When Frenchman Joseph Nicephore Niepce captured and processed the first photograph from his window in 1826, he had no way of knowing that he set into motion what would become a worldwide movement that continues to this day.
Up until that moment, the closest thing to a photograph was a drawing produced by an apparatus known as the camera obscura, which was a box with a lens on one end that projected an image onto a piece of paper on the other end, sometimes using a mirror to reflect the image upward. The owner could then trace what he or she saw.
An article in Time-Life's Library of Photography series provides insight about efforts by Niepce and many others to produce a permanent photographic image.
Ironically, Niepce had little interest in the art of imagery. His interest was mostly scientific in an effort to produce what wasn’t yet possible. There had been failed attempts by Niepce and others to produce a permanent photographic image, although it wasn't for a lack of trying.
Many of these home chemists and hobbyists often collaborated, sharing their knowledge in the hopes that they could fill in that missing gap of knowledge. This was in the age before the instant communication of the Internet – or even telephones or cars. This sharing of knowledge that took place was through hand-written correspondence that was carried from town to town and country to country over the course of days and weeks.
As photographers moved from Daguerreotypes and tintypes and calotypes to wet plates, glass plates and eventually film, the process to create and make the image permanent hasn’t changed dramatically: develop, stop and fix. Some of the early processes were toxic, and some of the early film bases were known to be flammable.
Even with the ability to make permanent images, photography did not become an instant hit. The process of making a photograph still wasn’t the providence of the mass market. For the most part, photography was restricted to those who needed it, those who could endure the process and those who could afford it.
Still, the seeds had been planted.
Photography in those early days took time. In addition to having to create and process your own light-sensitive materials, it was a slow endeavor. Exposures were measured in minutes. If you notice, most portraits look more like still life, and you rarely ever see someone smile or even look pleasant.
As time passed, two things happened. The coating that captured the image became more sensitive to light, and that light-capturing medium got smaller and lighter and more convenient to use.
The other thing that happened was George Eastman, who created Kodak with the premise of "You push the button, and we do the rest." Taking photos was now possible for nearly anyone.
In times, tin plates gave way to glass plates, which eventually were replaced by film and more recently by electronic sensors.
Massive view cameras were replaced by smaller view cameras. Those were supplanted by roll film cameras and then 35mm cameras. Smaller formats came and went, but medium-format and 35mm film seemed to be the ideal compromise in the search for quality and portability.
The other film formats have become niche products. Some would say that film itself has become a niche product. Perhaps, it has.
What we know is that photography is many things to many people. It’s art. It’s a record of our lives, our misdeeds, our company ID card or driver’s license.
There are photographs of our birth, our death, war and peace, love and hate and all emotions in between. Incredible human triumph and tragedy. Without photography, the world certainly would be less interesting. It’s an indelible part of our lives – even if we don’t realize it.
And it all began in the early 19th century with an amateur chemist in France.