A History of Photo Processes: Part 1

Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, a prized daguerreotype from the Getty exhibition.


In early January, dodging high winds and an El Niño cloudburst, several dozen AFI Cinematography Fellows met with their program director, cinematographer Stephen Lighthill, and me in the “In Focus” gallery of the Getty Museum hilltop campus in Westwood. For some years I have conducted frequent museum “walkthroughs” with AFI Fellows, sometimes of painting or sculpture exhibitions, but more often of photography. Most of these have featured expansive artist monographs, such as the one I did last year on the idiosyncratic Czech artist Josef Koudelka, or the reality-based but highly stylized images of Ray Metzker, or Irving Penn’s early portrait catalog, Small Trades.

All these exhibitions were hung in large main galleries. This time I had decided to focus on a small exhibition of what might, at first glance, seem to be a topic of marginal interest to the students: the daguerreotype, the earliest of the 19th-century photographic processes, and one that presents special challenges for exhibition viewing.

In the back of my mind danced the thought that today, when making photographs has become effortless (even mindless) thanks to smart phones, a closely focused look at the origins of photography and the arduous work required to create an image like the daguerreotype might not only reflect the sheer alchemy of the art, but also inspire an appreciation of how meaningful each photograph was at that time — especially the memento mori of deceased family, particularly children.

A post-mortem portrait of a child from the Getty Museum collection.
A post-mortem portrait of a child from the Getty Museum collection.

I am also keenly aware that many contemporary photographers, well versed in digital image-manipulation techniques, are expressing renewed interest (beyond mere curiosity and nostalgia) for photographic processes that have been moribund for over a century. One of the most fascinating of these young artists is Ian Ruhter, who laboriously creates wet-collodion plates of up to 48” x 60”, allowing the intentionally imperfect, edge-poured wet collodion to become part of the image, a record of the medium embedded on the photographic plate.

Photo by Ian Ruhter.
Monument Valley by Ian Ruhter.

Ruhter has made contemporary human portraits as well as cityscapes, but he is best known for traveling and shooting the same sites in Yosemite National Park that Carleton Watkins photographed during and after the Civil War.

New York-based photographer Alexey Titarenko, who hails from St. Petersburg, creates highly individual prints of far-flung urban scenes in St. Petersburg, Venice, Havana and New York. He eloquently describes the absolute imperatives of photochemical printing and toning in his new monograph, The City Is a NovelIn his introduction, Titarenko compares the highly focused technique of photographic printing to the detailed imagistic metaphors devised by novelists.

Ruhter and Titarenko are just two of the many contemporary photographers embracing old photographic processes, a movement that seems to be adding adherents as we descend ever deeper into digital photography.

Before entering the darkened Getty gallery with the AFI Fellows to view the daguerreotypes, I explained that these small, highly reflective images are unique in that they are not prints or copies; the photo is the actual plate that was prepared with chemicals, placed into the camera for the lengthy exposure, developed, fixed, and finally set into hand-wrought frames for viewing. I needn’t have worried that the students’ interest might be transient or confined to the unusual subject matter the images depicted. They were, in a word, mesmerized by the clarity and immediacy of the images; a whole new world was opened via the magic carpet of a centuries-old technique. To my surprise, several of them noted they were already avid students of 19th-century photo processes; for them, the limits of digital image making had lost its luster when compared to the intimate and very physical work of photochemical printing.


Several days later, I happened on a YouTube post of the George Eastman House 12-episode history of image and print making, beginning with proto-photographic techniques used centuries before Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot created their very different processes. I will look at all 12 episodes in this and my next two posts.

In Part 1, Mark Osterman, Jessica Johnston and Alison Nordström examine a few familiar proto-photography pioneers, such as Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy; they also discuss early devices like the Pantographe and Physionotrace, which, along with the more familiar Camera Obscura, facilitated hand-drawn portrtaits of real people.


Part 2 introduces Nicéphore Niépce, the man who first “fixed” an image on a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen (asphalt). This photograph, a view from the window of his studio in rural France, was the subject of a post I published in May 2011:

The actual Niépce pewter plate resides in Austin, Texas, at the Harry Ransom Center, where it can be viewed by appointment.

Niépce was a sickly man; he died several years after he entered into a partnership with Louis Daguerre, an erstwhile painter and dioramist. More than a dozen years after Niépce made his landmark image, Daguerre demonstrated his silver-iodide, polished copperplate, mercury-fumed process, quickly making it broadly available by selling the rights to the French state (though not to the English). Alison Nordström of the Eastman House calls daguerreotypes “mirrors with a memory,” noting that the image, once fixed with hypo, retains amazingly high resolution even by today’s standards. Its permanency is validated by Jessica Johnston’s examination of the vault of the Eastman House basement where more than 3,500 daguerreotypes are stored. Todd Gustavson, curator of technology at the Eastman House, offers further testimony to the medium’s longevity, noting that one can drive to an antique store barely 15 minutes from the Eastman House and readily find 175-year-old daguerreotypes for sale.


Part 3 examines a photographic technique invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, a contemporary of Daguerre who was a man of leisure and a member of the House of Lords. Daguerre was an urban man; he lived in Paris where he had a commercial diorama business. Talbot resided in his country estate, Lacock Abbey, where he felt no pressure to be a public figure. Talbot’s very different negative/positive process may actually have preceded Daguerre’s by some months, but Talbot felt little inclination to “publish” until Daguerre received attention with his process. Lisa Hostetler of the Eastman House gives a side-by-side comparison of daguerreotypes and Talbot’s calotypes, comparing the sharper-edged Daguerre process to a kind of scientific record and Talbot’s softer, paper-negative process and salt prints to “poetic artistry.” The debate over whether photography was a scientific technique or an entirely new art form obsessed critics for the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th. In the late 1970s, museums ended debate by collecting and exhibiting photographs in galleries that previously had excluded them, placing them cheek-by-jowl with paintings and sculptures. Photography’s status as “art” was further confirmed when auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s recorded sales that matched the prices fetched by other fine arts. Money always rules.

The rivalry between Daguerre and Talbot is the subject of a well-researched page-turner by Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport titled Capturing the Light.


In Part 4, Mark Osterman examines the 1842 invention of the cyanotype by the great English polymath Sir John Herschel. He notes that the astronomer came up with the process while helping Talbot use “hypo” to fix his paper negatives. Osterman says that Herschel was “the man who could have invented photography if he’d bothered to.” Clearly, he didn’t bother to, as he did not make photographs himself; he seems to have created the process merely as a way to copy his scientific notes. One of cyanotype’s features is that the prints can be made from any negative; it is a non-silver process that enables its sun-exposed, lightly printed latent image to be developed in plain water. This made it easy to employ “in the field” when the photographer did not have ready access to a tricked-out darkroom. Photo-topographer Henri Bosse made hundred of cyanotypes of railroad crossings and bridges over the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the 1880s and 1890s. The process was also used by the great documentarian of “Vanishing Americans,” Edward Curtis. His cyanotypes, often hurriedly made in the field as checks for focus and exposure, have a delicate, near ethereal beauty that is very different from his formal platinum- and gold-tone portraits of Native Americans.

A cyanotype by Curtis.
A cyanotype by Edward Curtis.

One of the first women photographers, Anna Atkins, a friend of Herschel, used the cyanotype process to record botanical specimens, especially delicate ferns.

Photo by Anna Atkins.
A cyanotype by Anna Atkins.

Atkins published the very first book of photographs in 1843, beating Talbot’s portraits of Lacock Abbey in The Pencil of Nature by a year.

In my next post, I will look at the very demanding but beautiful wet-collodion process, albumen and pigment processes, and the idiosyncratic Woodburytype.


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