top of page

History of Cinema and Photography 101: The 19th to 21st Century in a Graphic Tapestry


Film and television have emerged as prominent artistic mediums in the 20th and 21st centuries, shaping the contemporary landscape of art history and cultural expression. These formats have revolutionized the creation and consumption of artworks since their inception. Within the framework of a history degree curriculum, the study of cinema and photography holds considerable significance as it contributes to a broader understanding of human history for several reasons. Notably, film provides a distinct and novel means of documenting data and information, serving as valuable sources for present and future historians. Furthermore, photography and cinema not only hold a pivotal place in the material heritage of humanity but also constitute a vital aspect of our artistic and cultural heritage. This series of articles will adopt a dual approach, delving into the historical trajectory encompassing the conception, development, and technological advancements of photography, followed by cinema. Simultaneously, it will explore the aesthetic language, genres, and artistic movements intrinsic to the realm of moving pictures and photography.

This 101 series is divided into seven articles, including:

2. History of Film and Photography 101: The 19th to 21st Century in a Graphic Tapestry

3. History of Film and Photography 101: Artistry and Aesthetics in Photography

4. History of Film and Photography 101: Frames in Motion

5. History of Film and Photography 101: Decoding Cinematic Language

6. History of Film and Photography 101: The Golden Age

7. History of Film and Photography 101: Cinematic Horizons

History of Film and Photography 101: The 19th to 21st Century in a Graphic Tapestry

The Early Days of Photography

Since Louis Jacques Daguerre patented the first photographic process in 1839, this technology became the subject of experimentation and change, evolving throughout time (Rosenblum, 1997). The 19th century was the period of development for photographic technology, with new techniques and methods being developed every couple of years (Newhall, 1949). As this technology became more widespread and accessible, photography emerged as one of the most popular visual formats, going from a scientific experiment to an artistic tool and a popular activity for amateurs (Newhall, 1949). While photography could be compared to painting, as it is a format for creating pictures, photography was observed to be faster, easier and less labor-intensive than painting. As a plus, it did not require much artistic talent to use a camera and produce a readable image, even if this was not an appealing one. Quickly, photography was considered the premium technique to capture reality, be it nature, architecture or human portraits, emerging as a fad amongst the middle and high classes in Europe (Emerling, 2012). With this new popularity, an entire industry began forming around photography. By the 1860s, photographers were established professionals and it had become pretty evident that photography had become one of the most important technological developments in human history, changing culture, the arts, and science (Rosenblum, 1997).

Visual culture is an important part of human history and the invention of the photographic process greatly changed societal culture around visual media (Emerling, 2012). A photograph could capture an exact image of the real world, and after many technological advances, could produce almost infinite copies of this image (Rosenblum, 1997). While the earliest techniques, such as the daguerreotype and calotype, were time-consuming, costly and not very practical, other scientists and inventors began working on new technologies to develop ways to bring this new and revolutionary invention to the masses (Rosenblum, 1997). The late 19th century saw the propagation of photography, moving into a century of innovations in the format and the broader popularisation of the medium (Emerling, 2012). Tracing the evolution of technology and techniques through the 19th and 20th centuries allows for a better understanding of the widely spread presence of photography in the 21st century.

Figure 1: Portrait of Willliam Henry Fox Talbot (Jones, (Rev.), ca.1845).

Simplifying the Photographic Process

For a photograph to be completed, the camera must capture lights and shadows through a lens so the image is recorded on any photosensitive material (Rosenblum, 1997). The time needed for the photosensitive material to record light is what is referred to as the exposure time. The first photographic processes had long exposure times of up to 10 minutes, and human subjects would have to sit still for these prolonged periods to manage to capture a good image (Sougez, 2007). Sitting for a photograph was not completely different than sitting for a painted portrait, at least time-wise. This was one of the first issues to be solved so photography could become more accessible and practical. The first development towards modernizing the photographic process was the introduction of a “dry plate” (Rosenblum, 1997). Dry plates were made first with collodion, just like the wet plates, with a longer exposure time.

In 1871, Dr. Richard Leach Maddox, an English physician and photographer, created a dry plate made with gelatin silver bromide as the binding agent, making the first practical dry plate easier and faster to use (Eder, 1932). This dry plate represented a new era of photography, as it simplified the process and was one of the first photographic equipment to be mass-manufactured in Europe and the United States (Rosenblum, 1997). While the first gelatin silver bromide dry plates had glass support, this was replaced with celluloid fabricated in standardized sheets in 1883 (Rosenblum, 1997). These sheets were mass-produced and were ready to use, so photographers did not need to prepare their own plates and sheets in their labs. Different printing papers and methods began to be introduced with photographers seeking the best way to develop and print the silver bromide negatives. This photographic process was so widely used that the first time color dyes were added to photography was using these silver bromide plates in the 1870s (Rosenblum, 1997). Every scientific development of photographic technologies since followed Dr. Maddox’s recipe, improving upon it with tweaks to the formula and the process (Eder, 1932). Thus, the gelatin silver bromide plate became the cornerstone of modern photography (Eder, 1932).

Figure 2: A photograph using the gelatin silver process (Stieglitz, 1887).

Pioneering Instant Photography and Color Reproduction

With the reduction of the time of exposure, photography became a more comfortable artistic format. Daguerrotypes needed 30 minutes of exposure when first invented, although the time was reduced a year later with further experimentation (Rosenblum, 1997). By 1898, with the improvements upon the gelatin dry plate, images could be captured in only 1/30 of a second (Rosenblum, 1997). Along with the availability of mass-produced materials, photography became more common, and after perfecting the chemical process photographers turned to improving the cameras' mechanics (Rosenblum, 1997). With longer exposure times, photographers would manually control the lens cap to regulate the amount of light captured by the lens (Rosenblum, 1997). To adapt to the faster exposure, new types of shutters were introduced to control this light exposure, closing in in a swift way to cover up the exposed camera lens within a second (Rosenblum, 1997). Various versions of this shutter were patented and implemented to achieve faster and more controlled exposure (Rosenblum, 1997). The first shutters were a pair of simple flaps covering the front part of the camera or a sliding plate (Rosemblum, 1997). Later more complex shutters were introduced, such as diaphragm shutters, which controlled the amount of light captured by the lens, as well as the exposure time (Rosenblum, 1997). By 1904, the Zeiss Company introduced a metal compound shutter, made up of several blades placed inside the camera (Rosenblum, 1997). This shutter had dials to control the times and speed of the photography and it became the standard for hand-held cameras (Rosenblum, 1997). These new developments became the precursor for moving pictures as they could capture isolated images of a moving object (Rosenblum, 1997).

Another important technological development for photography was the introduction of color photography. For most of the 19th century, the only way to color a picture was by hand (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). Capturing the real color of a scene became a major driving force in the innovation and experimentation processes to develop new photography techniques. The first color photography appeared in 1861, as an experiment made by scientist James Clerk Maxwell (Rosenblum, 1997). He utilized red, green and blue filters to capture tree images and then projected the three images at the same time onto a screen, creating a fully colored image (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). In the 1980s, the first camera to capture fully colored images expanded upon this experiment and this system ultimately proved to be too complicated and expensive, but it opened up the door to further experimentation (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). The first commercially successful color process was introduced in 1904 by the Lumiere brothers (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). The autochrome did not need a separate filter screen and was easy to use, but did require a long exposure time (Rosenblum, 1997). Nevertheless, the technique caught on among amateur photographers and was commercially produced in 1907 (Rosenblum, 1997).

Figure 3: James Clerk Maxwell created the first color image (Maxwell, 1861).

The Propagation of Photography (Early 20th Century)

In 1888, the Kodak camera was introduced into the market as a small and simple camera that anyone could use (Daval, 1982). It was a way of exploring and capturing everyday experiences, and by the 20th century, it was established as a popular pastime with amateur photographers growing in numbers (Daval, 1982). With the Kodak camera, a person did not have to become a professional or expert photographer to participate in this activity as its major selling point was the slogan "You press the button and we do the rest" (Pritchard, 2014). The close-knit circle of photographers began to open up and photographic groups and clubs started forming in major cities, where both amateurs and professionals could share and learn new techniques (Daval, 1982). With this camera being directed to the beginner or casual photographer, an entirely new group of camera users joined the demand for the Kodak camera (Pritchard, 2014). Taking this into consideration, Kodak further industrialised photography and standardised the process for developing film (Daval, 1982). The cameras were shipped to the Kodak plant in Rochester, where the film was developed and sent back to each user (Daval, 1982). Another addition to the industry by Kodak was the marketing of the product, as the company needed to market it to the masses, showing that anyone could buy and use this technology (Prichard, 2014). This new crowd also contributed an informality to the photographic industry, as many of Kodak's buyers were not photographers so they did not capture images for any artistic or archival purpose (Pritchard, 2014). These new images were the true expression of everyday life and casual scenes, as most people would choose to take pictures of family members and domestic settings (Pritchard, 2014).

Figure 4: Kodak introduced the simplest camera in 1888 (National Museum of American History, n.d.).

Although the exposure time had been reduced and cameras had gotten smaller, the printing of images was still a separate and more complicated process. The first instant camera by Polaroid was released to the market in 1948, the Polaroid Land Model 95 (Rosenblum, 1997). This camera, invented by Dr. Edwin Land, was completely self-developing and would print a final picture within one minute (Pritchard, 2014). The idea of developing a picture inside the camera itself had been discussed in the 19th century but the technology would take years to develop into a usable and compact camera (Pritchard, 2014). Instant photography was a revolutionary invention and made photography an even more accessible activity. This technology was convenient for more casual camera users but also embraced by professional photographers as it allowed for an instant check on the product (Pritchard, 2014). Polaroid continued the simplification of photography, which the Kodak camera had begun many years earlier. With an instant camera, there was no need to mail the film to a company or go to a photography lab to have it developed and users could have their personal images within seconds (Pritchard, 2014).

Cutting out the middleman gave Polaroid incredible success, and their instant cameras were popular for many years (Pritchard, 2014). Because of their focus on simplifying the capturing and development of photography, Kodak and Polaroid became the leading companies in the world, controlling most of the photography market (Daval, 1982). While professional and artistic photography was still developing and an important part of the photographic industry, there was a shift towards focusing on a more casual buyer. These companies wanted to convey the message that any photographer, although inexperienced, could control his craft (Newhall, 1949). While still costly, the mass production of cameras and film rolls made the pastime more accessible and simpler for everyday people who wanted to participate.

Figure 5: Polaroid's first instant camera (National Media Museum, n.d.).

Aside from instant cameras, color photography techniques were also developed further during the 20th century (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). During the first half of the century, many new processes were created, but they were all forgotten quickly and failed to garner enough popularity (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, two amateur scientists, collaborated with Kodak’s researchers and produced the first tripack film in 1935 (Suddath, 2009). This film was first released as sheet film and then as a negative 35-mm film (Suddath, 2009). It also produced a very stable print, because if stored correctly, the colors would not fade for a hundred years (Suddath, 2009). Regardless of its steep price, Kodachrome was a complete hit and brought color photography to the mainstream.

Photography in the Modern Era: artistic and documentary photography

With the establishment of photography as a popular form of personal expression, the 20th century was marked by the emergence and development of different artistic currents (Daval, 1982). In the 19th century, some photographers did consider adding aesthetic value to their work but most were only preoccupied with capturing the most detailed image or imitating paintings (Rosenblum, 1997). This approach evolved into pictorialism, an artistic movement which based photography on painting as an art, however, photographers were not trying to imitate painters (Rosenblum, 1997). Pictorialism was in the middle between imitating painting and completely realistic photography. It was a movement focused on capturing the most beautiful frames and moments or real life (Rosenblum, 1997).

During the 20th century, the innovation around photography turned to experimenting with style and aesthetics rather than the chemistry of the photographic process. A long century of innovation and experimenting with the science of photography has managed to create various cameras and processes which were more affordable and, most importantly, easier to use (Emerling, 2012). The central figures became photographers, instead of scientists, and these passed from craftsmen to artists, finding new ways to capture, develop and print photographs (Dava, 1982). What became the most important point to improve upon in photography were the artistic characteristics of it (Emerling, 2012). While the aesthetics of pictures mattered since the first-day photography was introduced to society, the 20th century was truly the moment for experimenting with this, utilising different techniques and methods. The German New Objectivity influenced the first artistic photographers in the 1920s and 30s, replacing pictorialism as the leading aesthetic tendency (Rosenblum, 1997). This movement replaced pictorialism and focused greatly on capturing a focused and detailed image of reality and everyday life. This movement became extremely useful in print media, especially newspapers and magazines (Rosenblum, 1997). This photography evolved into photojournalism and it became one of the first mainstream uses of photography (Rosenblum, 1997). Photography had gone from a pastime for the rich and affluent members of society to a way of capturing the reality of the masses (Daval, 1982). Although this style still followed an aesthetic purpose, it was used to capture more real and raw scenes.

Figure 6: Mixed media collage (Gough, 1870).

Digital Revolution (Late 20th to 21st Century)

By the late 20th century, scientific innovation was again at the center of the photographic community. The technology had stayed the same with small adjustments occurring every few years to simplify the cameras and the process, but always staying within the mechanical and chemical boundaries of the first processes (Rosenblum, 1997). The first electronic imaging produced was around 1957, this was a digital file created after scanning conventional analog photography (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). Although this was the first image recorded in a digital format, completely digital imaging would not be possible until 1979, when computers became fully digital being able to process the nuances of the light and shade of pictures through pixels (Rosenblum, 1997). In 1975, an engineer at Kodak developed the first completely digital camera (Estrin, 2015). This device was big and complicated but became the basis for the first commercially successful digital cameras Kodak released in the late 1980s and 1990s (Estrin, 2015). Digital photography solved many problems for photographers of the time, not only because of how easy it was to capture but also how it was stored. The picture could be stored in a computer, solving the problem of negatives catching on fire or being destroyed another way (Rosenblum, 1997). Pictures could also be edited and manipulated more easily and it allowed for better resolution of the image (Rosenblum, 1997).

Digital photography became even more famous than its less technological predecessor and pushed photography towards becoming the most famous form of self-expression which catapulted into the everyday life of many. While digital pictures started with saving images onto a computer, this convenient feature quickly evolved to swallow almost every instance of the average person's life (Emerling, 2012). With the dawn of the 21st century and the introduction of cameras on mobile phones, capturing every passing moment was not an unusual behavior.

Figure 7: Digital photography (Development West Coast, 2017).

In 1992 a computer physicist by the name of Silvano de Gennaro uploaded the first photograph to the World Wide Web (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). Gennaro had taken a picture of a small music band he managed and had scanned the picture into his computer, much like the first digital image file (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). Gennaro then edited the image with the first version of Photoshop, one of the most popular programs for editing images, and added text and a colored background (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). This image was uploaded after Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web and Silvano de Gennarom, who he met at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), and suggested he post his picture to a website on the computer network (Science and Media Museum, n.d.). It was posted as a promotional image for the amateur band on a website dedicated to social events for CERN employees (Science and Media Museum, n.d.) This was not the first image on the World Wide Web, as it served as a work tool for many computer scientists and engineers, so graphs and scientific diagrams were not uncommon (The Economic Times, 2018). However, this was the first photograph to be uploaded to the web and changed the purpose of the World Wide Web from a work tool to a network with social possibilities. (The Economic Times, 2018). This image, although simple and seemingly irrelevant, was the first of many to be shared on this platform which would become a prime way of visualising and sending pictures during the coming 21st century (Science and Media Museum, n.d.).

Figure 8: The amateur band "Les Horribles Cernettes" was the subject of the first photograph uploaded to the World Wide Web (Gennaro, 1992).

After Kodak created the first digital camera, this same technology was used to make smaller and more convenient digital cameras (Estrin, 2015). Once the technology had been mastered, this same process was used to create the first cameras for phones (Estrin, 2015). Adding cameras to cellular phones cut the middleman when it came to sharing pictures, as they could be sent directly from one device to another without the need to find a computer. The proliferation of taking and sharing pictures became one of the most important developments for visual media and culture in the 21st century (Grundberg, n.d.). After 2007, when Apple released the first iPhone to the public, the most common type of phone would become the "smartphone" (Grundberg, n.d.). With these devices, the sharing of pictures became even more widespread as people could take and share a picture on the Internet within seconds and all with their personal phone or device (Grundberg, n.d.). This new technology around pictures also influenced the rise of social media, as people could continually share their pictures, either as personal anecdotes or artistic expressions (Rosenblum, 1997).

Figure 9: The iPhone (Berkeley, 2009).

Digital photography and imaging have become widespread and used in almost every aspect of human life (Grundberg, n.d.). Cameras were developed to serve different purposes than merely capturing an image, like drone cameras or satellite imaging for mapping the world (Grundberg, n.d.). In the social aspect, smartphone cameras remain the most commonly used cameras. Nevertheless, there has been a renaissance for older and more complicated photographic processes, probably as a reaction to the overwhelming presence of digital imaging in everyday life (Grundberg, n.d.). Professional photographers have embraced 19th-century photographic processes, like the daguerreotype, to create interesting images that can only be achieved by certain processes (Grundberg, n.d.). Even among non-photographers, a big nostalgic craze has taken over and has caused newer generations to prefer analog photography (Kars, 2022). To capture their social gatherings and everyday fun moments, people have gone back to instant or film cameras carried by Kodak or Polaroid, rejecting the convenience of digital photography and singlehandedly taking the companies out of bankruptcy (Kars, 2022).


Nowadays, pictures are universal, either in a physical or digital format. Although much easier and convenient ways of taking pictures were developed throughout the years, almost every photographic process is still in use as they all provide a different look and feel for a picture. Photography has infiltrated every aspect of the human experience, be it socialization, business, art, or entertainment. Many people now have the experience of posing or taking a photograph, either with a camera or a smartphone. The 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries were at the forefront of media culture, which was developed to become a central part of people's everyday lives, which is almost indistinguishable from the closed circle of experts who were the first people to take and develop photographs. Still, the technology is full of possibilities and new artistic and aesthetic applications are being developed every day. Because it has become such a widespread activity, any person with access to a camera can contribute to this development by experimenting with the equipment or the image itself.

Bibliographical References

Sougez, M.-L. (ed.) (2007). Historia general de la fotografía, Madrid, Ediciones Cátedra. Emerling, J. (2012). Photography: History and Theory. Rutledge. Daval, J.-L. (1982). Photography, History of an Art. New York: Skira/Rizzoli. Rosenblum, N. (1997). A world history of photography. New York, Abbeville Press. Eder, J. M. (1945). History of Photography. Columbia University Press.

Newhall, B. (1949). The history of photography from 1839 to the present day (Rev. and enl. ed.), Museum of Modern Art.

Science and Media Museum. (2020, July 7). A Short History of Color Photography. Science and Media Museum.,as%20’additive’%20colour%20processes. Suddath, C. (2009, June 23). A Brief History of Kodachrome. TIME.,8599,1906503,00.html

Pritchard, M. (2014). A History of Photography in 50 Cameras. Bloomsbury.

World Wide Web: Here are some early facts. The Economic Times. (2018, August 15).

Kars, I. (2022, June 4). ‘You only have one shot’: how film cameras won over a younger generation. The Guardian.

Grundberg, A. (n.d.). Into the 21st century: the digital age. Britannica.

The First Digital Photos, from Victorian Technology to the Internet. National Science and Media Museum. (2020, April 24).

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Maya Sánchez Urrutia

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page