The Photograph from Bitumen to Bytes


When we last left our intrepid hero, he was off on a wild tangent about the demise of the hard copy photograph at the hands of digital philistines. Well, while I’m hanging around here, let’s talk about the many ways of the photograph. First a little history.

It has been known since ancient times that passing light through a tiny hole will form an image. This fact lead to the development of the “camera obscura” which has been described as early as the 10th century. It started out as a darkened room with a hole in one wall. Eventually lenses were added and the size was reduced to a large wooden box.

Still the image was fleeting and required an artist to trace the image with a pencil in order to make it permanent. This was a situation just begging for someone to invent a way to capture the image on some sort of light sensitive material.

The first generally acknowledged true “photograph” was made in 1826 by Niepce using a substance called bitumen of Judea; a kind of asphalt which hardens when exposed to light. The unexposed parts can be dissolved away to reveal the image. The exposure took eight hours. Niepce called his creation a heliograph (sun drawing). You can see it here.
Next came the Daguerreotype, named for the inventor, Louis Daguerre. A Daguerrotype is made coating a copper plate with silver. The silver is exposed to iodine vapor to sensitise it, it is exposed, and the image revealed by exposing the plate to mercury vapors. Despite the nasty poisonous chemicals involved, Daguerrotypes became quite popular due to their sharp detail.

At nearly the same time William Talbot announced his process, called a Calotype. The nice feature here is that a calotype was created on paper instead of metal and was a sort of “negative” that could be reproduced where as a Daguerrotype was a one off process. The calotype’s disadvantage was that the image was less sharp due to the course paper fibers and the look was more like a charcoal drawing. This is considered an artistic advantage by modern calotypists, but at the time was not so hot.

Next up, the wet collodion process. This is what we see in movies set in the old west. A huge camera, the photographer under a black cloth, and maybe a minion standing by with a big stick with flash powder on it. The images were recorded on glass plates coated with collodion (nitrocellulose dissolved in ether or alcohol). The results were sharp AND reproducible AND exposures could be as short as five seconds. Woo Hoo! Too bad the plates had to be used while still wet so the photographer had to drag an entire chemistry lab around at all times. Not good.

In the 1880’s the big step toward modern photography was made. George Eastman perfected the process of coating a roll of paper with a gelatin emulsion of silver salts. The gelatin was peeled off the paper after exposure to create negatives. The roll “film” allowed for small lightweight easy to use cameras. Everyone started taking pictures. Eventually the paper roll evolved into the cellulose film that we know today.

Many people are familiar with the basic wet process photograph. You take a shot with your camera on a roll of film, the film is run through some chemicals to produce a negative, the negative is put into an enlarger that projects the image onto photo sensitive paper, and the paper is run through some more chemicals – viola! a photograph.
This is the basic process, but there are more ways than you can shake a stick at to create a photograph. Besides daguerrotypes and collodions and calotypes and silver gelatins there are carbon prints, albumen prints, gum bichromate prints, platinums and palladiums, cibachromes, polaroids, and dye transfers just to name a few. I even found a person that prints images directly on plant leaves – grow your own photo paper!

Check out this link for some cool alternative and classic photography techniques – Alternative Photography

Well, this post is getting kind of long so I think I’ll quit for today. Next time I want to check into some ways to take traditional processes and meld them with digital ones to produce photographs. There is more to digital than just inkjet printing.



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9 Responses to “The Photograph from Bitumen to Bytes”

  1. flandrumhill Says:

    Your post is a good reminder of all that had to be accomplished for us to get to this place in history where we can so easily take and share photographs.

    Not long ago I came across the fact that the spore dust from ground pine was used in the first photocopiers. It seems more like the stuff of fairies than scientists. Despite your excellent explanations, taking photographs still seems like magic to me.

  2. flandrumhill Says:

    … and the way you are able to capture water and waterfall images only reinforces that magic and mystery.

  3. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    An interesting exploration of the history of photography. I just wish that most of those alternative photographic processes were not so darn complicated! But then, that’s part of what makes the end product deserving of our attention, I suppose…


    • forestrat Says:

      Since the advent of easy to use roll films and especially now with digital, photography battles with dual traits of being amazingly easy to record a scene yet amazingly difficult to create a photograph that can embody the scene and also transcend it.


  4. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Hi Forestrat,
    This twenty-five-words-or-less history of the photograph is much appreciated. It’s about the clearest I’ve read so far. I hadn’t been aware of the Daguerre process although I’ve held a few of them in my hands before. I dealt in antiques for a short period in my eclectic life and every once in a while another antique dealer would have one or a private seller might be offering one up.
    What makes them even more precious, I think, is that the frames for them are usually ornate and jewel-like.

    • forestrat Says:

      This post is certainly a whirlwind overview of photo history. Hopefully I can flesh things out a little with subsequent posts. There really is a lot more to producing a photograph than most people realize. I love learning about all the techniques and processes and wish I had the time and money to try them all.


  5. Anonymous Says:

    Echt ein spitze Blog, werde sicherlich noch das ein oder andere mal hier reinschauen! Deine Posts sind auch echt spitze! Lieben Gruss

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