The history of photography dates back to the early 19th century when the first permanent photograph was created. Since then, photography has evolved dramatically with the development of new technologies and processes. Pinpointing the exact date of the first photograph ever taken is difficult, but there are several early photographs and photographers that stand out as pioneers in the field.
The First Permanent Photograph
The first permanent photograph is generally credited to the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827. Niépce used a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen to make this first successful image. The bitumen hardened in proportion to its exposure to light, so when the plate was washed with a solvent, only the hardened areas remained. This first image took 8 hours of light exposure to create and depicted the view from Niépce’s workroom window.
Niépce continued to experiment with photographic processes until his death in 1833. His partnership with Louis Daguerre led to further advancement in photographic techniques. While Niépce is acclaimed for producing the first surviving photographic image from nature, his bitumen process was not practical for widespread use.
The next major breakthrough came in 1839 when Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process of photography. Daguerre partnered with Niépce until Niépce’s death, at which point Daguerre continued experimenting alone. The daguerreotype process used copper plates coated with silver. When exposed to the scene, the silver formed a latent image. The plate was then exposed to fumes that developed the image. The result was a highly detailed monochrome photographic image on a metal plate.
Daguerre’s process became rapidly adopted worldwide after he published a booklet describing it in 1839. The daguerreotype remained popular for over twenty years and marked a crucial step toward practical and widespread photography.
The Calotype Process
Around the same time as the introduction of the daguerreotype, William Henry Fox Talbot developed the calotype process in England. This was the first negative-positive photographic process, creating paper negatives from which multiple positive prints could be made. This allowed photographs to be reproduced inexpensively. Talbot publicly revealed his calotype process in 1841.
The calotype produced a translucent paper negative image from paper treated with silver chloride. This negative was placed on another paper sheet and exposed to sunlight, producing a positive image. The calotype ultimately became the foundation for modern photographic negative-positive processes on film.
Early Photography Innovations
In the 1840s and 1850s, photographic processes continued to rapidly evolve. Some key innovations and pioneering photographers of this era include:
- 1840 – First mass-produced calotypes by Talbot
- 1841 – First use of the terms “photography” and “photograph” by John Herschel
- 1845 – Albumen prints invented by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard – allowed paper prints from glass negatives
- 1848 – First photograph taken in India by Dr John Murray
- 1851 – Introduction of the wet plate collodian process by Frederick Scott Archer – became the dominant process for over 20 years
- 1852 – First durable color photograph of a tartan ribbon by Thomas Sutton
- 1859 – First panoramic camera developed by Joseph Puchberger
This era saw photography become established as a widely used and rapidly evolving medium around the world.
Early Portrait Photography
In addition to landscape and documentary images, early photography was often used for portraits. Some notable early portrait photographers include:
- 1840s – Southworth & Hawes – early daguerreotype portrait studio in Boston, USA
- 1850s – Julia Margaret Cameron – prominent early female photographer, took portraits of celebrities
- 1860s – Mathew Brady – photographed Abraham Lincoln and documented the American Civil War
- 1870s – C.M. Bell – opened first permanent portrait studio in Washington, took portraits of presidents and celebrities
These early photographers helped establish portraiture as an important genre of photography.
Developments in the Late 1800s
Major developments continued through the late 1800s, including:
- 1871 – Introduction of gelatin dry plate negatives by Richard Leach Maddox – became the most widely used negative process
- 1878 – First instantaneous photographs of moving horses by Eadweard Muybridge
- 1888 – Introduction of first Kodak camera by George Eastman – made photography more accessible to the public
- 1890s – Invention of infrared and ultraviolet photography
This era marked photography becoming a mass medium with more accessible equipment and widespread usage.
Early War and Event Photography
Photography also became important for documenting major world events. Some early examples include:
- 1853-1856 – Roger Fenton photographed the Crimean War – first substantial wartime documentation
- 1860s – Photographs documenting the American Civil War by Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and others
- 1875-1890 – Eadweard Muybridge used stop-motion photography to capture motion sequences
- 1880-1900 – Jacob Riis used flash photography to document New York City slums
These photographers demonstrated how the emerging medium of photography could record important events and impact social reform.
Timeline of Early Photography Milestones
Here is a timeline summary of some of the key milestones in the early history of photography:
|First permanent photograph captured by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
|Louis Daguerre publicly introduces the daguerreotype process
|William Henry Fox Talbot discloses the calotype process
|Frederick Scott Archer introduces the collodion wet plate process
|George Eastman introduces the Kodak camera
|Kodak introduces the Brownie camera for the mass market
The history of photography originated in experiments by inventors and scientists in the early 1800s to capture permanent images with a camera. While the precise date of the absolute first photograph is debated, the first surviving photograph is credited to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the 1820s. Subsequent pioneers like Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot refined and popularized processes that allowed photography to flourish.
Throughout the 19th century, photography evolved through major innovations like negative-positive processes, gelatin dry plates, and accessible equipment for the mass market. The new visual medium quickly expanded into a versatile art form used for landscapes, portraits, documentation of events, and everyday life. The groundwork for modern photography was laid through the creativity and ingenuity of photography’s early pioneers.