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Notes from the Paynesville Historical Society. . .

A brief history of photography

By Darlene Peterson

Everyone takes pictures...of places they visit on vacation, of their friends, family and pets, or special occasions. Today's technology makes it a lot easier for people to record these memories than it was a couple of centuries ago.

The invention of the photographic process was made public in 1839, but for decades people had tried to make photographs and only a few were successful.

The word 'photography' is derived from the Greek words 'phos,' which means light, and 'graphein,' which means to draw. In 1727 Johan Heinrich Schulze discovered that certain chemicals, especially silver salts, turned dark when exposed to light.

In 1800 Thomas Wedgwood made an unsuccessful attempt at using these chemicals to record an image. He used a camera obscura - a room with a small hole in one wall that allowed light to pass through, projecting an inverted image on the opposite wall. The hole was later replaced by a lens, which made images brighter and sharper. By the 18th century the room was replaced by a portable box, and artists used this as a sketching aid.

Louis J. M. Dauerre's 1839 invention, the Daguerroytpe, produced a picture on a metal plate. In 1840, William Henry Talbot produced a negative picture on paper. This was called the caloype, and because any number of positives could be made from the negative his invention soon predominated.

Early photographic processes were easy to learn, and this new medium spread quickly throughout America and Europe. Because it recorded visual information so easily and precisely and distributed it worldwide, photography was the most powerful tool of communication since the printing press, and photography like the railroad made the world seem smaller.

Some of the best early photographers had been trained as artists, and many of them were more talented with the camera than they were with a paintbrush. Some people feared that photography would mean the end of painting, but painters continued to paint and photographers always stayed busy.

In the majority of the 19th century, there was a popular demand for portraits and views of famous monuments or strange places. By the mid-1850s anyone could afford a picture of themselves; ordinary people could own an emblem of identity, something formerly reserved for the rich. Traditional and exotic culture could also be known accurately and cheaply through photographs.

Dry plates were introduced in the 1880s; they did away with field darkrooms, and the cameras became smaller and more portable. In 1888 George Eastman introduced Kodak; it used flexible roll film and made photography available to anyone who could press a button. Small, versatile, high-speed cameras were introduced in Europe in the 1920s.

The profession of photojournalism began in the 1930s when journalists like Erich Salomon and Delix H. Man recorded events whether or not they were important and these photos were published in magazines such as Life.

World War II brought even more exposure to photojournalists. Some of the most innovative contemporary photography has arisen from a new fascination with the imagery of popular culture, especially advertising and the movies.

Film is made of a transparent base coated with a layer of a suspension of silver salt crystals in gelatin; the gelatin holds the salt grains and increases their sensitivity to light. Coarse-grain films are faster than those off fine-grain, probably because the larger grains intercept more light. Slower, fine grain films are used for higher-quality work.

For color photography, the film consists of three layers - one blue-sensitive, one red-sensitive, and one yellow-sensitive. Any color can be made from mixing the three primary colors. Although the materials of color photography have been readily available since 1907, it didn't mature as an artistic medium until the 1970s. Before that, color photography was used mainly in advertising and fashion photography.

Flash photography uses artificial light produced by a flash device when natural light is insufficient or to reduce contrast and soften shadows in strong light. However, it is limited in range and useful mainly for relatively close-up photography. In older cameras the flash apparatus was usually a separate device attached to the camera by a wire; in newer cameras the flash is connected directly to the top of the camera, or incorporated into its body.

One type of flash device used is the flash bulb, a fine wire made of magnesium or another metal in oxygen. They are only used once because the wire is burned up in producing the flash. The flash is set to go off slightly before or at the same time the shutter opens.

Just as photography has many different styles, there are many different types of cameras that have been made available since the early models that people had to lug around. Earlier handheld models needed to be wound to advance the film. With an instant camera, like Polaroid, development and printing are done while the film is still inside the camera; this process is called diffusion transfer. Some cameras are specialized for taking aerial or underwater shots. One-time use, or "disposable" cameras come with film already inside, and the whole camera is taken to a lab when the film is ready to be developed.

In recent years, digital photography has made it possible to put your pictures on your computer and share them with relatives through e-mail, and even crop, resize and remove red-eye from the pictures. With digital cameras there is no need for film; the photos are stored on a memory card in the camera, which can store up to hundreds of pictures at once. The photos can also be viewed on a small screen on the back of the camera.

Photography is also used in space exploration. With the aid of the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists are able to look deep into outer space and see things like galaxies, nebula, and supernovas at the edge of the universe.

The Paynesville Area Museum has a full photography display that includes an old studio camera, small hand-held cameras, different types of film, flash bulbs, and early video cameras.