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History of Photography


A short tour through the story of photography and more importantly photographers.

Aristotle, the ancient Greek (circa 370BC) philosopher, first documented that when light passes through a small hole then falls on a wall you can see an inverted image. That's pretty much the whole process of photography in a nutshell. The only thing to add is some means of capturing the image - which in Aristotle's time meant sketching it. The image projection has become slightly refined through the use of focussing lenses to produce a sharper image.

This was developed in the 1500's into the camera obscura typically a building or room dedicated to viewing the projection.   If you ever get a chance to see one in the flesh there is always a somewhat magical delight in seeing the results.   Even today, this process is still used in pinhole photography.

1830's True Photographic Process


But photography as we know and understand it didn't really start until the late 1830's. In England William Fox-Talbot was developing the negative/positive process and in France Joseph Nicephore Niepce and Louis Daguerre collaborated in experimental photography. Quite which one can claim to be "first" sort of depends on your definition on photography, so let us call it a loose draw.

Photography took off like a storm. Within 15 years there were over 80 professional photography studios in London alone, with similar numbers in New York and Paris. Early photography was very much studio based, with huge equipment required. Photography needed a lot of chemical processes for creating film plates, developing them and making prints.

Nevertheless, there were intrepid soles working as travelling photographers, not only capturing portraits and travel scenes but becoming photo journalists and recording events like the American Civil War.  Imagine the poor photographer lugging 100lb (45 kg) of photographic kit into a war zone.

1888, Launch of Kodak


But the real revolution came in 1888, when George Eastman's Kodak company made and sold a camera loaded with enough film to take 100 pictures. Once the film was used the whole camera and film was sent back to Kodak where it was processed and printed. This was when the famous Kodak slogan "You take the pictures and we do the rest" came into use.

From there we get the development of colour film through a hand in hand process with the movie industry. 35mm film - the film that nearly all cameras used for over 80 years was developed for filming feature films, but the same film rolls were also put into stills cameras as well.

It was in 1936 that Kodak launched Kodachrome to the world. This was the first time that colour photography was available on a single, multi-layered film. Prior to that colour film was recorded on three different films - each sensitive to different colours, then combined together to produce a final print - a complicated process indeed. Kodachrome set the standard for dropping a roll of colour film into your personal camera and recording all the scenes and events of everyday human life.

1980's, Digital Starts


Apart from slow advances in the mechanical aspects of camera - and in particular lens manufacture - that's how photography stayed for another 30 years until the dawning of digital cameras in the early 1980's. Not surprisingly early digital cameras were massive, expensive and pretty poor quality. Early uses were scientific and medical.

By the early 2000's digital cameras were becoming affordable for working professionals, but cameras were still costing 1,000's.  But the price dropped rapidly and by 2005 it was possible to buy a serious, professional quality camera for less than 2,000 and digital cameras really became main stream.

Roll forward just another 5 years and now even your phone includes a digital camera more capable than those early digital cameras. More people have more cameras now than at any time in the past. More people take more photographs at any time in the past. Crucially, more people SHOW more photographs than ever before. Through internet services like FaceBook, Instagram and Flickr people are sharing images both striking and mundane all around the world. FaceBook say in 2014 they expect over 900 BILLION images to be uploaded, more than 200,000 photographs every minute.


Pathe News in 2014 released digital versions of all of their films, a remarkable treasure trove of news and documentary footage and well done to Pathe for doing this.
This film was their celebration of 100 years of photography and was released in 1939.   75 years ago.

A Short History of Photographers


All this technology is all very well, but personally I find the photographers the most interesting part. Those individuals that saw the technology and wondered how they could use and develop it artistically. Those that understood photographs meant more than just portraits, but were a means of initiating social change.

Oscar Gustave Rejlander


Rejlander started as a portrait painter, but came to embrace photography as a flexible medium to be altered and changed as only a painter would.  Instead of capturing what the camera saw he created completely new pictures by compositing many smaller pictures together.
"The Two Ways of Life" is his most famous work, the central figures two young men faced with a choice between study, religion and good works, or booze, gambling and women!   But this created image was actually made from 32 separate glass negatives.   Seeing this it is hard to understand why the manipulation of digital photographs was initially seen as so shocking and not "pure" photography.

The Two Ways of Life, 1857, Oscar Gustave Rejlander

Julia Margaret Cameron


Julia Margaret Cameron was an incredibly influential photographer and her vision still echoes now with the embracing of lomography and Instagram.   Her vision was to create images that had a romantic and spiritual quality - there were often deliberately soft and out of focus.  She understood that a camera could more than just a record - but that could it could be emotionally evocative too.
I had the pleasure of visiting her museum on the Isle of Wight this year, seeing those images hanging on walls was brilliant - even now they are striking, compelling, beautiful and emotional.

Iago, 1867, Julia Margaret Cameron

Thomas Annan


In the late 1860's Thomas Annan created an incredible record of Glasgow's slums.   Part record and part propaganda - these images were commissioned to both record the housing conditions but also to build support for the urban redevelopment that Glasgow council had in mind.   It was all part of a growing concern about poverty and dispossession in society.

Close, No. 46 Saltmarket from Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow, 1868-1871, Thomas Annan

Alfred Stieglitz


Alfred Stieglitz played a huge part in setting the modern aesthetic of photography:  sharp focus, good contrast and a wide range of tones - in short - clarity.   As the technology improved in film, cameras and lenses this type of crisp capture became possible.
More than that though, while the image is a "grab shot", unposed and caught at the moment, there is statement here too.  Look at how the gangplank cutting the photograph in half also clearly shows the division of class, the wealthy on top, and the poor on the bottom.   This is photography as art, history and statement.

The Steerage, 1907, Alfred Stieglitz

Edward Steichen


But it is not all about social change - celebrity and fashion play their part too.  Steichen directed the US Naval Photographic Institute during WW1, but afterwards he built a career shooting fashion images for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
 Steichen's exhibition The Family of Man is now regarded as one of the most important exhibitions in photo history.

Gloria Swanson (lace), 1924, Edward Steichen

Dorothea Lange


Dorothea Lange and her colleague Walker Evans worked to document the Great Depression in 1930's America.  Again we see that use of photography as both recording and propaganda.   This is also an example of capturing the perfect moment, the story behind the image is more mundane than the emotions invoked by looking at this picture.
We can see a clear route from Annan in Glasgow, through Steiglitz to Lange.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, Dorothea Lange

Madame Yevonde


Meanwhile Madame Yevonde was creating these wonderful, bold, dramatic colour images - a world away from the Great Depression.   She did much experimental work with colour and became a society portrait photographer and gained many advertising commissions.
This work from 1935 was from her Goddesses series, portraits of society women as mythical figures.  This exciting and theatrical set was exhibited in London in 1935 and really pushed colour photography forwards.

Mrs. Meyer as Medusa from The Goddesses Series, 1935, Madame Yevonde

Henri Cartier-Bresson


Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the most famous photographers ever.  Known for his remarkable style of candid "street" photography.  Cartier-Bresson used the recently developed fast cameras and fast film to capture the "decisive moment".
 This particular shot taken in 1945 at a transit camp in Dessau records the moment that a Gestapo informer is exposed - but when you see the other images in the contact sheet taken within seconds of this moment, none of them has such an evocative sense - which is driven by the expressions of the two key subjects.

Dessau, Germany, 1945, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Larry Burrows


Larry Burrows was an English photographer covering the Vietnam War.  This astonishing image of the wounded black soldier going to the assistance of the mud covered white soldier is an amazing statement about the brutality, futility and sheer squalor of war.
These images stand out as being the first real use of colour reporting.  Prior to this colour was seen as the preserve of fashion and documentary photography was black and white.

South of the DMZ, South Vietnam, 1966, Larry Burrows

Martin Parr


Martin Parr is still active today recording the off-beat and often humorous images of consumerism, tourism and in particular the British.  His book, The Last Resort, despite its humour was an uncompromising review of Thatcher's Britain and its affect on everyday people.
Parr is often viewed with some ambivalence, with a fine line between passionate documentary and laughing at his subjects (something he denies).

From The Last Resort, 1985, Martin Parr

Nick Knight


Nick Knight is one of my heroes; I adore his incredible fashion work.  One of the world's leading innovators in photography using scenes, setups, equipment, styles and colour in ways no-one else has thought of.  Knight is very prolific and very keen to spread his enthusiasm and knowledge of photography as well.
 His recent work has included taking images without cameras, for example through laser scanning.  He has a deep commitment to the concept of post-processing, digitally manipulating images afterwards as an integral part of the photographic process.

Suzie Smoking, 1988, Nick Knight

Bill Brandt


I've saved my biggest hero until last.  Bill Brandt has an unparalleled position as a recorder of English life, particularly the 1930's to '50s in northern England.  But he is my hero because of his series "Perspective of Nudes".   These monochrome distorted images of nudes were a milestone in the visual transformation of the human figure.
Crucially, Brandt set out to "see" in a way no-one had ever seen before.  He built his own lenses out of non-photographic equipment to create extremely wide-angle lenses - now known as "fish-eye" lenses.  He created the equipment because he had an idea of HOW he wanted to photograph - his vision preceded his invention and his invention enabled his vision.

Bill Brandt, Nude on East Sussex Coast, 1961



I want to keep you shooting rather than writing - so you don't have to write an essay on your favourite photographer!  
Instead I want you to choose an image you really like and try to create a photograph in a similar style.
It does not need to be a copy, not even of the same subject, but an image which has something about it that reminds you of a favourite photograph.
You do not need to submit this image for assessment.