Research Project: History of Photography

I have been researching the impact of digital technology on the medium of photography for the final research project. In the beginning of the Photography BA course I was confronted with a very simple question, that provoked me with endless thoughts on the future of photography, and my place within the discipline. Though the greatest challenge was to give an appropriate answer, which at the time seemed impossible.
Ever since I read Fred Ritchin’s essay “After Photography”, I have been questioning what is the meaning of the changes in photography and where is this leading to. Another reason I was eager to find more theoretical approach on the subject, is my own practice for the past two years. I have been working mostly in digital, and many times exploring unconventional ways of seeing a photograph.

The nature of the computational environment, is very different from the physical space. The paper or any other physical object and the digital or binary representations are environments which facilitate photographs/images.
I realized I had to gain greater knowledge on the form of photography and media before the rise of digital technologies, and how it was perceived in the context of culture and society.

My immediate response was looking into media rather solely photography, as it has been an area of interest for about a year. I considered t approaching photography from a media theory point of view rather than art. I am not saying that they is no connection between the two, or they are two separate sides. What I wished to elicit though, was theories based on the technological evolution of the medium, rather than the photograph as a work of art.

By now I have concluded that the photographic apparatus is the element of my study, perhaps an unconscious decision, based on my personal interests on technology. I was aware that photography as practice has been around for a very long time. I set as a starting point the fully operating products, that could potentially fix light onto a surface.

Being already introduced to Marshall Mcluhan’s theories, I considered the apparatus role significant to the changes that photography causes in society. I will be discussing on a separate post, the connections between Mcluhan’s work and the photographic apparatus.

Below is short historical overview of technological advancements in the photographic apparatus starting with the concept of the Camera Obscura.

The oldest concept associated with photography is camera obscura. Camera stands for chamber or room and obscura for dark. The principal for projecting light on a vertical plane always involved the darkened chamber with a hole on one side, to let light in. This simple configuration allows for an image projected on a plane, with colour and perspective preserved, but rotated at 180 degrees.
The lens was the next new element to be added to the configuration, to allow a brighter and sharper image to be reproduced. At the time recording an image was only possible by tracing on paper. A mirror was added in between the lens and the focal plane, which helped significantly tracing by altering the direction of the light.
The earliest documented attempts to fix light on a surface, involved chemical products, like silver chloride, that reacted when exposed to light. Further experimentation led to different ingredients being used, the most successful of them being silver coated plates, treated with iodine vapor, to become light sensitive, developed in mercury vapor and fixed with sodium chloride. This process is called daguerreotype or wet plate, lending its name from its inventor, Louis Daguerre.

As you understand this is a process that takes long time, patience, skills and knowledge for a person to practice, which limited its use to the professional. Less than twenty years later the process becomes simplified with the invention of the collodion dry plates. Another twenty years later the gelatin dry plate is invented, with better image output than any process so far.

It wasn’t only the recording medium that evolved but the mechanisms within the camera. Focusing was introduced by adjusting the distance between the lens and the focal plane. The invention of the mechanical shutter dramatically changed the practical uses and aesthetics of photography, just before Kodak’s commercial breakthrough.

While in research to create a compact camera, Oskar Barnack, optical engineer and designer,
created the much now celebrated 35mm camera. The 35mm signifies the culmination of a century’s worth of research in the field of photography. Respectively, the digital camera signifies the accumulated knowledge and practice of the 35mm.

List of References:
Newhall, B. (1982) The History of Photography : From 1839 to The Present. London: Secker & Warburg

Malcolm, D. (2000) Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, [online] available from <; [17 February 2014]

Peres, M. (2007) The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science. Amsterdam; London: Elsevier/Focal Press

Hand, M. (2012) Ubiquitous Photography [Digital Media And Societies Series]. Cambridge: Polity Press


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