Tuesday, 19 November 2013


The origins of photography are in the "camera obscura" which is latin for 'dark room'. The process uses a tiny little box which projects an image from which you can trace to produce a photo-like picture. There is evidence that the process is as old as Aristotle.

The camera obscura however, could not fix the image. That is to say, if you didn't trace the projected image, it won't 'stick'. By the 1820's a French inventor, Nicephore Niepce,  sought to fix the image and invented heliography. Heliography is a process whereby Bitumen of Judea (a light-sensitive asphalt) is applied on to a surface and then held infront of an object to 'take' a photo. The way it works is that the initially soluble Bitumen is harderned by its exposure to light and in turn becomes insoluble, you can then wipe away the Bitumen that has hardened (or not) to different degrees. You are then left with what is essentially a relief image of the main shadows and light. This process took from 8 hours to several days and one of the first photographs to be produced this way (in 1825) survives until this day:
View from the Window at Le Gras: (enhanced - very faint now)

Niepce's interest in photography lead him to meet Louis Daguerre through the optician that supplied the two with lenses for their camera obscura. Together they formed a partnership, but after Niepce's death his son took his place. Together they formed Daguerreotype photography in the 30's. The idea was the same, but with a different material held over the lense of a camera obscura. This time, they used silver made photosensitive by prior exposure to iodine.

In the 1840's the push to find an optimum way of mechanically producing an image saw to the development of the Calotype, attributed to Henry Fox Talbot but with influence from John Herschel. Talbot had produced a similar method to Daguerro at a similar time that he developed the Daguerreotype. This time though, the process was different. The image was not left to appear after hours of exposure but put infront of the camera obscura for a few minutes and then chemically developed elsewhere. The process used meant that the end image was NOT sensitive to light anymore - which was a problem in the other types seeing as if exposed to light they'd eventually just fade to nothing.

It took me about an hour to write that up just goes to show science is defo not my thing. Nonetheless, thats a really basic version of the development of photography and now that's over my brain can rest. Unsurprisingly therefore, the likes of Oscar Rejlander came to ask "is photography a science, or an art?"

For me, I see the whole photography thing as a science, mainly because reading the nitty gritty of it reminded me of a year 11 science lesson! But, Oscar Rejlander very cleverly put together a history painting-like thing together using a collection of 30 different photograph negatives. He is saying here that like photography, the academic tradition of large scale painting was very much a scientific construction too.

There is a big debate in art history over the fact of whether photographers basically forced the hand of the avant-garde's, or not. Traditional imagery could be produced in photographs so what was the point in naturalism? Furthermore, there's nothing 'special' about being able to produce a copy of an image so convincingly anymore, does this mean that the 'aura' in mimesis art has been lost forever?

Mrs Elizabeth, 1846, Calotype Print.

Traditional art began to leave centre stage, not only was it inferior in depicting truth, the rising middle classes took to photography quickly seeing as it was seen as a democratic means of portrayal. The upper classes took to it too, anybody who was anybody had to have their photograph taken, it was fashionable.

Daumier, Nadar Elevating Photography to the Height of Art, 1869. 
Nadar was the man who held the first ever impressionist exhibition in 1874, shows how photography became a flattering companion to avant-garde art and not so for traditional art.

Photojournalism was quick to emerge too:
Roger Fenton, Crimean War Photograph, 1854.

Photography also came of use to the police. A man called Alphonse Bertillon intruduced a system in France in 1883 whereby he would measure facial features of criminals to build up profiles:

"Every measurement slowly reveals the workings of a criminal. Careful observation and patience will reveal the truth"
 - Alphonse Bertillon.

The use of photography in this way was hinted at by Talbot himself way back in 1844:
"However numerous the objects - however complicated the arrangement - the camera depicts them all at once"
- The Pencil of Nature, 1844.

Another trend to emerge thanks to photography was 'Photographic Pictorialism'. This phenomena was the attempt at stopping photography becoming a tool solely for modern art. They would stage Victorian subjects, have people pose and even take photographs of dead children (ew) while in bed 'sleeping'. The idea of this was to give an 'aura' to photography. One photographer, accidentally developed soft focus, which helped the cause and gave photography a rembrandtesque chiaroscuro:
Julia Margaret Cameron, Mary Mother, 1867.

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