The Invention of Photography: Readiness


Part One: Technological Advances

It was a photographer who best summed up the circumstances surrounding the invention of photography. Gisèle Freund (1908-2000) wrote in Photography and Society (1980) that although all the ingredients of photography were already available, the society itself had to be “ready” before the invention could be completed–put together as it were. Oddly enough photography has three well-known “inventor,” all of whom made photographic images of some kind around the same time, in the late 1820s and 1840s. And it is thought that there were even more experiments, some successful and some not, that never made it into the history books. There are two elements of “readiness,” which include the slow technological buildup from the invention of the camera obscure to the final solution to the problem of how to “fix” or retain a photographic image, and the sociological desire and need for photographs themselves. The cultural “readiness” for photography was built slowly over hundreds of years, starting in the Renaissance.


Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The Allegory of Good Government (1337–39)

Sala della Pace in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

Photography, which means “writing with light,” was the final outcome of centuries of attempts to replicate observed reality and this desire to represent the real was a Western preoccupation, not present in the Asia or Africa. The roots of the desire for the real can be traced back to the Renaissance and the twin inventions of perspective. The reasons for the shifts from Medieval mysticism and spirituality to a preoccupation with rendering volumetric reality in the Renaissance period are well known and need no recounting here. However, the increased concern with living in the secular were linked to empirical and material changes in real life in Italy, such as an increase in trade which became international and the rise of urban life where business needs began to gradually trump the spiritual life. For painting and sculpture the revival of interest in Classical knowledge, literature and the rediscovery of the beauty of the art of ancient Rome led to a desire to replicate volume or three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. Before one could give the impression of volume, however, the artist had to create a believable space for the objects to inhabit.

For the invention of photography, it is the need to recreate receding space that led to a step crucial step to photography. The Italian architect Filippo di Ser Brunelleschi (1377-1446) is usually credited with the invention of perspective, which was a diagram, a device and a mathematical theory. Over time, with the considerable input of Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472), who wrote about the relationship or the application of perspective to painting, perspective evolved into a very elaborate intellectual system, but, from the standpoint of photography, it was the invention of the camera obscura, or “dark(ened) room,” that was significant. The camera obscura was a large scale version of a small scale pinhole camera, a box with a small hole on one side through which light passed. The history of the pin hole dates back to Aristotle or perhaps earlier. There are mentions of the use of such a device to study light from China and the Near East well before the common era. The box became an actual room–camera–during the Renaissance and the pinhole was enlarged and became an aperture through which light streamed, bouncing an upside down image of the exterior on the opposite wall. If you have seen and stood inside these “rooms.” you realize quickly that the reflection is not static but moving, the wind pushes the trees and the clouds as cars drive by.

However, the room itself is simply too large to be of much use for the image itself is blurred, as if over enlarged. At the time of the Renaissance, a second interior room with transparent walls was constructed. Once s/he entered the room from a trapdoor below, the artist could draw on the transparent wall. For the Renaissance artists and those who came after, a precise image on a picture-sized scale could be obtained from a smaller version, called the “optical” the camera obscura. This camera, an actual wooden box, with lenses over the aperture, used a mirror to flip the image to make it easier for the artist to trace the exterior scene. Although it is obvious that such a device would be helpful for an artist, the cameras were used mainly to study vision and light during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Wolfgang Lefèvre wrote in “The Optical Obscura I. A Short Exposition,”

This new optical camera was primarily a gadget for creating spectacular entertainment. But it was also used for surveying and mapping, for astronomical observation and possibly even for painting. Beyond this, it was an important part of an optical revolution triggered by optical devices such as crystalline spheres, lenses and mirrors, which had become fashionable items of entertainment in the late 16th century. Indeed, in terms of its impact on 17th century society, it was as significant as the telescope and microscope, which appeared at around this time. The optical camera obscure sits alongside these more prominent scientific instruments, ushering in a new approach to optics, opening up new views of the visible world and shaping a new understanding of vision itself.

Lefèvre noted that although contemporary accounts of these portable camera obscures exist, none of these “makeshift” boxes survived. Due to the use of different experimental lenses, the camera evolved, even becoming an elongated camera worn on the head and supported by the shoulders. Designed by Robert Hook, according to Norma Wenczel, the artist could draw while standing inside this cone-shaped object. Wenczel’s article, “The Optical Camera Obscura II. Images and Texts,”one of the best on the early use of the camera obscure for studying optics and astronomy, noted the use of the camera by artists,

The camera was employed for painting and drawing from the 17th to the 19th centuries. We have documentary evidence that Canaletto and Guardi made use of it. But this practice was not confined to the Venetian vedutisti. Crespi, Claude-Joseph Vernet, Loutherbourg and many lesser known painters resorted to this aid as well.

For a long time, it was considered something of a scandal for an artist to use any mechanical help in drawing or painting. But that said, there is some question as to when this scandal existed. Given that so many artists seemed to have used the camera obscure, why was it, as David Hockney, put it, Secret Knowledge. Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001) that his “knowledge” was “secret?” The answer, as art historian James Elkins suggested in his “Essay” on this book, that the mere idea that artists used mechanical aids pitted science and scientific evidence against the mysticism of “art” and the artist’s hand. Another answer that could be put forward that artists have always used many technical devices from the maul stick to compass and there seemed little point in discussing their customary practices. In point of fact, the most extensive use for the camera obscures and its small descendent, the camera lucida, was scientific not artistic. Although the camera lucida was used as a small and portable drawing aid, its principle use was for the microscope, allowing the scientist to draw what s/he saw through the lens.


Artist with camera lucida

What the (controversial) use of the camera obscura in artistic circles indicates that the need to replicate nature was present; the desire to copy the real world existed; and the drive for accuracy continued for centuries, as the continuous shrinking of the devices for greater convenient attests. However, as becomes immediately clear, to be copied, the images had to be hand drawn. It seems clear that the artists who used the camera obscura employed the device as a starting point rather than an end in itself. One of the issues that art historians had about Hockney’s revelations was that artists did not reproduce nature but reinterpreted what they saw. There is a difference between how a camera “sees” and what an artist “makes.” In other words, the use of an aid to drawing is very different from wanting to copy nature. This is the distinction between an artist using a camera obscura to view a vista and a scientist using a camera lucida on a microscope. But a middle ground existed between an artist such as Vermeer who used a camera obscura as a scene-setting device and an artist who was commissioned to closely copy an actual object for a client who wanted, for example, her country house to be precisely replicated. For those artists, the discovery of silver salts presented promise.

In the eighteenth century, science was practiced by scientists and amateurs, who within and without the profession, greatly advanced knowledge. In 1720 Johann Heinrich Schulze (1686-1744) discovered that light darkened silver salts. Working with silver nitrate, Schulze placed stencils of texts on jars filled with chalk and silver nitrate and noted,

The sun’s rays, where they hit the glass through the cut-out parts of the paper, wrote each word or sentence on the chalk precipitate so exactly and distinctly that many who were curious about the experiment but ignorant of its nature took occasion to attribute the thing to some sort of trick.

Later in the 1770s the Swiss chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786), working with silver chloride (lune cornée or horn silver), found that it too darkened in the light and, importantly, found out that the progressive darkening could be stopped (fixed) with ammonia. Elsewhere in Switzerland, Jean Senebier (1742-1809) experimented with various lenses and learned that, depending on the lens used, the extent of the darkening could be speeded up or slowed down. The stage was set for the next step–the encounter between the box and the silver salts, a marriage that would take place early in still another nation, England, in the service of china: plates, cups, and serving dishes.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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