A Not Really Brief History of the World of Photography
Taking Pictures from Past to Present
The first mention in history of the camera obscura. Chinese philosopher Mo-tzu was ahead of his time, noting that an inverted image of an object would be created if light from said illuminated object were to pass through a pinhole into a dark room. Turns out the guy was right. Used throughout history from that point on, its original purpose was as a drawing aid to trace the image shown in the dark room. And we can all agree that tracing is easier than freehand.
Thomas Wedgwood and his buddy Humphry Davy invented, sort of by accident, the photogram. The images were the first actually documented attempts at permanent imagery, though the attempt failed. Gotta start somewhere. A photogram is kind of like a photograph but not quite. Partially because there’s no camera involved, but instead an image is created by placing an object on light-sensitive paper and exposing it, leaving a negative shadow of the object. Hence the reason the technique is also referred to as cameraless photography. Seems to make sense.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre figure out how to make photographs permament with the heliography process (literally meaning sun writing, it was an upgrade to the camera obscura using asphalt and lavendar oil—sunlight hardens the image in the asphalt onto metal sheets but dissolves where the oil was placed), followed by the daguerrotype (a similar process but with silver, and a little more science, somehow actually making things simpler). If you’re interested and find yourself in The Lone Star State, you can go see the first ever photograph—View from the Window at Le Gras, courtesy of these French gents, at The University of Texas at Austin.
The first selfie is taken. You likely expected this to come later down the timeline, but Robert Cornelius beat us to it. More along the self-timer type selfie than the front-camera quick snap, but a selfie nonetheless. The difference was the exposure time was around 15 minutes, so he had to stand pretty damn still. He actually holds the Guinness World Record for the first selfie. A true honor.
“Mirrors with memories” was the less morbid way to put it, but they are also referred to as death portraits. Common in the Victorian Era when diseasees spread throughout Europe, people posed their deceased children and relatives to be photographed, sometimes even posing with them. This may seem really fucking creepy, but at the time it was a gesture of love. Luckily this trend ended when photography became more accessible to use while people were still living and medical facilities found their footing. Thankfully.
Another rather smart individual by the name of William Henry Fox Talbot came up with the calotype process, resulting in the first translucent negative images. This allowed for multiple positive prints to be created from the negative, speeding up the photography process. Turns out this guy was also ahead of his time, considering today’s chemical film cameras still use this technology.
Roger Fenton helps to popularize photography as a new way of recording events by photographing the Crimean War. This encouraged others across the globe to do the same. Photographs of London, Rome, the Vatican, Egypt and more began circulating and, naturally, blew a lot of folks’ minds.
Eadweard Muybridge settles a bet between California businessmen after publishing images he took of a galloping horse, viewed in rapid succession. The motion pictures showed that all four hooves are, in fact, off of the ground during the horse’s fastest gait. And there you have the first use of photography for a moving picture. If you’re interested in the history of film, we suggest The Movie Issue of Whalebone Magazine.
Good ole George Eastman invented film. A genius. Made carrying your camera equipment a whole lot more convenient and significantly lighter. Turns out he was also a marketing guru and understood the laziness of the American consumer when he released the Kodak camera four years later with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”
Louis Boutan captures the first underwater photograph and portrait in France. He then decided that simply wasn’t good enough and developed an underwater flash. Maybe not as convenient as the GoPro, but we’ll get there.
The Kodak Brownie came to the scene and *shutter click* photography was available to the masses. This is the first point-and-shoot camera.
Margaret Bourke-White paves the way for female photographers, when one of her pictures gets on the cover of the very first issue of LIFE magazine. On top of that she was America’s first female war journalist and the first photographer from the west granted permission to photograph Stalin’s Soviet Union. At the same time, George Eastman does it again, but this time in color. Kodachrome is released, introducing color photos to the world of photography.
American scientists capture the first image of Earth from space. Then somehow they managed to whip together the Hubble Space Telescope a couple of decades later. Also, if you ever want to be amazed, NASA publishes an astronomy picture of the day. Every day. Highly recommend.
The Polaroid camera changes the game with instant photo development shortly after taking a picture. Goodbye darkroom, hello VSCO girls.
The Xerox 914 photocopying machine is invented by Chester Carlson. Flash foward 20ish years and you’ll find the first official photocopied ass picture. A classic prank. But poor Ms. Jodi Stutz was fired shortly after she pressed the copy button. She got away with it for a while, but too good not to share, she sent it around the office and well … HR knows the rest.
The first Fotomat kiosk opens in California and takes off. A few years later those golden-roofed huts could be found all over the United States. Fotomat processed and printed pictures overnight. Not quite a one-hour photo, but this is where the idea came from. Tru Foto successfully shoved the process into 60 minutes and the rest is history. And also a Robin Williams movie. Yes—the people working behind the photo counter do, in fact, see your pictures.
Steven Sasson invents the first digital camera. An engineer for Eastman Kodak, he built his protoype from Motorola parts and a movie camera lens. There were also some batteries in there and some other photographic-electric voodoo happening within the little box that made it work.
Ruby Washington is hired as a lab technician at The New York Times. Promoted shortly after, she became the first African-American female staff photographer for the publication. A few years later, Marilynn K. Yee joined the team, becoming the first Asian-American female staff photographer for The Times. The two worked together for 37 years until 2014, opening many doors for other women in the photography industry.
Drones. Modern-day drones start to make their way into the photography world, used mainly by the military. Now you see dads on vacations everywhere remote-controlling little buzzing machines around the sky at the resort. Yet somehow they still can’t operate Dropbox.
Photoshop is released. Created by the Knoll brothers for grayscale images, it was sold to Adobe, and you can see the editing software’s impact and advancements by simply looking at this magazine.
The Game Boy Camera is released by Nintendo in Japan. Note that this is the first front-facing camera, which you could connect to your Game Boy to take pictures and if you were really your parents’ favorite child, they may have also bought you the Game Boy Printer to print out the images. A year later, it was awarded the Guinness World Record of smallest digital camera.
The day the world changed. The first camera phone becomes commercially available. A time in history when Samsung was more popular than the iPhone. Sorry, Steve.
Facebook made its first appearance and changed the game for digital photo sharing. Albums upon albums of all the weird pictures you and your friends took on point-and-shoot cameras at your slumber parties. That and pictures of pets. Still holds true today, except the average age of the regular user has increased significantly.
The Internet got better with the launch of Awkward Family Photos. A celebration of some really strange family portraits that usually make you think something along the lines of “…And I thought my family was weird,” as you look at images of someone’s cousin posing with a ventriloquist doll or a family from the Midwest laying on top of one another in ascending seniority order.
Apple releases its first iPhone with the front facing camera—the iPhone 4. Feel old yet? Insert here all of the old apps that would make cool effects on your face before Snapchat filters existed. Is CamWow still a thing? A year later Snapchat was released. Your new profile picture is you with the dog ears filter? How original.
Instagram dominates the social media scene as the first photo-only platform. What used to be innocent images of your adventure of the day quickly turned into a money-making mecca for content creators and people who post things like “phone eats first” after taking a picture of their breakfast.
Carol Guzy wins her fourth Pulitzer Prize, the first ever journalist to do so. Photographing tragedies, she took home this award for her photojournalism of the earthquake in Haiti. She won her three other awards in 1986, 1995 and 2000.
Dana Scruggs knocks down doors as the first Black female photographer to capture an athlete for The Body Issue of ESPN and the first Black person in the past 50 years to photograph the cover of Rolling Stone. Meanwhile, Tyler Mitchell takes the title for the first person of color to shoot the cover of Vogue in its 125 year existence. His first subject was none other than Beyoncé. Starting off strong.
Alfie Bowen proves people wrong and opens doors for individuals with autism, as one of the selected judges for the 2021 Environmental Photographer of the Year competition. Because of his perseverance and passion for photography as a way to express himself, he found himself as a finalist for Autism Hero’s Young Person of the Year award as he works to raise awareness for autism and for wildlife. The list is endless. This guy is awesome and so are his photos.
Whalebone Magazine celebrates amateur and professional photographers from all over the world with the 3rd Annual Whalebone Photo Contest, showcasing the winning images and finalists in this very magazine.