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History of Cinema and Photography 101: The Science of Recording Light


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:

1. History of film and photography 101: The Science of Recording Light

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

The Science of Recording Light

A photography is defined as a “method of recording the image of an object through the action of light, or related radiation, on a light-sensitive material” (Britannica, n.d.). The term comes from the Greek language and can be translated as “writing with light” (Daval, 1982). Light is what makes everything visible to the human eye by bouncing off and reflecting on objects; because of this, the photographic technique became a way to imprint an image of reality onto a surface through capturing the shadows and reflections of an object, a process which revolutionized the world both scientifically and artistically, serving as a new way of recording and sharing graphic information in an incredibly detailed way.

Before photography, the only way to capture an image from reality into a printed format or support was for someone to create a drawing or painting. Although scientific perspective became incredibly important for artists in the Rennaissance and an effort was made to correctly reproduce the human vision of the world, this process caused an idealization of reality through choices the artist made, either due to personal preferences or based on mathematical and geometric principles (Daval, 1982). Photography solved the problem of perception and allowed for a perfectly naturalistic representation of reality at an exact moment in time. The only choice the artist had to make, then, was to decide in what direction to point the lens. Photographic technology and techniques have changed and evolved in many ways since the 19th century, when it was first invented. Nevertheless, the basic principle remains the same: the capturing of light into a physical support.

Figure 1: People have been trying to capture nature with the most accuracy possible for many years (Daguerre, n.d.)

Before the Photographic Process

Since before the 19th century, there had been some technological advances and experiments which could be considered as precursors to photography. During the late 19th century, Austrian chemist Josef Maria Eder dedicated most of his life to study and record the chemistry behind photographic technology, pointing out the various scientific advances that contributed to the creation of the modern photographic industry. In 1932, he wrote and published one of the first books about photography, The History of Photography, in which he thoroughly examines humanity's experiences and experiments with light. The History of Photography begins with the ancient greeks and their ideas about the interaction between light and vision. Later, after the 4th century, alchemists would investigate and conduct experiments with various elements and substances to determine the way these were affected by sunlight. Alchemy was a thought current and pseudo-science which tried to find ways to transform other metals into gold. Although the main purpose of alchemy was never achieved, the many years of experimentation led to some scientific discoveries which would later be used for other developments. The interaction of sunlight with different substances, mainly gold, was one on of the main preoccupations for alchemists, and many discoveries about photosensitivity are linked to alchemy experiments (Eder, 1945).

In the 15th century, printing art was invented and many printing techniques were developed in order to achieve different types of prints and illustrations. Copper-plate engravings were particularly popular and one of the first techniques to use a negative copy of an image in order to produce the positive print. In the 16th and 17th century, further experimentation focused on the printing of leaves on paper with various chemicals and using sunlight to develop the images. These prints advanced the processes later used for photography, as people achieved to print objects with the most precision possible (Eder, 1945).

Figure 2: Copper plate printing created a negative engraving on a plate to print a positive image. (Morison, n.d.)

Perhaps the most recognized predecessor of the photographic camera is the camera obscura (Eder, 1945). This apparatus dates back to the 16th century and it consisted of a dark room with a small hole which let light in and made it possible to project an inverted image of the outside world onto the opposite wall (Daval, 1982). The camera obscura was also made in smaller sizes and later a mirror was introduced to project the image right side up onto a screen (Daval, 1982). It was used to project scenes, images and objects, and sometimes used to trace images directly onto a paper or canvas. The pinhole and mirror mechanism of the camera obscura became the prototype for the photographic camera, which only needed the introduction of photosensitive substances and a support material to produce a print and permanently capture the projection.

The Birth of Photograpy

The first photographic process was developed in France in the year 1839. Named after its inventor, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, the daguerreotype produced a monochromatic, reverse image on a metal plate as support, which could be either silver or copper. This technique did not produce a negative and the image was developed directly onto the support. Daguerre had joined inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce years earlier and had managed to learn from his work with metal plates and heliogravure before he passed away. The perfected process for the daguerreotype became famous instantly, and the French government purchased its rights thanks to many politicians who had started pushing the central government to invest in the sciences. For the next couple of years, the French government pushed for the daguerreotype to be known and used throughout the country, making it affordable to get information about the process thanks to instruction manuals and journals that Daguerre had published. Despite the heavy and expensive equipment needed and the fact that the image could not be reproduced in a number of prints, the photographic technique rapidly spread throughout France and other European countries, with even some people experimenting with the technique and trying to come up with unique picture-making processes (Rosenblum, 1997).

Figure 3: Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre patented the first photographic process. (Sabatier-blot, 1844)

A month after Daguerre had published his technique to make photographs, Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot made known his own discoveries about photo development. The image capturing mechanism was the same as the daguerreotype, as they both used the camera obscura as a jumping off point. Talbot’s process, called calotype or talbotype, had the same long exposure time as the daguerreotype but produced a blurrier image, as it made a paper negative and later transferred it into another support which was made photosensitive with a silver substance. Although the calotype did not seem to create images as detailed as the daguerreotype, this method’s main advantage was that it produced a negative which could later be printed into a support brushed with a photosensitive substance for the final image, which made it an easier and cheaper technique than the daguerreotype. The calotype worked pretty much like current film cameras, by producing a negative which which would later be used to produce a positive image by contact printing (Eder, 1945). While Daguerre had all the support of the French government, Talbot had to experiment on his own to better his method and finally patented the calotype in 1841 when he managed to shorten the exposure time to around 30 seconds. With this improvement, the calotype replaced the daguerreotype in popularity and became the more widely used process, while the daguerreotype remained as a more high-quality option (Rosenblum, 1997).

Chemistry and New Techniques

The two first photographic processes to be patented had one thing in common: they both used silver and its photosensitivity to develop an image. Daguerre used iodide silver to coat the metal plate which would serve as the support of the picture and, thusly, the material would capture the lights and shadows onto the plate, which would later be fixed and made permanent with a mercury solution (Eder, 1945). Just the same, Talbot used silver salts to make photosensitive paper to print the negatives. The reactivity of this element when exposed to light had been discovered and experimented with since the 16th century and Daguerre and Niepce had been trying to manipulate it years before they managed to find the correct method to print images (Eder, 1945). Silver became the main ingredient in photographic experimentation for the first decades since the invention of photography.

Figure 4: Silver was used in the earliest photographic processes, such as the metal plates of the daguerreotype. (Abbot Fund, 1840-60)

After daguerreotype, calotype and many other processes of developing negatives began to pop up due to widespread experimentation and innovation from other scientists. The wet collodion process replaced the daguerreotype in 1851 as the most detailed and high quality technique, as it had a shorter exposure time which allowed to capture moving objects (Rosenblum, 1997). This process used a glass support, and the photosensitive substance applied to the glass plate remained wet during the development to reduce the exposure time. Nevertheless, the process proved too expensive and complicated, so it had a short-lived period of popularity. Other paper backed prints garnered more fame, such as the albumen print, which used a solution made with egg white to treat the paper (Rosenblum, 1997). During the same short period, more printing and developing techniques became available, such as the ambrotype in 1854 and the tintype in 1856 (Rosenblum, 1997). The newer techniques used the collodion solution developed in 1851 to make simpler and more affordable pictures by discarding the silver solutions used before. This way, the chemistry of the process began adapting not only to make a better product, but also a more affordable one which could be used by many.

Scientists and Photographers

The roles of scientist and photographer were deeply entangled during the first decades of photographic experimentation. Both Daguerre and Talbot began working on their patented processes because of a personal and artistic interest in capturing natural light and reflections. These two inventors were also the first photographers, as they continually tested their product by taking pictures and printing images. With the publication of their work and the arrival of other photographic processes and techniques, photography became more accessible and new people began to develop pictures. Thus, photography appeared as a new trade for both artistic and commercial purposes.

Figure 5: The first prints from calotype negative were made by Talbot to test his technique. (Fox Talbot, 1844).

Perhaps the first commercial photographic print was the carte de visite. This card was a small image, taken with eight exposures made with a camera with multiple lenses, mounted on a slightly larger card (Rosenblum, 1997). The process was patented by Andre Adolphe Disderi in 1854 and became extremely popular in the subsequent decades. While previous photographers were interested in different subjects, the carte de visite was a format exclusively for portrait, and quickly replaced miniature painting and other traditional portraiture techniques as the most popular way to purchase personal portraits due to its affordability and practicality (Sougez, 2007). People began exchanging, gifting, and collecting cartes de visite as a way to socialize amongst the high classes (Rosenblum, 1997). After the 1850s, the popularity of photography grew incredibly and many photographic studios began popping up throughout Europe to satisfy the demand of the bourgeoise class (Sougez, 2007).

Travel Photography and the First Photographic Studios

Travelers where one of the first to make use of photography studios, building traveling darkrooms where they could develop the pictures which they took to document their travels (Rosenblum, 1997). Travel photography was a form of documentary photography which focused on nature, landscapes, and famous destinations to capture the beauty of nature in the most detailed way possible. Not only did they manage to capture a wide range of images, but they also took the first photographic techniques, such as the daguerreotype, to other regions where people did not have access to it yet. The traveling darkrooms were needed to haul around all of the heavy materials and chemicals and because daguerreotypes did not produce a negative for print, so the image was developed directly onto the plate support during the time of exposure of the picture.

Figure 6: Travel photographers were the first to attempt to create a compact and portable way to take and develop photos. (Unknown, 1938)

After the mid 19th century is when big photography studios began opening in mayor cities across Europe. The photography studio became a place where the bourgeoisie could socialize and enjoy the experience of taking picture portraits. One of the first and most famous photographers of this time was Gaspard Felix Tournachon, known as Nadar, who opened a photography studio in Paris 1860. Nadar’s studio became the center of the photography scene in Paris and he became well known amongst the high social classes. The studio was filled with art pieces and props for his clients to pose with, creating stylized portraits which, in a way, imitated Baroque paintings (Rosenblum, 1997).


The early history of photography is marked as a period of testing and research. Humanity's conviction to capture reality ultimately led to the creation of photography and the further development of this new technology. Photography's journey from the lab to being an everyday occurrence was a long one, where many different processes and techniques had to be invented, improved and also discarded. For being such a revolutionary format, photography was adopted into the popular culture fairly quickly. This has caused for the discussion around photography having to center both the scientific progress of the process and the evolution of the social aspect of photography. This way, the picture replaced the painting and became the main pictorial format. This new process became linked to modernity and would define the coming centuries' artistic movements.

Academic sources

Sougez, M.-L. (ed.) (2007). Historia general de la fotografía, Madrid, Ediciones Cátedra.

Emerling, J. (2013). 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.

Visual sources

1 Comment

Wonder Story
Wonder Story
2 days ago

Wow, what an insightful journey through the captivating history of photography and cinema! Delving into the historical trajectory of photography and cinema not only offers a glimpse into technological advancements but also provides a deeper understanding of human history. Additionally, just take a look at Newborn photography in Barcelona. It adds a beautiful modern touch to this rich historical narrative, illustrating how photography continues to evolve and find new avenues of artistic expression.

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Maya Sánchez Urrutia

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