If you didn’t watch my video blog from earlier this week, this blog may come as a strange surprise. Long story short, I’m continuing to build off of my “Inspired” installations using my Photography History class that I’m taking at UNF. So if you’re a photographer wanting to know more about the history of photography, tune into these installations because you are sure to learn a ton!
Today we learned about the Camera Obscura. When I saw that on the slide, I thought, “What the heck?” Let’s start with the basic principles. The word “camera” means room and the word “obscura” means dark. When put together, they ultimately mean “dark room” or “dark chamber.” The camera obscura was built on the principle that if you have a darkened space (completely dark) and you put a tiny pin hole in any part of that tiny space, it will project an image that is laterally reversed and upside down onto the wall. It’s amazing that such a simple concept has turned into the industry that we know it today.
What I found most interesting from my teacher’s lecture, was that cameras were not used for “photography.” As a matter of fact, the word “Photography” didn’t come around until the late 19th century. People who used a camera were known as “operators.” Since practically the beginning of time, man has used things to create drawings, paintings, etc of the world as they see it, but never really as it was.
Painters were who primarily used the camera obscura. As the camera obscura evolved, they put a mirror inside because the lateral reversed and upside down image they were seeing through the pinhole was quite a challenge because everything the painter would look at wasn’t as they saw it. Once they put a mirror in it (now known as a single lens reflex) they were able to put their drawing paper on top of the camera obscura and trace what they were seeing so they could make a larger rendition of it on another medium. So in other words, the camera was basically a square box with a pinhole, a mirror, and a piece of glass on top where painters would draw what they would eventually paint.
There are four men who are known as the inventors of photography. Louis Daguerre was ultimately who made it famous. In a nut shell, Nicephore Niepce created the first image in 1826. There was another man named Louis Daguerre who caught wind of Niepce and they decided to join in a ten year contract to develop this technology. Four years into the contract, Niepce died and Daguerre was left to continue the work on the project. He experimented for years with reflective material. He would take a piece of sheet metal, paint it with silver nitrate (which is sensitive to light), put it inside his camera obscura and expose the metal for hours. What’s interesting is that when he originally did the first one and pulled it out, the metal was blank, so he threw it in a cabinet and decided to go back to it later. When he went back to it, his image appeared! Through back tracking, he figured out he could paint the metal with the silver nitrate, expose it, then he’d coat the plate with mercury vapor and BAM! Photo! He met a man named Francois Arago who basically represented Daguerre and in February of 1839, Daguerre demonstrated his process to the chamber of deputies. It took six months to convince the chamber, but he was given a government stipend for life for his process. By then, the cat was pretty much out of the bag.
Another man named William Henry Fox Talbot was also developing this technology at the same time, though is process was different. He soaked paper in a salt soak (back then they didn’t have fixer so salt soaks were used to slow the process), then painted it with silver nitrate, made his photo, then super soaked it in a salt bath again. The problem was his photos were less sharp and he apparently had an ego from here to China! He sued practically everyone who used his process. Talbot, however, was the first person to produce a negative which made a positive on paper. Daguerre used sheet metal.
Around the same time that all of this was going on, a man named Hippolyte Bayard had come up with the same process as Daguerre and had approached Arago about it but Arago brushed him off because Daguerre was so close to going public with his discovery. Bayard was so angry, he took a self portrait called “Portrait of a Drowned Man” and wrote a nasty letter on the back and sent it to the government. Read below:
“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”
And that, my friends, is all for this week! Pretty fascinating stuff! I hope you enjoyed!