Photography of Multicultural America

I’m trying to study for my Art & Design course and I need some help to understand this question.

Let’s travel back in time to the 1700-1800’s. Painting, sculpture and printmaking already existed. With these methods of reproducing the natural world in place, why do you think there was a need for someone to invent photography? One of the driving forces was the desire of the rising middle class to have an image of themselves. Like the aristocracy who had prominent artists paint or sculpt their likeness, the middle class wanted their own image to pass down as an heirloom. However, to have your portrait painted or sculpted was both costly and time consuming. So people were searching for n affordable method to permanently record a detailed image. There were a series of inventions that led to the advent of photography. These early devices were instruments to aid in the processes of drawing.

Étienne de Silhouette (1709-67) was the Minister of Finance in France under Louis XV. While his financial policies imposed taxes on the wealthy to balance the underfunded French budget, he engaged in his hobby of cutting people’s profiles out of black paper. This art form had been growing in popularity, but it wasn’t until people protested the Minister’s austere financial policies out in the streets dressed in black clothing, that noblemen mockingly named the low-brow technique after him. Writers have also noted that the phrase “à la Silhouette” (in the manner of Silhouette) was applied to things that were considered cheap, since silhouettes were much cheaper to produce than painted portraits or sculptures. Silhouettes can be produced by cut out or painting techniques. Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) devised the silhouette machine (Fig 2.1), which allowed the subject to sit on one side of a translucent screen illuminated by candlelight while the artist sat on the other side of the screen. The artist traced the outline of the person’s profile that was projected onto the screen. Then the artist would either paint inside the outline with black ink or paint or cut it out of black paper (Fig 2.2). Although each person’s silhouette is unique, the resulting image lacks detail, and therefore didn’t completely fulfill the desire for an affordable portrait method.

18th-century photographer posing a woman for a portrait in front of a screen with a table holding a candle in the background.

Fig. 2.1 Thomas Holloway, A Sure and Convenient Machine for Drawing. © adoc-photos/Contributor/Getty

Eastman Museum Schwartz Collection

Fig. 2.2 J. Heinrich Schwartz.

Since the 1600s the pantograph was used as a drafting tool and child’s tool to copy, enlarge or reduce drawings. The French engraver Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1754-1811) adapted the pantograph device to engraving in 1786, and called his device the physionotrace (Fig 2.3). The wooden mechanical instrument had a viewfinder through which the artist could see and trace the subject’s profile. An attached stylus marked the exact drawing movements onto a metal plate. The plate was then etched and later prints were pulled from the plate through printmaking processes. The resulting image was a profile but also contained every detail of the subject, including their clothing. The physionotrace portrait still required the artist’s hand and took some time to produce. For these reasons, the physionotrace wasn’t the best solution for an affordable portrait method. Physionotrace portraits were primarily a novelty for the aristocracy, as most surviving images depict individuals from high society (Fig 2.4).

Fig 2.3 Physionotrace prints and original engraved plates (video).

In 1807, English chemist and scientist William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) invented the camera lucida (Fig 2.6). This optical device superimposes an image of the subject upon the surface in which they are drawing. The artist sees the subject and the paper at the same time, and simply traces the “projected” image. Like the silhouette and physionotrace, the camera lucida still required the artist’s hand and time, and therefore didn’t completely fulfill the desire for an affordable portrait medium.

Fig 2.4 Camera lucida

The tracing device known as the camera obscura dates back to antiquity and was later described and used by Leonardo da Vinci. Camera obscura is a Latin term for darkened room or darkened chamber. Initially camera obscura’s were rooms that were made light tight with a small hole drilled through the wall on one side of the room (Fig 2.7). On the wall opposite the hole, the artist would put a piece of paper or canvas. Whatever was outside of the room on the other side of the hole was projected upside down and reverse on the paper or canvas. The artist would then trace the projected image of the landscape, which could then be used to set the perspective and lay the foundation for a painting. British artist David Hockney who has worked with photography extensive throughout his career, has thoroughly researched the camera obscura and concluded that some of the world’s most famous artists such Caravaggio, Velázquez, da Vinci, and others used optical devices to aid them in creating their masterpieces.

Diagram showing the workings of a camera obscura taking a photo of a red balloon with multi-color stars.

Fig. 2.5 Camera obscura. © Designua/

These room-sized camera obscuras were limited to subject matter found directly outside of the room. So eventually the camera obscura was downsized to a small portable size (Fig 2.8), which allowed the artist to travel with the device and record what they saw. An ancestor to the modern day camera, the camera obscura was fitted with a lens, a reflective plate and a ground glass on which the artist would put a piece of paper and trace the scene projected onto the ground glass. A piece of wood on top shielded excess light allowing the artist to view the scene more easily—much like the dark cloth used with the large format view cameras. People would return from their travels and entertain guests in the parlor of their home. To illustrate the beauty of the places they had visited, they would show the sketches they made using a camera obscura. These simple sketches did not contain a lot of information and pales in comparison to the amount of detail found in our modern day vacation photos.

Engraving of a 19th century man looking down into a camera obscura.

Fig. 2.6 Camera obscura . Camera Obscura (engraving), English School, (19th century) / Private Collection © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

The Birth of Photography

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor, was interested in lithography but didn’t have adequate drafting skills making that the process required. He searched for ways to make images without having to draw them. Others before him were able to make images with light, but hadn’t succeeded in fixing the image so it would last. Through experimentation with bitumen of Judea (a form of asphalt), which was used to make lithographs, Niépce discovered that asphalt hardened when exposed to light. Coating a pewter plate with this bitumen of Judea, he put the plate into the camera obscura and pointed it outside of his window for a period of at least eight hours. Afterwards he washed away the unhardened asphalt with lavender oil and white petroleum. What was left was a one-of-a-kind direct positive image of the rooftops and trees seen outside of his window. Niépce had successfully made the first successful permanent photograph (Fig 2.9).

A grainy black-and-white photograph, likely the first even taken, showing the view of the landscape outside a window in France.

Fig. 2.7 View from a window at Le Gras, Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, 1827 (b/w photo), Niepce, Joseph Nicephore (1765-1833) © Gernsheim Collection, University of Texas, Austin, USA / Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images

Creating “View from the Window at Le Gras”

Fig 2.8 Creating “View from the Window at Le Gras”

Niépce called his process heliography, meaning “sun writing .” The length exposure time required for this image is an issue still debated today, but is believed to be somewhere between 8 and 20 hours. Over the course of that amount of time, the sun is moving in the sky, changing the direction of the light and shadow. In fact in this image, the sun is in two different positions, proving that it took at least one day to make the exposure. Light and shadow make objects appear 3-dimensional. Since the light and shadow rendering were ruined in this image due to the long exposure time, it’s hard to make out exactly what we are looking at. Because of its lengthy long exposure times, the process was used to photograph buildings and inanimate objects, but could not be used to photograph people. So although View from the Window at Le Gras is the world’s first successful permanent photographic image, heliography is not considered the first practical photographic process because of its incredibly long exposure times and unsatisfactory results.

Hoping to shorten his exposure times, Niepce met with French painter Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in Paris. Daguerre was already famous in Paris for his Diorama, a 350-seat theater that presented backlit images on stage. Patrons of Daguerre’s Diorama marveled at large scenic paintings that were lit in various ways to simulate the time of day, atmospheric effects, and even a sense of motion. He successfully accomplished his trompe l’oeil effects (optical illusions) through the detail and perspective provided by the camera obscura, for which he was widely considered an expert. With an obvious interest in having the camera obscura capture the fleeting images he saw in his camera obscura, Daguerre agreed to partner with Niepce in 1829 to design a camera for shorter exposures and improve the process. The two worked to improve the process with residue of lavender oil distillation as the photosensitive agent, and this new process was named physautype in 1832. Exposures took approximately 8 hours and rendered a direct positive image. Nièpce got sick and died in 1833 before practical success was achieved. After his father’s death, Isidore Niepce inherited the rights per the partnership agreement, but was not directly involved in further experiments. Daguerre began experimenting with different materials and developed an entirely new process.


By 1837 Daguerre had made his first successful images with the new process (Fig 2.11), which was easier to use as it reduced exposure times to only a few minutes. Daguerre’s method consisted of treating silver-plated copper sheets with iodine to make them sensitive to light, then exposing them in a camera and “developing” the images with warm mercury vapor. This process, which Daguerre named after himself as the Daguerreotype, produced one-of-a-kind positive images with astonishing detail.

Black and white image of one of the first still life daguerreotype images showing ceramic angel faces and an engraving on a table, and a paining on the wall in the background.

Fig 2.9 Still life with plaster casts. © Science & Society Picture Library/Contributor/Getty

In 1838 he made an image of the popular and busy Boulevard du Temple (Fig 2.12) in Paris in the morning. Although it was taken at a time when the streets should have been filled with people strolling arm and arm and carriages rolling by, the street looks deserted. This is because the exposure was approximately 10 minutes (greatly reduced from Niepce’s 8+ hour exposure). During the exposure time, people were strolling by and the carriages were moving at a rate fast enough that they weren’t recorded on the plate. As previously mentioned, Daguerreotypes were one-of-a-kind—meaning there wasn’t a negative. So if you wanted another copy of the image, another plate would have to be exposed in the camera obscura. That’s exactly what was done for the second image (Fig 2.13). Another plate was exposed, however this time a person getting his shoe shined on the corner, stood still long enough to be recorded on the plate (2.14). This is considered the earliest reliably dated photograph of people. Daguerre had really achieved something significant. His new process successfully reduced exposures down to a reasonable amount of time and produced images that were richly detailed.

Fig 2.10

Fig 2.11 Boulevard du Temple Source: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, 1838

Boulevard du Temple Source: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, 1838

Fig 2.12 Boulevard du Temple. (Detail)

Although Daguerre considered selling the invention by subscription, his respected friend François Arago, whom he had showed the process to, did not think this was a good idea. Arago was a well-known scientist, director of the Paris Observatory, secretary of the Academy of Sciences and member of the Chamber of Deputies of the French government. He felt Daguerre’s invention was revolutionary and should be purchased by the state, and told Daguerre he would arrange present this to the French Academy of Sciences. An article on the meeting appeared in the Academy’s official publication and an English translation of the report appeared in the Literary Gazette on January 19, 1839.

English scientist, historian, and mathematician William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was shocked at the story surrounding Daguerre’s invention. He devised a method of making images on paper, referred to as photogenic drawing, as early as 1834 but had not publicized it. The process used writing paper sensitized with silver chloride, but the resulting paper was not very light sensitive. Stationary objects such as fabric and plants were placed directly on the paper for the lengthy exposure in sunlight, typically an hour or more (Fig 2.15). The areas surrounding the object were darkened in proportion to the exposure time and the area blocked by the object remained the color of the writing paper. He also made images by placing the paper directly inside the camera obscura, exposing it for an hour or more until a negative image was visible on the paper (Fig 2.16).

Salt-paper print of a white plant with five serrated leaves on a stem over a beige background.

Fig 2.13 Photogenic drawing of a plant © Royal Photographic Society/Contributor/Getty

A blue-hazed negative of a photograph of a window in the 1800s.

Fig 2.14 The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey © Science & Society Picture Library/Contributor/Getty

Talbot wasn’t completely successful in stabilizing the images so that they were no longer light sensitive. For this reason, Talbot’s photogenic drawings are very fragile, fading with time. Although not yet perfected, the news of Daguerre’s process pushed Talbot to rush examples of his work to the Royal Institution in London. The images he presented had been done in 1835, which he felt gave him the right to film claim over Daguerre. Thus begins the rivalry between these two inventors.

Around the same time, astronomer and scientist Sir John Herschel discovered that hyposulphite of soda dissolved silver salts and could successfully used the chemical to “fix” photographs, rendering them inactive to light. After visiting Herschel, Talbot quickly adopted his fixing-technique, and with Herschel’s permission wrote about it in a French Academy of Sciences publication. Daguerre read the description and immediately adopted it. Influential in other ways, Herschel proposed the term “photography” be used over Talbot’s “photogenic drawing” and the words “positive” and “negative” for “reversed copy” and “re-reversed copy.”

Herschel and other scientists went to Paris to inspect Daguerre’s images. In amazement, Hershel said to Arago: “I must tell you that compared to these masterpieces of Daguerre, Monsieur Talbot produces nothing but vague, foggy things. There is as much difference between these two products as there is between the moon and the sun.” Herschel’s account gave Arago the confirmation that he needed to pursue writing a bill proposing that the French government compensate M. Daguerre direct for the indespensible discovery, and that France should then nobly give to the world this discovery which could contribute so much to the progress of art and science.” The bill received unanimous support from both houses, and was signed by King Louis Philippe on June 15, 1839. The French government awarded Daguerre an annual pension of 6,000 francs and Nièpce’s son one of 4,000 francs on condition that they publish their process.

On August 19, 1839, Arago announced the invention in a paper read before the Academy of Sciences. Interest in the announcement was so great that every seat was taken two hours before the scheduled event. Hundreds more remained outside trying to catch a word or two of the news. Immediately following the announcement, people rushed out to purchase the equipment and chemicals necessary to make daguerreotypes. Soon afterwards daguerreotype studios started opening up everywhere. French lithographer Theodore Maurisset captured the hysteria that had engulfed France in an illustration titled “Daguerreotypomania” (Fig 2.17). In the image, people are lined up for miles trying to get in to hear the announcement, people riding in hot air balloons above trying to get a glimpse, photographers setting up their tripods, people having their picture taken, and painters hanging themselves from the gallows because painting was dead.

Fig 2.15 Daguerreotypomania

By 1841, Talbot had a new process that utilized paper coated with silver iodide. The sensitized paper was placed inside the camera obscura for a minute or two until an invisible latent image had formed. Then the paper was put through a chemical development process, which made the latent image visible on the paper. This process, which he called the calotype, but is also referred to as the talbotype, produced a negative image on paper from which multiple positive prints could be made through contact printing (Fig 2.18). To make a positive print, the paper negative was placed is contact with another sheet of light sensitive paper. Exposure to light and then development resulted in a positive image on paper, in which the tones were inverted from those on the original paper negative (Fig 2.19). So for the first time, numerous prints could be made of the same image because there was a negative. This was a distinct advantage over the daguerreotype, which could only be duplicated by re-photographing it with a camera obscura. A photographic printing firm was quickly established in Reading, England (Fig 2.20), which worked toward the widespread distribution of large editions of photographic prints. Many of the images for The Pencil of Nature by Fox Talbot, the first book to be illustrated with photographic prints, were printed at the Reading Establishment.

Black-and-white photograph of Nelson’s Column in London surrounded by scaffolding.

Fig 2.16 Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square © Science & Society Picture Library/Contributor/Getty

Black-and-white photo of William Henry Fox Talbot adjusting his camera lens while an assistant copies an engraving in front of a glass shed.

Fig 2.17 The Reading Establishment © William Henry Fox Talbot/Stringer/Getty

Although we use film negatives on a plastic base instead of Talbot’s paper negatives, he is considered the father of the modern negative-positive photographic process that we use today, because we make positive prints from negatives in traditional darkroom photography.


Chapter Theme to Self

Pick a theme discussed within Chapters 1-3 of the digital textbook and connect it to something that you have personally experienced in your own life. You can choose to do this as either a written reflection or as a video, following the guidelines below. Respond to at least 2 other student reflections by the assignment deadline.

Written: Compose a thoughtful written reflection (minimum 150 words total) connecting a chapter theme to something that you have personally experienced in your own life. Format 1-3 words of the personal life experience in bold within the text body (as opposed to as a section header) and use specific details from it to connect back to the chosen chapter theme. Include the total word count on top of your submission. (In Microsoft Word go to Tools>Word Count)

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