Think back to the last time you opened your photo albums or scrolled through your smartphone gallery. Those snapshots, those sweet memories of our fast-paced lives, are the result of an amazing journey that began more than two centuries ago.
The principle of the camera obscura – projecting an image onto a surface – was known to mankind since ancient times. However, this faint imprint of the moment disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. At the beginning of the 19th century, Joseph Niépce dared to look further: he created the first negative photograph, capturing the world around him on silver chloride paper.
Louis Daguerre and William Talbot also contributed by introducing the world to the daguerreotype1 and the calotype2 respectively, which made it possible to make copies of photographs and laid the foundations for their mass distribution.
George Eastman and the dry film revolution
But the real revolution came at the end of the 19th century, thanks to George Eastman. At the age of 24, young Eastman’s travel plans unexpectedly led him to photography. Although the journey itself never took place, the bulky photographic equipment he bought for the trip inspired him to make the process of photography simpler and more accessible.
With the old method, wet collodion, photography was extremely inconvenient for travellers due to the size of the equipment and the need for a laboratory to produce the images. Obsessed with simplicity, Eastman spent three years experimenting with gelatine emulsions and by 1880 had developed dry film and a machine to make it.
In 1883, his Eastman company produced roll film, which made cameras much more compact. This was a real breakthrough: photography was now available to anyone who wanted to capture the moment. With innovations in dry film and subsequent improvements, Eastman was able to break down the barriers that separated professionals from ordinary people in photography.
Advances in photography in the 20th century and today
The 20th century was a century of incredible technological innovation in photography. And here we are in the 21st century, where photography has become part of our everyday lives. Smartphones, social media and cloud storage have all made the process of capturing, editing and sharing images faster and more convenient.
Photography is the magic of the moment, the ability to freeze time so that we can return to it again and again. Perhaps centuries from now, our descendants will study our photographs the way we study 19th century daguerreotypes today, marvelling at how the world has changed while the magic of the moment has remained unchanged.
Prepared by Mary Clair
1The daguerreotype was an early method of creating unique photographs on silver plate, invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839. This method did not allow copies of the image to be made, was labour intensive and required the use of toxic chemicals. In the 1850s it was replaced by newer methods such as collodion.
2Calotype, or “Talbotype”, is a method of making photographs on paper invented by William Talbot in the 1840s. Unlike the daguerreotype, the calotype allowed multiple copies to be made from a single negative, although the images were less clear due to the structure of the paper. This method was the starting point for the development of future paper printing techniques.