The story goes that the visitors of Italian physicist Giambattista Della Porta (1535?-1615) were shocked. On the wall in front of them, images of small upside-down people were moving around. Panic-stricken, the onlookers scurried out of the room. Della Porta was put on trial for sorcery!
So much for trying to amuse his guests by introducing them to a camera obscura—literally, in Latin, “dark chamber.” The principle on which the camera works is simple, but the results can be spectacular. How does it work?
When light enters a dark box or room through a tiny hole, an inverted picture of the outside is projected on the far wall. What Della Porta’s guests saw was nothing but actors performing outside. The camera obscura was a forerunner of the modern camera. Today you may be one of the millions of people who own a camera (digital or analogic) and you would want to recall how the camera came into existence, having the power to thrill or even make one cry.
The camera obscura was not even new in Della Porta’s day. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) observed the principle on which the camera would later work. The 10th-century Arabic scholar Alhazen vividly described it, and the 15th-century painter Leonardo da Vinci wrote about it in his notebooks. The 16th-century introduction of the lens enhanced the accuracy of the camera, and many artists used it for accurate renderings of perspective and scale. But in spite of many attempts, making the resulting images permanent remained elusive until the 19th century.
French physicist Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce possibly started his quest to make permanent photos as early as 1816. But his real breakthrough came when he was experimenting with lithography and came across a light-sensitive substance called bitumen of Judaea. Sometime in the mid-1820’s, he put a bitumen-coated pewter plate in a camera obscura facing a window of his estate and exposed it for eight hours. Not even the most inexperienced of today’s amateur photographers would be proud of the blurry picture of a building, a tree, and a barn that resulted, but Niepce had reason to be. His picture was most likely the first permanent photograph ever taken!
To develop his method further, in 1829, Niepce entered a partnership with a dynamic entrepreneur named Louis Daguerre. In the years following Niepce’s death in 1833, Daguerre made some important progress. He used silver iodide as a coating on copper plates. This proved to be more light sensitive than bitumen. By accident he found that when he treated the plate with mercury fumes after exposure, a latent picture appeared clearly. This reduced the exposure time dramatically. When Daguerre later discovered that washing the plate with a salt solution prevented the picture from darkening over time, photography was ready to take the world by storm.
When Daguerre’s invention, called daguerreotype, was presented to the public in 1839, the reaction was overwhelming. Scholar Helmut Gernsheim writes in his book The History of Photography: “Perhaps no other invention ever captured the imagination of the public to such a degree and conquered the world with such lightning rapidity as the daguerreotype.” An eyewitness to the public release wrote: “An hour later, all the opticians’ shops were besieged, but could not rake together enough instruments to satisfy the onrushing army of would-be daguerreotypists; a few days later you could see in all the squares of Paris three-legged dark-boxes planted in front of churches and palaces. All the physicists, chemists, and learned men of the capital were polishing silvered plates, and even the better-class grocers found it impossible to deny themselves the pleasure of sacrificing some of their means on the altar of progress, evaporating it in iodine and consuming it in mercury vapour.” The Paris press quickly named the craze daguerréotypomanie.
The outstanding quality of the daguerreotypes moved British scientist John Herschel to write: “It is hardly too much to call them miraculous.” Some even ascribed magical powers to the invention.
But not everybody hailed the new invention. In 1856 the king of Naples banned photography, possibly because it was thought to be associated with “the evil eye.” When seeing a daguerreotype, French painter Paul Delaroche exclaimed: “From today painting is dead!” The invention also caused great anxiety among painters who saw it as a threat to their livelihood. One commentator expressed the fears of some when he said: “Photography’s stringent truth to optical reality could nullify the individual’s apprehension of beauty.” In addition, photographic pictures were even criticized for the relentless realism with which they shattered cherished illusions of beauty and youth.
Even Paul Gauguin thought that photography is incapable of conveying emotions. He rejected it in a few words:
Gauguin’s thinking was obviously wrong, considering that photography proved to be one of the most interesting ways which man is able to convey his feelings in.
This is not merely a visual representation of what surrounds us, it is much more. Through it, we can feel man’s triumph over time. Conquering and mastering movement, a passion that lacks the fear of losing everything to the abyss of oblivion. In this respect, Robert Doiseneau stated:
“I have never thought about the reason why I wish to take photographs. In fact, I am in a desperate struggle against the idea that we are all meant to vanish from existence. I am determined to stop the flow of time. It is pure madness.”
Far from being a moment of depersonalization of creativity, photography becomes the instrument with which the artist shows to the world what she sees, feels and wants to convey at that moment with a diverse amount of emotional load.
Neil Leifer sums it up to: “photography doesn’t present reality; it presents the idea that we have towards it”. The photographer becomes an artist when she reveals her culture and passion through the means of photography. A photo can have an idea, a story, thus becoming a true expression of art, the form of art that has the power of exalting our feelings and then the other’s as well.
The power of photography was also obvious in many aspects of social life, for example in the case of Jacob August Riis, a social reformer who saw photography as an excellent means of bringing poverty and suffering to the attention of the masses.
In 1880 he started taking pictures of New York City slums after dark by using burning magnesium powder in a frying pan as a flash—a method not entirely without risk. He twice set ablaze the house in which he was working, and once his own clothes caught fire. His pictures are said to have been one of the reasons President Theodore Roosevelt undertook a number of social reforms when he moved into the White House.
The persuasive power of a series of scenic photographs by William Henry Jackson also prompted the U.S. Congress in 1872 to make Yellowstone the world’s first national park.
Has the desire of communicating feelings through photography grown on you too? We wish it to be so, especially now that it has become an artistic device available to everyone.
In the late 1880’s, many potential photographers were still held back because of the cost and complexity of photography. But in 1888 when George Eastman invented the Kodak, a portable easy-to-use box camera containing a roll of flexible film, he paved the way for unlimited amateur photography.
After exposing the roll, the customer would send the entire camera to the factory. There the film was processed and the camera was reloaded and sent back, along with the developed photos—all this at a fairly low cost. The slogan “You push the button, we do the rest” was no exaggeration.
Photography for the masses had been born, and the billions of exposures taken annually today indicate that its acceptance has never abated. And now, adding to its popularity, there are digital cameras that define an image in megapixels. They use a tiny memory stick that may hold hundreds of photos. High-quality prints can even be made using a home computer and a printer. No doubt about it, photography has come a long way.
Having arrived at this point… we are trying to understand: what is photography? The words of Ioan Hedgecoe come to our aid:
Maybe that is why photography triggers countless emotions in each person…
Next time we will continue our journey in the world of photography with the contrast arisen between Daguerre and Talbot.
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