Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from A-E

Contemporary Thoughts on the History of Photography

technology era photographers progress

GRANT B. ROMER
George Eastman House and International Museum of Photography and Film

All photographers work today with historical perspective. They know that the technology they use has an origin in the distant past. They know photography has progressed and transformed over time, and they believe the current system of photography must be superior to that of the past. They are sure they will witness further progress in photography. These are the lessons of history understood by all, and none need inquire any further in order to photograph.

Yet photography has a very rich and complex history, which has hidden within it the answers to the fundamentally difficult questions: “What is photography?” and “What is a photograph?” All true photographers should be able to answer these questions for themselves and for others. To do so, they must make deep inquiry into the history of photography.

Recognition of the importance of history to the understanding of photography is evidenced in the title and content of the very first manual of photography published in 1839, The History and Description of the Process of the Daguerreotype and Diorama . Most of the early inventors of photographic processes gave account of the origin of their discoveries not just to establish priority but also to assist comprehension of the value and applications of the technology. When the entire world was childlike in understanding the full potential of photography, this was a necessity.

Many histories of photography have since been written for many different reasons. Each historian, according to his or her interest and national bias, placed certain details large in the foreground, diminished others, and represented most by a few slight touches. By 1939, the hundredth anniversary of photography, a much-simplified chronological story had been told, more or less fixed and repeated ever since. In essence it goes as follows: Photography emerged in the first quarter of the 19th century in Western Europe out of the exploration of the properties and effects of light, the progress of optics and chemistry, and the desire to make accurate and reproducible pictorial records of visual experience.

The first processes were relatively limited and were rapidly improved by the efforts of many through better lenses, camera design, and chemical innovation. One process yielded commercial dominance to an easier and better one until gelatin emulsion technology brought a new era of photography in the 1880s, which was to continue into the 21st century. The photography industry subsequently grew. More people became enabled to make more photographs. Cameras were freed from the tripod. Color and motion picture photography became possible. The applications of photography steadily multiplied and increasingly benefited society. “Masters” of the medium, in every era, created photographs that transformed how we see and what we know.

The developments of the last decade now make it necessary to deconstruct and reassemble that history of photography to include the origins, progress, and transformation of electronic imaging as well as that of other recording, reproduction, and information technologies. For instance, Becquerel’s observation of the photovoltaic effect in 1839 must be placed along with Daguerre and Talbot’s discovery of principle of the latent image as a primal moment in the history of photography. Every purchase of a digital camera adds to the historical importance of the discovery of the conversion of light into electricity.

With the convergence of imaging and information technology, it is now quite legitimate to trace the history of photography within many contexts other than that of the progress of optics and chemistry. Photography is now seen as a part, not the all, of imaging technology. The very definitions of photography and photograph are in transition along with the technology and industry of photography. Thus the history of photography must also change as silver is replaced by silicon. A new generation of photographers will soon know nothing directly of the thrill and mystery of the development of the latent image, which has long been the initiatory experience and bond among serious photographers. The digital revolution, like all revolutions, is in the process of disrupting and destroying an old order. The history of the chemical era of photography may become less interesting if it is not properly linked to the electronic era by a new inquiry.

History teaches that photography is a mutable and ever-changing technology. How it changes is not as interesting as why it changes. By what criteria is any method of photography judged superior to another at any given time, and who are the significant judges? Who decides what form of photography serves in the present? The future historians of photography would do well to address these questions. Perhaps the most interesting and important question for all is, “What do we want photography to be?”

Content Based 3D Shape Retrieval - 3D shape retrieval aspects, Shape matching methods, Comparison [next] [back] Consumer Electronics - History, The Modern Marketplace, Trends, Miniaturization, Digitization, Convergence

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or