Let Me Take Your Picture – March 2010
150 Years Ago: Getting Your Picture Taken
The beginning of photography occurred in 1826 when Joseph Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833) found a way to use chemicals to affix an image on a metal plate. Niepce was soon joined in partnership by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), and together the two wrestled with improving the process. Their biggest problem was that they could only photograph still objects; the exposure time required at that time was over 30 minutes, too long for a person to sit totally still.
Niepce died in 1833, and by 1837 Daguerre had reduced the exposure time to 10-20 minutes. He also discovered a chemical process that would permanently fix the image, and with his partner dead, Daguerre seemed to have no qualms with calling the process a Daguerreotype. By the 1840s, a British company had licensed the process for use in England, and one of their chemists shortened the exposure time to just a few minutes, making portraiture a possibility.
But even with just a few minutes required for the exposure, getting a picture taken was arduous. Try holding perfectly still for a full minute or two. This will explain why early portraiture required what became known as the Brady stand (after famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady who began his career doing portraits). The stand provided back and head support and helped keep the person still; some also had an armrest to make the pose look natural.
We might wonder what people thought of these early photographs of themselves. A story in the New York Times (10-30-1875) reveals a great deal. The article concerns a legal victory won by a photographer-the court deemed that the photographer should be paid for his work, even if the subject didn’t like the images. Notes the reporter: “The element of uncertainty has been eliminated from the business, and the photographer is now cheered by the certainty that whether his pictures are good or bad, his patrons must at least pay him for the time and materials he has used in combating with the difficulties of their countenances.”
The Brownie Camera
Nineteenth century businessman George Eastman’s goal was “to make the camera as accessible as the pencil,” and he did so.
Until the late 19th century, photography remained in the domain of professionals or serious hobbyists who didn’t mind lugging around lots of equipment. Then in 1900, Eastman Kodak introduced the Brownie camera. Though only slightly smaller than a shoebox, it was still considered highly portable. The company priced it at just one dollar and advertised it like crazy, and for the first time, family events could be captured on film with little forethought or planning.
The Brownie camera was named for the elfin characters created by cartoonist Palmer Cox. The Brownie characters had first appeared in 1879 and by the turn of the century, they were the Mickey Mouse of their day. (If anyone knows about licensing rights as they would have applied at that time, please write me!)
Eastman understood the value of marketing, and because the camera was so simple that “even a child could use it,” the camera was actively advertised for old and young alike. Among the early marketing initiatives undertaken by the company was a Brownie Camera Club for those under age 16. Membership help boost camera use.
Ansel Adams was one of many young people who came to love photography after starting out with a Brownie that his parents had given him when he was twelve.
Kodak ads promised: “You press the button. We do the rest.” (With the original Brownie camera, the film could not be removed by the user, so customers would return the whole camera to a Kodak store to get the photos processed.) Within a few years, the film cartridge was invented so people could switch the film themselves but of course, until digital cameras, the developing process still required a dark room or dropping off the film for processing.
Did your family own a Brownie camera? Do you remember receiving it? If you can scan and send me photos taken with a Brownie, I’ll post them.
Documenting Accidents or Crimes
If forensic photography is half as important in real life detective work as the television crime shows would lead us to believe, then we all should be quite interested in when they first began using photography to dissect crimes or accident scenes.
Our American justice system owes a nod to Mother England. The early use of photographs in court began in the British Isles. In 1861, the collapse of a bridge in the central part of England was carefully documented, and so much was learned that in 1879 when a train bridge in Scotland collapsed killing all 75 travelers, the courts commissioned a fellow to make a photographic record of the scene. James Valentine took fifty accident photographs of the area to provide documentation and to enhance witnesses descriptions of what happened. Based on the evidence, the court eventually determined that the bridge was “badly designed, badly built and badly maintained.”
Today basic documentation of a crime or accident scene is only a first step. Investigators now use infrared and ultraviolet light for trace evidence photography of fingerprints, blood spatter, and other things that otherwise would remain unseen. One can only imagine what photographic developments will be used twenty years from now.
Fast Facts about Photography
- Though photography was being used in the 1850s, newspapers could not print actual photographs until 1880. Photographs of subjects in the news were given to engravers who created engravings of them that could be reproduced by the printing presses used at that time. The New York Daily Graphic ran the first halftone reproductions of a news photograph in 1880 and by 1897, halftones could be printed on printing presses running at full speed.
- 1861 Oliver Wendell Holmes creates stereoscope viewer that used a double image to provide depth.
- 1877 Edward Muybridge takes a succession of photographs of a galloping horse and documented that all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground during a gallop. Documentation was obtained by setting up a number of cameras along the raceway; a tripwire activated the camera when the horse’s leg crossed the wire. The wealthy of San Francisco had bet heavily on this issue, so big money rode on the result.
- 1907 first commercial color film is developed
- 1937 Photojournalism becomes an important part of reporting on World War II
- 1948 Edward Land markets the Polaroid camera
- 1984 Canon markets first digital camera