Brief History of Photography part I

December 17, 2009 at 6:00 pm (History, Photography) (, , , , , , , , , )

One of the things I love about photography so much is that it intersects with other hobbies and interests so well. Do you love riding horses? Then you probably like looking at pictures of horses. Are you a model railroader? Then you probably like taking pictures of your creations. And so on. One of my other great interests is historical structures, and to a lesser extent, history in general. As a natural byproduct of this, I started researching the history of photography itself. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s a lot of interesting things to discover on that subject. That leads me here: I thought it might be fun for myself and those who read this (is anybody out there?) to write down a fun, conversational history of photography in five or six parts. I wouldn’t expect these all in a row, but rather, one part here and there over the next several months. After all, a little history is great. A lot is tedium. Let’s get started…

Prehistory: Pinholes and Camera Obscura

Somewhat counterintuitively, the camera was invented long before photography. For this to make any sense, perhaps we need some definitions. ‘Photography’, like many words, comes to us from the Greeks, fos and grapho meaning ‘light’ and ‘write’. Basically, ‘light writing’. Note the use of ‘writing’, implying some sort of print or permanent record. As an aside, the modern term ‘photography’ was popularized in 1839 by Sir John Herschel, a chemist who contributed to ‘modern’ photography.

As early as the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Chinese philosopher Mo Ti and Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Euclid described a pinhole camera, used as a basis for discussions on properties of light, not as a means to record images. Perhaps the most important discovery leading to the creation of photography is that of the camera obscura. Latin for “dark chamber”, camera obscura was invented by scientist Abu Ali Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham of Basra (now Iraq) circa 1000 AD. He discovered, while studying optics, that if there is a small hole in the side of a darkened tent, an inverted image would appear on the inside wall. His magnum opus, the Book of Optics (1021) he correctly describes the physics of why such a phenomena exists. I’m not huge on physics, so suffice it to say that light travels in straight lines. Perhaps an illustration:

Drawing which illustrates principles of Camera Obscura

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As time went on, the camera obscura transitioned from apparatus of optical experiments to a tool for parlour tricks. The Neapolitan Giambattista della Porta built his own camera obscura, and experimented using early glass lenses to improve the optical quality of the projections. An apocryphal story tells that on one auspicious occasion, he hired a troupe of actors to perform a play, and invited guests to watch the show inside his camera obscura. It seems the spectacle of tiny human forms cavorting around upside down on the wall sent his guests into a panic, and forced him to flee the country after escaping a Papal court on charges of sorcery. Alas, like so many other visionaries, the common folk just didn’t get it.

By the late 17th and early 18th century, people had come to accept the ‘sorcery’ and once again camera obscura were given practical uses, this time by artists. One such model was the German monk Johann Zahn’s two by one foot portable version which featured a lens, a tube which could be extended in and out to effect focus, and even an aperture to control the amount of light. In these days, a camera obscura was used to project a scene which could then be traced out on paper. If Zahn had had a light-sensitive plate, he would have invented photography right there and then. It was not until the discovery of light-sensitive chemicals in the early 1800s that the modern age of photography began…

More reading:
Camera obscura
Abu Ali Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham
Book of Optics
Giambattista della Porta
Johann Zahn


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