Do you ever wonder what life would be like without the invention of photography? It has seeped its way into every aspect of life. For me, not only do I document my day and post it on social media but the very act of screenshotting something I want to remember has become a way of note-taking. In just 200 years, photography has made its way from a whopping eight hour exposure to a mere thousandths of a second click that doesn’t even need to leave its pixelated form. Allowing photographers to capture hundreds of images within minutes and tossing out all but a few.
Photography is a relatively new medium in the world. Compared to the centuries long tradition of painting, drawing and ceramics, which have roots in ancient civilizations. Lens based mediums only began to grow feet in the early 19th century. The word photography is derived from the Greek words, photos (light) and graphein (to draw). Which is where we get our definition, “the method of recording the image of an object through the action of light, or related radiation, on a light sensitive material.”1
Soon after its conception, in 1848 photography started to be adopted by photojournalists and scientists alike. Although it came with its fair share of inaccuracies, the overall information you received from a photographic image versus a realistic drawing was revolutionary. However, it wasn’t until the invention of the daguerreotype, a metal or glass plate coated in a light sensitive chemical, that photography studios started to pop-up. Many households who could afford it started to document their family and even began to consider its use in art. By the 1850s daguerreotyping became widespread in the West and followed troops into the Middle East, Asia and South America.2
Once artists got a hold of the medium, endless experimentation led to several different technological advances; processes like calotypes, cyanotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes. In the mid-1850s stereoscopic photography rose in popularity, which made it possible to view photos in a 3-dimensional manor. Fast forward to the invention of celluloid roll film, in 1887, this replaced the use of metal or glass plates with a more flexible material that could be rolled or used as sheets. This propelled the accessibility of photography as we entered the 20th Century.
As photographic societies began to form certain ideas rose of what made a photograph art. Suggestions like soft focus could produce a painterly aesthetic (i.e. pictorialism) or photographic composites where as many as 30 negatives were exposed to make one print. Parallel to this movement, key figure Peter Emerson pushed for a more softer reflection of nature with little to no retouching techniques used, known as naturalistic photography.3 And as we entered the 20th century several more photographic styles and practices began, resulting in a prolific era of photography. Producing artists like, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and the list goes on.
Skipping forward to the late 1900s as the technological boom began along with the introduction of digital imaging and the internet, the world of photography started to shift in major ways. Point and shoot cameras began to replace disposables and DSLR’s replacing the more standard 35mm SLR camera. Taking out the process time and physicality of the medium, you were now able to view and share these images within the same day of capturing it. As you might have guessed, photography blew up and was now being added to mobile devices as a way to take snapshots throughout your day.
As a result, photography began to take a shift in the art world. Photographers were starting to be taken more seriously as new media widened what it meant to create art and photography became one of the leading mediums among artists.4 Artists like Cindy Sherman, Martin Parr and Nan Goldin became widely known around the world. Even though photography’s largely accepted as an art form in the world there are still a lot of critics who claim that it is not as serious as some of the more traditional mediums.
This is the tension photographers still live with, that in the midst of its widespread accessibility in the world we still have to fight for its worth. That in the era of pixels and the ephemeral nature of the internet, photography has to work to be long-lasting. There is a generation of photographers choosing to return to old photographic practices to feel more connected to the medium. The evolution of photography has led to a more hands-off process, which for an artist is not enough. Some have decided to focus their attention into the post-processing aspect of images within the wide range of large format digital cameras. While others have decided to return to the roots of photography, discovering the magic of a darkroom. This resurgence cannot be separated from a fast approaching post-digital era.
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Written by Esther Kontny
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1-4 Grundberg, Andy, et al. “History of Photography”. Encyclopædia Britannica. October 04, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/technology/photography.