Photography in the short span of its first 164 years has become the most common form of image making. As 'the' means of visual communication, it is indispensable. As an art form, it offers opportunities, which differ greatly from painting and other picture-making techniques that rely on manual and visual skills.
The camera itself is no more able to produce pictures, which can be ranked as art than any other tool. But in the hands of an artist who has mastered its esthetic capabilities, powerful and imaginative works of art have been produced in such number, and with such consistency, that the question "is photography an art?" can be answered affirmatively.
THE EARLY YEARS
The world at large first learned how to make photographs in 1839. In that year two basic processes were made public: the Daguerreotype and the Calotype, Both came into being to satisfy the needs for a way to make pictures easily, quickly and accurately, without artistic training and skill. Many short cuts had already made every man something of an artist. One of these was the camera obscura (literally, ‘dark room").
Some of these early "cameras" were actually rooms in which one wall contained a lens. Danielo Earbaro, an Italian living in 1568, tells us to hold a piece of white paper about a foot away from the lens. "There on the paper," he says, "you will see the whole view as it really is, with its distances, its colon 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."
It was awkward to transport such big cameras, and by 1800 a more portable camera was in general use. Constructed like a box with a lens at one end and a translucent screen of ground glass at the other which caught the image so it could be seen from the outside, they were almost identical to view cameras in use today. Their purpose was the same: to form an image, which could be recorded. Photography is nothing more than a record of the camera image made by chemical means with an accuracy and speed beyond the skill of any human hand.
Tom Wedgwood (1711-1805)
The first attempt to capture the image off the camera chemically was made by Tom Wedgwood, son of the famous English potter. "White paper, or white leather," he said in 1802, "moistened with solution of nitrate of silver, undergoes no change when kept in a dark place; but on being exposed to the daylight, it speedily changes color, and after passing through different shades of gray and brown, becomes at length nearly black. When the shadow of any figure is thrown upon the prepared surface, the part concealed by it remains white and the other parts speedily become dark...."
Thus if he put a flat object, such as a coin, key, or leaf, on the surface of his treated paper and left the paper in the sun until it turned black, he would have a white silhouette of the object on a dark ground. But as he looked at the finished pictures, or "profiles" as he called them, the white silhouettes began to darken until they disappeared, and the paper became uniformly dark.
"No attempts that have been made to prevent the uncolored part of the copy or profile from being acted upon by the light have as yet been successful," he noted. He tried to use the paper to record the image formed by the camera, but they were "found too faint to produce, in any moderate time, an effect upon the nitrate of silver." This basic experiment remained and forgotten in the pages of the learned Journal of the Royal Institution.
In the heart of France, in the little town of Chalon-sur-Sa6ne near Dijon, an amateur inventor by the name of Nicephore Niepce was unknowingly repeating the work of Wedgwood. By 1816 he made a picture with a camera, but was not satisfied. "This is but an imperfect trial," he wrote his brother. "The background of the picture is black, and the objects white, that is, lighter than the background."
While Niepce was perfecting his technique, he heard about similar experiments made by Louis Jacques Daguerre in Paris. He got in touch with Daguerre and eventually became his partner.