The History of Photography

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EDWARD WESTON. Waterfront, 1946. From a Kodachrome Transparency

The History
of Photography

from 1839 to the Present Day



Distributed by Simon and Schuster, New York


whose search for truth through photography spanned half the camera’s past



For more than a century, the camera has been a vital means of communication and expression. The growth of this contribution to the visual arts is the subject of this book. It is a history of a medium, rather than a technique, and of the seeing of those who have not been content to use the camera merely as a tool.

Photography is so linked to science that technical explanations are inevitable in any discussion of the esthetics of the camera. Although technical matters are taken up in the following pages, no attempt has been made to retell the scientific development of the photographic process.

This book was begun as an illustrated catalog of the exhibition Photography 1893-1937 which I organized for the Museum of Modern Art in 1937. In 1938 the text and illustrations were reprinted, with minor revisions, as Photography: A Short Critical History. The present text, although based on this earlier research, has been entirely rewritten and a new selection of illustrations has been made. Two of the chapters first appeared in the Magazine of Art and Antiques.

I wish to extend grateful thanks to:

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, for the Fellowship grant which enabled me to spend a year of uninterrupted research, study and writing.

Nancy Newhall, my wife and colleague, for constant encouragement, stimulating suggestions, searching criticism, and for sharing with me the fruits of her research, which I have freely used in Chapters 5, 8 and 9.

Ferdinand Reyher, for helping me to sharpen my thinking and my writing.

C. E. Kenneth Mees, Vice-President in charge of research, Eastman Kodak Company, for showing me how the theory and practice of photographic processes could be more clearly and accurately described.

Harold White, for unpublished material gathered for a forthcoming biography of Fox Talbot.

Monroe Wheeler of the Museum of Modern Art, who asked me to write this book, for his patience and encouragement.

Berenice Abbott, Alden Scott Boyer, P. Baron of the Societe Frangaise de Photographic, Walter Clark and Victor Moyes of the Eastman Kodak Company, Helmut Gernsheim, J. Dudley Johnston of the Royal Photographic Society, Zelda Mackay, Daniel Masclet, A. Hyatt Mayor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henry Allen Moe of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Dorothy Norman, Louis Walton Sipley, Robert Taft, Miss M. T. Talbot, and John A. Tennant for their many favors.

Sources for all quotations are given in the appendix; for permission to make use of copyrighted material I am indebted to the authors and publishers named there. I have used passages from some of my own writing first published by Art News, Arizona Highways, Minicam Photography, and the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.

My greatest debt is to the photographers who have allowed me to reproduce their work; their names are printed with their photographs. If photography has art potentials, it is because photographers have made it so; for them I have written this book. beaumont newhall


John Hay Whitney, Chairman of the Board; Henry Allen Moe, ist Vice-Chairman; William A. M. Burden, 2nd Vice-Chairman; Sam A. Lewisohn, 3rd Vice-Chairman; Nelson A. Rockefeller, President; Philip L. Goodwin, ist Vice-President; Mrs. David M. Levy, 2nd Vice-President; Ranald H. Macdonald, Treasurer; John E. Abbott, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Stephen C. Clark, Rene d’Harnoncourt, Walt Disney, Mrs. Edsel B. Ford, A. Conger Goodyear, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, Wallace K. Harrison, James W. Husted, Mrs. Albert D. Lasker, Henry R. Luce, William S. Paley, Mrs. E. B. Parkinson, Mrs. Charles S. Payson, David Rockefeller, Beardsley Ruml, James Thrall Soby, Edward M. M. Warburg, Monroe Wheeler.


Frederic Clay Bartlett, Mrs. W. Murray Crane, Duncan Phillips, Paul J. Sachs, Mrs. John

S. Sheppard.




Use of cameras by artists since the Renaissance — Schulze's observations on the light sensitivity of silver salts —The demand for pictures met in the eighteenth century by

the silhouette, physionotrace and camera lucida — Wedgwood makes unfixed prints by light action, 1802 —Niepce takes photographic negatives, 1816 — Searches for a direct positive technique — Meets Daguerre — Becomes his partner


Daguerre perfects Niepce's technique — First success, 1837 —Names it daguerreotype—French government purchases secret — Divulged at public meeting, August

19, 1839 —Spread of daguerreotype — Technique — Portraits at eight-minute exposures — Technical advances in lens-making, sensitizing, toning — Americans excel — Landscapes — Portraits of celebrities — Brady — Southworth & Hawes — The daguerreotype becomes obsolete


Talbot makes contact prints and camera negatives with silver chloride paper, 1835 — Shows results in London, 1839, to establish priority over Daguerre — Adopts Herschel’s discovery of “hypo” as fixing bath — Perfects calotype — The Pencil of Nature (1844) — Patent litigation — Hill and Adamson — Introduction of calotype to America — To France: Blanquart-Evrard, Le Secq — The forgotten man, Bayard

Early despair at recording motion — Talbot photographs by electric spark. 1851 —

O. W. Holmes learns from photographs how man walks, 1863 — Muybridge photographs galloping horse, 1878 — Perfects technique in Philadelphia — Evidence doubted: moving pictures made —Gelatin dry plate, 1871 — Perfection: introduction of film by Eastman — Hand cameras — Martin — Black’s Picture Plays —Edison and Lumiere brothers — Hurter & Driffield investigate properties of dry plates, 1892 — Orthochromatism and panchromatism — Enlarging — Anastigmat lenses


Emerson's Naturalistic Photography, 1889 — Platinum paper — Photogravure — Controversy over Emerson’s theories —His renunciation — The Linked Ring, 1892 — Stieglitz wins his first prize — Organizes American amateurs — His hand camera work, 1893 — Edits Camera Notes — Gum printing — Photo Secession, 1902 — Camera Work

— Steichen — “291” — International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography, Buffalo, 1910 —Growing dissatisfaction with photographs which resemble paintings

Miniature camera system predicted, 1840 —Piazzi Smyth's 1865 trials — Hand cameras dictate new conception of cropping — Powerful lenses open new fields: “candid” photography — Salomon — The Leica — Wolff — Cartier-Bresson — Levitt — The Rol-leiflex — Electric flashbulbs — Barbara Morgan — High speed electronic flash


Coburn’s abstractions, 1917 — Photograms, 1921—Man Ray — Solarization, other control devices — Validity of abstract photography — Moholy-Nagy exploits distortions — Scientific photography displays esthetic by-products


Daguerreotypes transformed to printing plates — Talbot’s photogravure process — Woodburytype — These processes not suited to newspaper and magazine work — Photographs reproduced by wood engravers until introduction of halftone process in 1880 — Growth of news photography — Famous spot news pictures — The photo-essay: Paul Nadar's “photo-interview,” 1886 — Magazines relying on photography for illustrations: Illustrated American (1890), Life (1936) —The “mind guided camera” — War coverage — Fashion — Portrait

14. IN COLOR 241

Niepce and Daguerre dream of fixing colors —Hill’s putative color process — Lipp-mann’s interference process — Theory of color separation demonstrated by Clerk Maxwell, 1861 — The additive processes: Ives’s Kromskop, 1892; Joly’s screen plate, 1893; The Lumieres’ Autochrome, 1903 —The subtractive processes: Ducos du Hau-ron, 1869 —Color prints: carbro, dye transfer — Monopack transparencies and negatives — Esthetics of color photography — Conclusion


Camera pictures have been made ever since the Renaissance. Artists turned to mathematics and optics for assistance in solving perspective problems, and they found the phenomenon of the camera obscura (literally “dark room”) a mechanical aid of the greatest value. Leonardo da Vinci described the principle: light entering a minute hole in the wall of a darkened room forms on the opposite wall an inverted image of whatever lies outside. The first published account — Leonardo’s description lay hidden in his private notes — appeared in Giovanni Battista della Porta’s book, Natural Magic, of 1553. In 1568 Danielo Barbara showed that a more brilliant image could be produced by substituting a lens for the pinhole:

Close all the shutters and doors until no light enters the camera except through the lens, and opposite hold a sheet of paper, which you move forward and backward until the scene appears in the sharpest detail. There on the paper you will see the whole view as it really is, with its distances, its colors and shadow and motion, the clouds, the water twinkling, the birds flying. By holding the paper steady you can trace the whole perspective with a pen, shade it and delicately color it from nature.

The camera, at first actually a room big enough for a man to enter, gradually grew smaller. The windows of sedan chairs were covered and the camera could be taken into the countryside. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a lens was fitted into one end of a two-foot box, and the other end covered with a sheet, of frosted or ground glass. The image cast on the ground glass by the lens could be seen outside of the camera. A perfected model, resembling the modern reflex camera, had the ground glass flush with the top of the box, the image being thrown upon it by a mirror placed at an angle of 450. It had the advantage that the image was not upside down, and the artist could trace it by laying thin paper over the glass. Cameras became standard equipment for artists. Count Francesco Algarotti, in his Essay on Painting (1764) devotes a chapter to the camera: “The best modern painters among the Italians have availed themselves greatly of this contrivance: nor is it possible they should have otherwise represented things so much to life.”

But the ancients had already observed that light not only forms images,

but changes the nature of many substances. The chlorophyll of vegetation becomes green on exposure to it; colored fabrics fade. Among the substances radically altered by light are the salts of silver: the combining element is liberated, leaving pure metallic silver which, because unpolished, is dark in tone. The light sensitivity of these salts was first scientifically established by the German physicist Johann Heinrich Schulze in 1727.

He filled a glass bottle with a mixture of chalk, silver, and nitric acid which, after he had thoroughly shaken it, combined to form whitish silver salts. When he put the bottle in bright sunlight, the mixture turned to a deep purple color. As exposure to the heat of a fire produced no such change, Schulze deduced that the reaction had been caused by the sun’s light rather than by its heat. To prove his deduction, he pasted stencils of opaque paper on the flask. After exposure to light the stencil was removed, and images of the figures or writing which had been cut out of the paper were clearly visible on the surface of the mixture within the flask, traced by the dark color of metallic silver.

All unconsciously, Schulze had indicated a way to trap the elusive image of the camera. What we know as photography is but the combined application of optical and chemical phenomena long known to man.

The incentive to work out a practical technique was stimulated by the unprecedented demand for pictures from the rising middle class of the late eighteenth century. Reproductions in quantity were in order: lithography was invented and wood engraving revived, so that pictures could be almost endlessly duplicated. The middle class wanted cheap portraits; mechanical devices to eliminate the need for lengthy artistic training were put in its hands, so that every man could become something of an artist. The silhouette required merely the ability to trace a cast shadow; the physionotrace, invented by Gilles Louis Chretien in 1786, asked no more of the beginner, with the advantage that a miniature engraved copper plate was produced, from which duplicates could be printed. The sitter’s profile was traced on a sheet of glass with a stylus connected by levers to an engraving tool which recorded in reduced scale its every movement on a copper plate. The instrument was immensely popular; six hundred physionotrace portraits were exhibited at the 1797 Paris Salon alone.

Still another mechanical substitute for artistic skill was the camera lucida, invented by the Englishman William Hyde Wollaston in 1806. Drawing paper was laid flat. Over it a glass prism was suspended at eye level by a brass rod. Looking through the prism the operator saw at the same time both the subject and the drawing paper; his pencil was guided by the virtual image. The

An artist using a camera obscura. From an engraving by C. Hoschel, 1769

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camera lucida, which resembled the camera only in name and function, could easily be carried about and was widely used by travelers. With it Basil Hall documented his American travels; in the preface to Forty Etchings Made with the Camera Lucida in North America in 1827 and 1828 (Edinburgh, 1829) he praised the instrument which freed the amateur “from the triple misery of Perspective, Proportion and Form,” and concluded that although Wollaston, its inventor, had not discovered the “Royal Road to Drawing,” he had "at least succeeded in Macadamising the way already known.”

But to many amateurs “Macadamising” was not enough. Even the camera lucida demanded a modicum of skill in drawing.

In all history the experimental amateur has not been the one to accept either his shortcomings or the difficulties which block the professional. The fever for reality was running high. The physical aid of camera obscura and camera lucida had drawn men so near to an exact copying of nature and the satisfaction of the current craving for reality that they could not abide the intrusion of the pencil of man to close the gap. Only the pencil of nature would do. The same idea burned in many at once, and the race for discovery was on: to make light itself fix the image in the camera without having to draw it by hand.