Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons
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Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.
It's difficult today to imagine what life might have been like before everything was recordable. Today, Instagram and Vine chronicle every moment of our lives. But this way of life is made possible by practices of photography that are both mobile and candid. You wait in line today for the new iPhone, but back in 1890, the Kodak made on-the-go snapshots possible for anybody who could afford the instant camera. If you think about it, the Kodak made a remarkable impact on modern life.
You might think that cameras are a new thing, a modern invention. But what is a camera, really? The act of viewing through a lens is an ancient practice. The invention of the camera obscura, from the Latin for 'dark chamber', can be dated back to the time of Aristotle and Euclid.
A camera obscura is simply a box with a pinhole opening. Ancient camera obscuras were big enough for people to sit inside, and view the outside world projected in a sense on the opposite wall from the pinhole. Scientists and artists throughout the centuries have become fascinated with the way light refracted through the lens and danced in the chamber. The camera obscura was an invention that inspired some of the first discoveries of physics and optics, in the way that the device controls and distorts light.
Early innovators of photography personified the process, describing how their pictures were made by the hand of nature herself. It really makes you appreciate the impact of photography, a new form of art in which the image seemed to make itself. American artist Henry Fox Talbot entitled his book on the photographic medium The Pencil of Nature, writing that his photographs were ''impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.''
This personification of the artistic process, made by nature herself, caused quite a bit of controversy. By taking the agency of aesthetic creation away from the inspired artist, art critics brushed off mechanical photography as merely a practice of fixing light and shadows. It was seen as a science long before it became an art.
Photography spawned from many minds. Many chemists, scientists, and artists came to perfect the process at around the same time in the beginning of the 19th century. The invention can't be attributed to a single individual but when hard-pressed, historians usually bring up the names Nicephore Niepce, Louis Daguerre, and Henry Fox Talbot.
British scientist John Herschel was also influential in the development of chemical processes for photography. Herschel developed a kind of photography he called 'cyanotypes', a kind of contact print made by covering a sheet of paper in photosensitive chemicals and placing the object you wish to imprint directly on the paper. This process became popular with naturalists, particularly Anna Atkins, as a way of taking samples of flowers and other organic materials.
Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras is generally considered to be the first photograph. It shows a view out his window in rural France. The picture itself was made by covering a metal plate with chemicals that would react to the exposure of the sun. The metal plate itself is held in a museum at the University of Texas, carefully preserved in a temperature-controlled chamber.
But some also consider Daguerre's Boulevard du Temple photograph of a Paris street a first because it captured the image of a human subject, pictured here having his boots polished. Because it took so long for the image to expose, this figure becomes fixed in the final picture. The man was standing still. There very well may have been others on the street that day, but they were moving too fast for their pictures to condense on Daguerre's plate.
While these two early photographers are both credited as innovators in the field, they used different processes to make pictures. Niepce called his process 'heliography' and Daguerre called his photographs 'Daguerreotypes.' Despite the different paths these scientists took to achieve the product of a sun print on paper, they all devoted the same sense of wonder at the power of nature to create the image, a power directed by science but distinct from the artist's intervention.
Photography was an invention, not a discovery. Scientifically and technologically, it required the development of a chemical process. The chemical reaction had to be designed and perfected, as did the process of developing a print. It wasn't like the process of developing an artistic style. But for those who accepted photography as an art form, different styles of representation did develop alongside the technical achievements. For the most part, photography was used as a method of documentation in the 19th century.
Most existing 19th century photographs are portraits of individuals. The work of Nadar stands out. He was a journalist and illustrator, while also photographing many famous artists of his time, including Sarah Bernhardt, Charles Baudelaire, and Gustave Courbet. He was an avid balloonist and took the first aerial photographs.
Photography was also used to document important events such as the American Civil War. American photographers including George Barnard and Timothy O'Sullivan provide us with haunting and unforgettable depictions of war, death, and valor.
The first Kodak instant cameras became available in 1890, made possible by winding the photographic film around a spindle and offering in-house photo development so that all the consumer had to do was snap the shots. So the last decade of the 19th century saw an increase in candid photography, the taking of a picture without the subject's knowledge. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Anybody could take pictures in public. It sparked a bit of controversy and eventually, the law stepped in to clarify when it was and was not okay to take somebody's photograph.
In a broader picture, the art movements of realism and impressionism could be seen as reacting against the standards of objectivity set by photography. Certainly, pointillism could be seen as a reaction to the mechanical reproducibility of images.
Photographic practice in the 19th century was overshadowed by documentary and commercialism. A few artists working in isolation contributed to its recognition as an art form. Most prominently, American artist Thomas Eakins showed how photography and fine art didn't have to be mutually exclusive practices. Eakins used photography to improve his painting practices by photographing models and producing motion studies of the human body. Eakins photographed models like an artist would paint a nude.
While the camera obscura is an ancient invention, modern photochemical photography didn't become an art form overnight and neither did it immediately become a common practice. There was no single inventor of photography, but rather a number of innovators in the fields of science and art who developed practices that eventually matured into the sophisticated techniques we use today.
Niepce, Daguerre, and Talbot are generally credited as bringing the art of photography into the mainstream. They used neologisms like 'heliography' and 'Daguerreotypy' to describe their individual contributions. In the 19th century, photography was mainly used to create human portraits and document important events. It wasn't until the last decade of the 19th century, with innovations in instant photography, that people began using the cameras in public.
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Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons