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The Birth of Photography. Lecture 1. The Camera Obscura. Abelardo Morell Light Bulb 1991. Ancient Knowledge. Aristotle is the first to describe the principle of the camera obscura when he uses it as an analogy to the way in which an image is formed in the eye. Aristotle, 384- 322 BC.

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The Birth of Photography

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The Birth of Photography

Lecture 1

The Camera Obscura

Abelardo Morell

Light Bulb


Ancient Knowledge

  • Aristotle is the first to describe the principle of the camera obscura when he uses it as an analogy to the way in which an image is formed in the eye.

Aristotle, 384- 322 BC

The Science of Optics

  • Alhazen (Abu Ali Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham), who was a great authority on optics in the Middle Ages and lived around the year 1000, built the first camera obscura.

Forced Perspective

Jan Van Eyck probably used the camera obscura method to achieve difficult foreshortened perspective. The strongest evidence is in the reflection in the convex mirror on the back wall.

Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, 1434

A photographic reconstruction (right) of Vermeer's The Music Lesson (left) reveals

that a camera obscura may have been a part of the artist's process.

A page from David Hockney's book on the use of the camera obscura by the Great

Masters which juxtaposes the changes in which faces were painted during the

Renaissance and later by the Great Masters. The bottom two faces look more like

photographs than paintings.

Modern Camera Obscuras

  • In the 16th Century, the addition of a convex lens helps to focus light better and a mirror is added so the image can be reflected onto a flat surface where it can be traced.

Early Photographic Experiments

Thomas Wedgwood, son of pottery

maker Josiah Wedgwood, experimented with light sensitive materials as early as 1805 and probably earlier. This image was made in the early 1800s or even late 1790s. Most of the images made by this process have been destroyed from exposure to light because they were not able to be fixed.

The First Solution

Joseph Nicephore Niepce created the first fixed photographic image, the “heliograph”, in 1824. The exposure time was about 8 hours. The heliograph was made on a pewter plate coated with asphaltum. Solvents were used to wash out the asphaltum that had not hardened due to exposure to light. Later, Niepce discovered that he could darken the shadow areas by exposing the plate to iodine fumes.

Louis Jacque Mande Daguerre

Daguerre’s Contribution

  • Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre continued to work with Niepce until Niepce’s death in 1833. Afterwards, Daguerre continued their work alone and eventually perfected the process for the Daguerreotype in 1837.

  • Daguerre used iodized silver- coated copper plates subjected to mercury fumes to develop a positive image. The image was then fixed- originally in a salt solution and later in sodium thiosulfate, or “hypo”.

  • Because Daguerre made his formulas available to anyone, the practice spread. Photography, or Daguerreotypy, became a new profession and a social phenomenon.


  • Daguerreotypes were very popular because their sharp detail made them ideal for portraits. But the process had three fatal flaws: 1) they were hard to look at due to their reflective surface, 2) they were very dangerous to produce because they used mercury vapor- a highly toxic substance- in the processing, 3) they were unique, one of a kind images that could not be reproduced, and 4) the materials and uniqueness made them too expensive for most people.

Hippolyte Bayard and his direct positive process

Bayard claimed to have invented

the direct positive process before

either Daguerre or Talbot discovered

their processes. However, he never

made his process public and was

denied any credit for his invention until

later in his life.

He is credited with presenting the world’s first public exhibition of photographic prints on June 24, 1839.

The direct positive

process involved exposing silver

chloride paper to light, which turned

the paper completely black. It was

then soaked in potassium iodide

before being exposed in a

camera. After the exposure, it

was washed in a bath of

hyposulfite of soda and dried.

Exposures were very long (about 10-

15 minutes.

Images were one- of- a- kind and

Could not be reproduced

Hippolyte Bayard

Self Portrait As A Drowned Man

Direct positive print


William Henry Fox Talbot

  • In London, Fox Talbot had produced what he called, “photogenic drawings” (we call them “photograms”) as early as 1835. These were primarily used to keep records of botanical specimens and needed extremely long exposure times. He published his ideas- but not his formulas- soon after Daguerre in 1839.

The Calotype

  • In 1841, Talbot switched to a process that produced a negative image on a sensitized paper. He called it the Calotype. Talbot’s process was less sharp and considered inferior to the Daguerreotype for portraiture.

  • Talbot insisted on patenting all of his processes and equipment, so his process was not available to others for free, as Daguerre’s was. However, the paper negative soon proved to have one major advantage over the Daguerreotype - it could be reproduced.

  • The ability to make exact copies made the calotype the forerunner of modern photography and earned Talbot the title of the inventor of modern photography.


William Henry Fox Talbot

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

Abelardo Morell

Man Ray’s Rayographs

Adam Fuss

Mark Osterman and France Scully- Osterman

France Scully, Light Mist

Mark Osterman, The Rhodes Incident

Mark Osterman and France Scully

are photographers and historians at the George

Eastman House in Rochester, NY. They practice

and teach many kinds of older photographic processes.

Mark Osterman, Fragen (Spain)

Irving Pobborofsky

Jerry Spagnoli

Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison

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