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Twentieth Century Materials and Process Essentials

photography technology 20th developments

SCOTT WILLIAMS, PH.D.
Rochester Institute of Technology

The 20th century will be remembered by its images. We are among the first generations to let pictures and motion media tell the story. We know not only the story of Al Capone, but we can place him in the scenes associated with Chicago and the Prohibition. The flag raising by U. S. Marines at Iwo Jima, post-World War II celebrations in Time Square, McCarthy, Elvis, the missile crisis in Cuba, the man on the moon, Saturday Night Fever , hostage crises in Munich and Iran, World Series victories and the ball that got by, Reagan, a return to space and the day that lives “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God” are images that flash in memory. The remarkable ingenuity of the creative 20th century inventors enabled memories to be recorded by ordinary individuals. That is what is special and unique about this period in time. Photo albums, picture frames, shoe boxes, and desk drawers, around the world, contain stories of birthdays, graduations, weddings, new birthdays, retirement, and memorials through images. The 20th century will most likely be known as the “film era.” Those closer to the technology will remember it as the silver halide era. Either way, most have been touched by photography largely due to the developments of materials and methods during this time period.

Industries grew around the consumption of photography. Chemistry, optics, and engineering converged to produce products and processes capable of reproducing scenes with life-like quality. Cameras were transformed from tripod-fixed behemoths to instant cameras that could be sent with the kids to a campout. Films were invented and perfected to capture any scene in almost any lighting condition. Photographic papers came in all kinds of shapes and sizes from postage-stamp-sized Polaroid prints to large-format canvas media. The 20th century started in the light and progressed to flash photography that could freeze the beat of a hummingbird’s wing. Our memories were first captured in color during this period. Photographic technology developments
were translated to enable advances in other industries like aerospace, defense, medicine, and printing. Then, there was change. Digital photography emerged and neatly put all of the developments of film or silver halide photography into an historical context.

This section is organized to briefly chronicle the rise of photography as a consumer-driven industry. The topic arrangement was selected to illustrate a temporal cross-section of the innovations in materials and methods. Silver halide developments led into the production of black and white photographic materials. Color photography is summarized with an emphasis on silver-dye bleach technology that made a brief but important appearance. The science of development and how the darkroom was used to create images were necessary additions to this section. Camera evolution and how images were displayed are treated. In addition to the camera, there are many 20th century developments that carry over into the digital age of the new century. Digital photography depends on lighting techniques, color measurement and theory, and optics learned in the film age.

The artisan and consumer will practice photography using 20th century material and methods for the foreseeable future. Film-based photography remains more versatile as the digital technology matures. Disposable film cameras are being developed with more features and purchased by consumers to record memories in places that would not be practical with a digital camera. This section preserves the lessons learned in the past century. We must understand this technology to preserve the stories of this most recent past.

Twentieth Century Photographic Lighting - Introduction, Chemical Flash Lighting, Open Systems, Enclosed Flashbulbs, Duration and Synchronization, Modern Flashbulbs, Electronic Flash Lighting [next]

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