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History of Photography

I wrote this piece for the 2008 National Photography Exhibit at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art in California. It is not a research article; it is not notated, but to the best of my knowledge it is factual. I have borrowed generously from online sources, and infused with many personal opinions.

The Slightly Abridged History of Photography

Keven A. Seaver

The Past

The history of photography is a tale of science, artists’ needs, optics, chemistry, and technology. First mentioned in the fourth century by a Chinese philosopher, the camera obscura or pinhole camera, was the secret tool of choice for artists like DaVinci (15C), Vermeer (17C), Canaletto (18C) and others for over four centuries. The enclosed device allowed a detailed image to be projected to assist in painting.

Artists, scientists, and astronomers experimented, developed and designed tools until finally, in the 1800s, the image output was made permanent (chemistry) and the camera took on glass optics. From here, it became a continuing search for easy and accurate ways to record the world and document events like the Civil War, city scenes, and family portraits.

In 1839, Sir John Herschel, an English mathematician, astronomer, chemist and inventor, coined the word “photography” based on Greek words phos (light) and graphis (drawing). We can also thank Herschel for applying the terms positive and negative to the photographic process. Photography became more popular when Niépce and Daguerre in Paris, and Herschel and Talbot in England discovered ways to make photographic plates permanent and reproducible.

George Eastman introduced flexible, paper-based photographic film in 1884, and then in 1888 birthed the box camera (cost: $25) with the tagline “You press the button, we do the rest!” It was Kodak’s first patent and the world’s introduction to mass-market photography. Kodak revolutionized photography – chemistry, film, paper, and camera – in a single two-year period. But it wasn’t until 1900 when the first cardboard Brownie came on the market at $1.00, that cameras become affordable for most.

Leitz introduced the first high quality 35mm camera (Leica) in 1924; Fuji and Kodak dominated film manufacturing in the mid 1930s; and Exacta was the first 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera to come to market in 1936.

The Past Future: Digital

So let’s leave film technology behind and move into the digital realm. The first charge-coupled devices (CCD) were invented in 1969 and incorporated into the world’s first solid-state video camera. Twelve years later (1981), Sony produced the first electronic camera prototype (the Mavica) using two CCD chips. While not a true digital camera, it is credited with starting the digital camera revolution. In 1986, Kodak scientists invented the first megapixel sensor that was capable of producing a 5 x 7 digital photo quality print. Fully immersed in digital, Kodak then developed the Photo CD system in 1990 with the new JPEG file format and “proposed the first worldwide standard for defining color in the digital environment of computer and computer peripherals.” Pretty fast thinking on Kodak’s part.

Personal computers had only been available a decade; Adobe hadn’t yet introduced PhotoShop (this came in 1990 to the Apple Macintosh), and the first digital single lens reflex (DSLR) was still a year away from the market. That first camera, of course from two early key players, was a Kodak-branded DCS 100 using a modified Nikon F3 with a 1.3 megapixel sensor.

Nikon didn’t offer their first pro camera for another nine years – the venerable DSLR Nikon D1 in 1999. And then it had a whopping 2.74 megapixel sensor and was priced for the professional market at $6000. This was the century’s first professional digital camera (remember it was 1999) and it was just a decade ago!

The consumer market took hold a bit faster: Apple brought the QuickTake 100 to market in 1994, Casio created the QV-11 with LCD monitor in 1995, and Sony introduced their first CyberShot in 1996. With the introduction of Kodak’s DCS 40 in 1995, Kinko’s and Microsoft collaborated with Kodak to create digital imaging stations and kiosks to produce PhotoCD discs and photographs; IBM joined forces with Kodak to create an internet-based image exchange. Kodak clearly viewed the digital market as its future!

In 2003, Canon broke the price barrier with its Digital Rebel DSLR series at less than $1000. In 2004, Kodak ended its film camera production; in 2006 both Canon and Nikon stopped film camera production. The three top players closed the chapter on analog cameras. At the same time, the high end DSLRs increased 39% (to 5.27 million cameras) in sales. Hello digital!

To put the rapid acceptance of digital imaging into perspective, think about these numbers: 50 billion photos taken in 2007; 6.9 billion digital prints ordered in 2006; 67% of American households owned a digital camera in 2006; cameraphones climbed to one billion in 2007 (up from three million in 2005). In 2009, 105.9 million cameras were sold with projections of a 3.8% increase for 2010. Compare that to 2007, 82 million digital cameras and 29.8 million in 2006, and 11% of Americans have more than 10,000 digital images. Researchers figure it will be awhile before the market is saturated.

The Present Future

We are now fully in the digital world. We mostly use point and shoot cameras (with lots of modes and options) – with 5 – 10 mb resolution (and increasing – read on), enough to create poster size prints with ease – to capture the ordinary and the extraordinary. And thanks to cell phones, most of us carry a camera everyday. And it’s not unusual to find that most people consider themselves photographers!

We use cameras – whether analog or digital – to create the same types of images as a century ago. They are used in all industries from science to journalism to capture everyday moments, document historical milestones, and create unique masterpieces.

Film is still alive (although pro digital cameras and some software can mimic certain types of film) and used by many professionals and amateurs. It offers a tangible object – a negative or slide that can’t be lost to a crashed computer hard drive. With the rapid thrust into the world of silicone, it’s anyone’s guess how much longer film will be used, or even available.

For most in 2010, the camera and its output depend primarily on the technology du jour – a robust computer with hefty hard drives, high resolution media cards, speedy internet connection and online photo services, photo quality printer, archival media and, most importantly of course, the eye of the artist.

The Future

It’s anyone’s guess really. But an interesting fact remains constant, in a sense going back to the past. The best way to store photos for generations is by print – on high quality paper, with high quality inks and stored in an album with archival pages. Storage by any other means is conditional: CD/DVDs are unstable, hard drives crash, servers fail, and web sites go out of business. So what’s old is new again.

According to the 2009 PMA US Consumers Buying Report, 73% of US households own a digital camera. And in 2008 only 48% still had film cameras in addition to their digital one.

Camera resolution, the quality of the image produced, continues to grow at a hefty rate. In September 2009, 87% of the digital cameras sold had over 10 megapixels of resolution. Yet the year prior, only 30% had over 10 megapixels and 22% had less than 8 megapixels. In fact, most can photograph their lives with about 4 megapixels and be quite happy. Look at smartphones – all between 1-3 megapixels. And I have occasionally used mine to produce fine art photographs! So the marketing hype, for more and faster and better, is alive and well. Professional cameras have hit the range of resolutions in mid 20s and the image quality is off the charts. But again, the average shooter will rarely enlarge a digital file beyond 11 x 14, so it’s overkill and at a price.

For the prosumer camera market, DSLRs are expected to ship 9.9 million units in 2010 and that’s just from 3.8 million DSLRS in 2005. This is really the present only. Technology as we know it today, will change tomorrow. But photography, and tool – the camera – is not disappearing. It’s just moving to newer gear – ipads, computers, TV monitors, high definition video, 3D, etc. Early adopters must explore the new delivery systems, like the smartphones, to create images for new markets.

Photography continues to excite, intrigue, and challenge both creator and viewer. What’s in your future?

©2010 Keven Ann Seaver The Slightly Abridged History of Photography

Copyright © Keven Ann Seaver. All Rights Reserved.