The history of photography Civil War Photographs Brady and Gardner
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The Beginning & Camera Obscura

The history of photography is vast and fascinating. It didn’t develop like other art forms and comparatively, photography is in its’ infancy. Looking at where our craft came from is a great way to find new appreciation and inspiration for your work in the future. While not a complete history of photography, this weekly column aims to introduce Photofocus readers to some of the aspects of this often overlooked part of learning photography and inspire them to think about their work in new and different ways.

The Beginning & Camera Obscura

The physical invention of what we know the modern day camera to be, came centuries after the first ideas of photography were recorded. People, particularly artists, have always had the proclivity to wanting to enhance memories or preserve likenesses by capturing a moment in time that they can come back to again and again. Over time, the desire to make the process of image making faster and more efficient gave rise to photography.

The earliest mention in the West as it relates to photography dates back to around 330 B.C.E. and comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. While looking at trees, he noticed a crescent shaped image of the sun projected on the ground through a tiny opening between leaves.

The earliest mention in the East as it relates to photography dates to the 5th century B.C. E. and comes from the Chinese philosopher Mo Ti. He noticed that the light reflected off an illuminated subject and passing through a pinhole into a darkened area would, in turn, make an inverted image of that subject. He had no way of making this image permanent, but nonetheless and unbeknownst to him, this observation had revealed a permanent tenant of photography; light enters a lens (in his case, the pinhole), the rays of light bend while passing through the lens, and the inverted image lands on a surface in a darkened chamber (in today’s world, landing on an electronic sensor).

Around the 10th century C.E. the notation that images (like the one Mo Ti described) became sharper and more clear when the pinhole they were projected through became smaller was noted by Arabian mathematician Alhazen. This concept later reveals another permanent tenant of photography; that of the aperture. Smaller apertures such as f22 reveal much more crisp images with a long depth of field, whereas larger apertures such as f1.8 reveal soft, creamy images with very short depths of field.

Flash forward around 500 years to Leonardo Da Vinci. In 1490, he gave us the first definition of a device called the Camera Obscura, in Latin meaning “dark chamber.” Da Vinci defines the camera obscura as a device designed to reproduce linear perspective. Think of the camera obscura as a giant sized, stripped down modern camera and you’ll get a good idea of what this device was. Artists, image makers, and scientists would enter a large darkened room. There was a small hole on one side of the room through which light would pass and fall, inverted, onto the opposite wall. That wall would have paper affixed to it, and the person inside the camera obscura would trace it.

Circa 1544, Reinerius Gemma-Frisius. The first illustration of a camera obscura. Here, illustrated capturing a solar eclipse.

In the 1550’s a man by the name of Girolamo Cardano suggested adding a convex lens on both sides (or biconvex lens) to the opening of the camera obscura to enhance image brightness and sharpness. A few years later in 1568, Daniele Barbara suggested a diaphragm (think aperture) into the middle of this lens to control just how much light was coming in and out. This diaphragm gave rise to more use of depth of field within illustrations.
It took until 1589 for Giovanni Battista della Porta to think of adding a mirror inside the chamber to invert the image back to right side up again. Della Porta also gave rise to the idea of projecting moving scenes of plays into the camera obscura for viewers inside the chamber to watch, an idea not much different from today’s modern day movie theater.

In the early 1600’s, Johannes Kepler had built a more compact version of the camera obscura. Rather than a fixed building that was entered, the artist could enter a small tent that could be easily packed and transported to different settings.

Illustration from circa 1646 by Athanasius Kircher of a large, portable camera obscura.

After a few decades by the mid-1600’s, this portable camera obscura had been modified down even smaller, to a version where the artist no longer even had to enter the camera but could view the image that was projected by remaining outside because it was projected onto a translucent window. At this point, we’re getting even closer to what we think of as a “camera.”

An illustration by Robert Hooke circa 1694 of a portable, tabletop camera obscura

Gradually the designs improved, and as more people were discovering how to make higher quality lenses (sharper, less aberrations) and how focal length played a roll in how large the image would appear, the camera obscura had become a finely tuned machine. By the end of the 18th century, the camera obscura had helped define the image standards of Renaissance drawings and paintings.

Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.

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