photographs - they took a total of 10 photos where thousands of soldiers were posed to form giant, living, symbols of the USA, including a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, the Marine Corps emblem, and more.


Watch the Birdie!

In the 1920s, a brass birdie was often used by photographers to grab the attention of children during a portrait session (hence the saying "Watch the birdie"):

The birdie would typically be held by an assistant or parent. A rubber hose and squeeze bulb were connected to the short length of open brass tubing. The brass base separates into two halves so the bottom of the base can be filled with water. Squeezing the rubber bulb causes the bird to make a whistling and warbling sound.



The list above is by no means complete: we skipped many important milestones in the days of early photography, including the contributions of Fox Talbot [wiki], the development of other photographic processes (collodion, gelatin emulsion, and so forth), the birth of cinematography, and so on.

For those who are interested in learning more about the birth of photography, there are many wonderful websites, such as Robert Leggat's History of Photography, and Photography [wiki].


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this site had alot of info that contradicted the info in a book i got form the library. I am more inclined to believe the book and think this site is none to amazing.

~Kelly :-(
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Great historical perspective. One other thing you see forming is how photography morphs into different uses:

vanity, pushing the portrait business.

technical photography, such as Muybridge's horse galloping.

but, the "World's first Daguerreotype" appears to be the first in the group to illicit an emotional response, which is what I would call the most important use of photography..
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