The History of Photography Through the Eyes of My Professor


I was presenting a ‘Phoneography’ workshop last week. This is a workshop where you use your SmartPhone as a camera to learn ‘Photography’.

One of my students was a 68 year old man who gave a recount of how he used to go to the shop with his Kodak 35mm camera and buy a roll of film. He would have to go home and spool it on to the camera. He told us of how he shut the back of the camera, and had to click it to spool the film forward. Sometimes, when he got his film processed, he would end up with about 8 photographs of his boots as he had clicked too many times!

The story he told us got me thinking as to how much photography had changed. I’m not that old, but I remember more than a decade ago being excited because my brother-in-law gave me a 3 mega pixel camera for my birthday! I felt like a real photographer, then.

I decided to visit an old college professor to learn some more first hand. He was a photographer before I was even thought of, and knew everything there was to know about photography.

He told me that although the actual idea of the pinhole camera was said to be around since the 5th Century B.C., it wasn’t until the 1800’s that there was the development of chemical photography and the first permanent photograph was produced in 1826. The Professor made me laugh when he said that he always thought the French inventor (Niepce) of that passed away because he was experimenting with too many hazardous chemicals. But he was serious! Once I learnt of all the silver compounds they were experimenting with, I began to wonder too.
He also told me how pictures took a minimum of 8 hours to expose. Imagine that! What we expose now in less than a second could take almost a whole day! There was no opportunity for the choice of manual or automatic exposure that we have now. They must have been excited when they got the exposure time down to half an hour in 1839.

The first commercial photograph was a Daguerre camera back in 1839. It was huge and heavy. Not like the lightweight cameras we can sling around our necks these days. At the mention of the daguerreotypes, the Professor showed me pictures of the California Gold Rush and explained that most of these were taken with the Daguerre camera.

Then came the negatives! Although the Daguerreotype process was unique in that it only produced one exclusive picture, people wanted copies. The Calotype negative meant you could produce prints on paper from a camera exposure.

Imagine what people back then would think of our photos that got shared around by millions through the internet!

The Professor spoke of the exciting 1800’s where The Collodion process was invented (this process used smooth glass to produce sharp prints which were better than paper negatives), and the birth of motion pictures came to be. This is also the century when Kodak came on the scene.
Kodak changed everything. George Eastman offered the first camera (which he called the Kodak) for sale in 1888. It was a simple box camera with a fixed focus lens and single shutter speed. Great for photographers.
The Professor explained that the Kodak Film was pre-loaded into the Kodak camera and you could take around 100 exposures before sending it off for processing and reloading.

The Brownie was born in 1900 and introduced the ‘snapshot’ concept. I wondered to myself if this is the term that evolved into our ‘Snapchat.’ The Brownie was great because everyone could afford to buy one and it remained on sale until the 1960’s.

In 1909, the 35mm motion picture film was born. This was really exciting and it also meant that the highly flammable nitrate base was able to be replaced by an acetate base.

Throughout the 20th Century, the Professor told me about the many changes that took place including color photographs, instant color films (the Polaroid), the Kodak disk camera and of course the Pentax Spotmatic SLR.

As we entered into the year 2000, cameras became smaller, lighter and more versatile. The first available mobile phone with a camera was introduced and in 2006 a 111 megapixel CCD sensor was produced, making it the highest resolution at that time.
Then the Professor looked sad. He told me that this century was also the time when Polaroid discontinued its production of all instant film products. I got sad too, as I remembered as children, we would take a photo and eagerly wait around for it to ‘dry’ wonder at the magic of it as the photo appeared.

Now we use iPhones, iPods, underwater cameras, smart-watches and tablets to take instant photos. There are photo exhibitions which are produced solely with the iPhone. We have fancy DSLR’s that will do whatever we want them to do. If we don’t like a photo, we can delete it and begin again. Technology has given us the opportunity to be better photographers than we have ever been.

I had to go to a wedding shoot straight after talking to the Professor. As I took out my camera and manually adjusted my settings on my favorite DSLR, I waited for the right light to envelope the Bride and Groom when they kissed.

I looked across to the wedding guests who were ready with their iPhones. They too, captured the moment, and I watched as someone uploaded it to Facebook in an instant. I smiled and remembered the good old days that the Professor had talked about, and realised that it was these days of instant technology that I loved even better.