Do you know who invented the camera? Where the first image was ever recorded? Learn more about the history of photography right here!
Paris Hilton once claimed she invented the selfie. Um…no. The first self-portrait was actually taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839. Sorry Ms. Hilton but you’re 64,9070 days late and a dollar short. But do you know how where photography got started or how it evolved? Join me as I explore some other firsts and fun facts about the history of photography.
When did photography begin in history?
The foundations of photography started back in the days of the ancient Greeks and Chinese. Both civilizations were beginning to understand the concepts of photography, including camera obscura, a natural optical phenomenon. In camera obscura, image is projected through an opening onto a wall or screen opposite the opening, as in the diagram above. The term camera obscura was coined in the 16th century to describe the concept and the rooms or tents used to achieve it, but the idea was in use well before that. Writings of ancient Chinese philosophers in the 5th century actually reference the concept!
If you’ve ever made a pinhole camera (maybe like me as a young Browning struggling to earn a badge), it is the same concept. A camera obscura uses a lens, a pinhole camera relies on a simple opening. Either way, that first concept really did help pave the way for photography as we know it today.
What is the earliest photograph? Who was the first photographer in history?
A camera obscura device took up an entire room or tent and you couldn’t record that image. The image disappeared when light blocked the hole.
Amateur French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce accomplished the feat of making an image permanent. (According to Google Translate, this is pronounced N-yeps. You know, in case you’re ever on Jeopardy! And need to say it aloud.) Niepce used his homemade camera to etch an image of the view outside his window onto paper coated with silver chloride. Eight hours later, he had his permanent image. And as the French say, Voila! Photography was born!
That first image is lost to history forever. But a different photograph taken by Niepce survived to become part of a permanent collection at the University of Texas-Austin. Niepce is widely considered the inventor of the first camera and photography as we understand it today.
But Niecpe needed days to develop his plates, making his methods a bit lengthy and impractical. Enter Louis Daguerre.
Daguerre created a new process using a sheet of silver-plated copper treated with iodine vapor to make it light sensitive. This method allowed Daguerre to record the first photograph of humans in 1839. Daguerre was shooting a landscape shot in old Paris and a man getting his shoes shined sat still long enough during the 7-minute exposure to have his image recorded on Daguerre’s plates. Ahh, the first happy accident of photography.
But who took the first selfie?
The same year, amateur Philadelphia chemist and photography enthusiast Robert Conrelius took his own portrait by setting up his camera and removing the lens cap. He ran into the frame, sat for a bit, then covered up the lens cap, thus accomplishing the first self-portrait in history, seen above. Notably, he was also the first one to use the press and dash method to get in his own shots. So no, Paris Hilton did not invent the selfie, though arguably she might have made it more popular with the masses. Which may or may not be a bad thing.
But I digress.
Prior to 1840, photographs couldn’t be reproduced. It was simply one-and-done. That changed when William Henry Fox Talbott invented a light-sensitive paper and a process known as calotype. Multiple prints were then made from a single “negative” ushering in a new era in the fledgling history of photography.
Why didn’t people smile in early portraits?
If you’ve ever looked at early portraits, either painted or photographed, folks didn’t often smile. There’s been a great deal of speculation about it over the years, including the theories about poor oral hygine, the formality of the day and the fact that it’s hard to maintain an authentic smile for any length of time. It’s likely a combination of the last two.
Writer and funny man Mark Twain once wrote: “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”
It’s been more than a century and we are still debating smile/don’t smile in portraits. Ha!
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When did photography become popular?
George Eastman is man responsible for making photography available to the masses. He built on Fox Talbott’s earlier work of using paper and negatives to make images. His Kodak Black camera hit the market in 1888 and included a single role of film with 100 exposures already inside. Users simply mailed the entire finished camera off for processing at the Kodak headquarters.
The iconic Kodak Brownie came out a few years later offering removable film. It was also less expensive, allowing users buy a camera just once and then buy new film. This was the turning point in amateur photography, taking the art into households across the United States and the world.
Other fun moments in the history of photography
Color photography was actually introduced about 1869. Again, Kodak popularized that element of photography, buying the rights to a process invented by L. Mannes and L. Godowsky and renaming it Kodachrome.
Polaroid took the waiting out of photography. Its camera, Model 95, used a secret chemical process to develop film INSIDE the camera itself. Soon everyone was shaking their images “like a Polaroid picture,” even if OutKast didn’t make the phrase popular for another 60 years.
Photography went automatic in the late 1970s and 1980s. These cameras calculated shutter speed, aperture and focus, freeing shutterbugs to concentrate on composition. If you’re a photographer born prior to 1990, you likely started with one of the early film point and shoots. My first camera, for example, was a 110mm brick of a thing that was just slightly smaller than a speedlight. My mother preferred her Kodak Disc Camera with a built-in-flash and a wheel of film instead of a roll.
The Digital Age
By the mid-1980s, several different companies were developing and soon producing a digital camera, including DSLRs and point-and-shoots. And the world responded with gusto. By 2004, digital cameras were outselling film cameras.
The rest is history. Well, recent history.
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Who are the top five most famous photographers?
There are literally millions of photographers and images in our past. Choosing the most famous photographer in the history of photography and not having millions of photogs argue with you is all but impossible. But I will offer up a few names of both past and present photographers who shaped the art form and changed the way photography is used and perceived in our culture. As a disclaimer, this list is inherently biased toward American photographers or photographers with acclaim in the United States, because I am an American photographer and have a fairly small world view.
Adams was a photographer and environmentalist. His black and white images of the American West, taken in 1920-1950, helped a generation fall in love with the outdoors and nature. Those images are still widely used and circulated today. Ask a modern landscape or nature photographer and they’ll also likely tell you they have studied his work and his outdoor ethic. In 2015, the United States Congress passed “The Ansel Adams Act,” federal legislation restoring first amendment rights to photographers on public lands.
Lange was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist. Lange’s depression-era work exposed the human side of the Great Depression. Lange’s work helped the public understand and empathize with the plight of the poor and forgotten of the era, namely sharecroppers, displaced farm families and migrant workers. Lange was one of the original “street photographers.”
This Hungarian photographer was one of the greatest adventure photographers in history. He was there on D-Day when the first wave of soldiers hit the beach, although few of his images survived. Capa risked his life numerous times to record World War II on film, photographing in London, North Africa, Italy and eventually in Paris during its liberation. He redefined wartime photojournalism, creating a style that is still emulated today.
American portrait photographer Liebovitz was the first woman to hold an exhibition at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in 1991. She has worked for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue. She is one of the most well-known portrait photographers of her day, photographing many pop culture icons of our generation. She’s even earned her own references in American pop culture like on an episode of NBC’s sitcom, “Will and Grace.” Even those not familiar with her name are probably familiar with her work.
Like Liebovitz, Anne Geddes’ work is probably more familiar than her name. Australian born Geddes was a newborn photographer before newborn sessions were a mainstream thing. Her best known is her babies-dressed-as-flowers images, but her more traditional newborn images set the standard for beauty and vulnerability in the growing genre. To date, she’s sold more than 18 million books and 13 million calendars of her images, with her work distributed in 83 different countries.
Want more inspiration? Check out 26 more famous photographers!
The Future of Photography
What will photography look like in 5 years? 25 years? 50 years? I wish I had a crystal ball. But as technology improves, cameras look to get smaller, lighter and faster and will continue to improve in low light conditions. Who knows, though, maybe someday we will have camera contact lenses so whatever we see we can record. That might sound far fetched now, but I bet back in 1839 old Robert Cornelius couldn’t conceive of a camera that doubled as a phone that fits in your pocket.
Photography is a constantly evolving art form. As photographers, we have the knowledge and skill to document history, preserve moments and tell a visual story that may just change the world. Learn from the history of photography, then go out there and make some yourself.