Photography and Film


View from the Artist’s Window at Gras, 1826-27, By Joseph Nicéphore Niépce [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photography, or “light drawing,” was a goal of artists and thinkers from the time of Aristotle. The camera obscura had been used by artists at least since the Renaissance, although its history goes back further. Inventors during the Industrial Revolution had determined that paper coated in silver nitrates and other chemicals and placed on the camera obscura could produce an image. However, the problem was “fixing” the image, or stopping the developing. It wasn’t until Niépce’s experiments in 1826-27 successfully produced an image that photography was truly invented, although the first patent was given to Niépce’s partner Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839 for his daguerreotype process. In 1841, William Henry Fox Talbot patented his calotype process in England.


View of the Boulevard du Temple, 1838, Louis Daguerre [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Where Niépce had an 8 hour exposure time in 1826-27 for his heliograph, Daguerre had gotten the exposure time down to about 15 minutes for his image of the busy Boulevard du Temple in 1838. But, because of the fixed focal length of the lens and the long exposure time, only the man in the bottom corner who stopped to get his shoes shined is visible in the image. Daguerreotypes were also positive images, which means that the images are always one of a kind, and are exposed and developed directly on the same plate.


Ancient Door, Magdalen College, Oxford, c. 1843, Henry Fox Talbot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Talbot’s process was the calotype, which produces paper negatives. This was the basis for early film, and was the first process that lent itself to reproducible photographic images. It was this process that led to the wet-plate negative processes of the mid-19th century, and in turn to George Eastman Kodak’s Brownie cameras of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


The Steerage, 1907, By Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 – 1946) – photographer (American) Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By the early 20th century, artists were claiming photograph as art. It had been thought of as science throughout much of the 19th century, even through the techniques for manipulation were available from early on in the process. Artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edgar Degas used photography in place of sketching in their studios, but did not necessarily see it as a replacement for painting. It was the Pictorialists of the late 19th and early 20th century that began to advocate for change. Alfred Stieglitz, who began as a Pictorialist, came up with the idea for “straight photography,” where there was no manipulation of the image in the darkroom. This would lead the way to photography as “Art,” but also to Ansel Adams and the rest of the f/64 group, and the creation of the Zone SystemColor film was not used very much for Fine Art photography until the 1970s, when more stable types of color films were invented. By the 1990s, photographers were creating cibachrome and digital prints, and Photoshop, Instagram, and other photo manipulation and sharing platforms have made photography more accessible to more people.


The Horse in Motion, 1878, Eadweard Muybridge [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Film, or motion pictures, would not be possible without photography. By the end of the 19th century, photographers like Muybridge were experimenting with ways to bring motion to the early photographs using devices like his zoopraxiscope. This led to other devices, and eventually to the motion picture camera, and early films. These early films were silent, the technology for capturing sound at the same time as motion would not exist until the 1920s, and Al Jolson’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer was the first talkie, so the first film to incorporate sound and motion. In the history of these early films, we can also track the history of racism in the US, through D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) through The Jazz Singer and to the first color film, Gone with the Wind (1939). Griffith, though, was the first to really take advantage of new ways to compose a shot in different locations, using tracking shots, close-ups, and other means to tell his stories. Early filmmakers also experimented with editing films to create more interesting and dramatic stories. As film making technology improved throughout the 20th century, directors also began to experiment with special effects, which would lead to the CGI of early 21st century films.These advances, especially in animation were also foreshadowed by some of the early experiments with animation, including Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McKay (1914) and Walt Disney’s early works.

Artists have also long exploited the possibilities of film for their purposes, beginning with Dalí and Buñel’s Un Chien Andalou, through Andy Warhol’s Sleep and Empire, and up to the Cremaster Series of Matthew Barney. Nam June Paik realized the potential of video art in the 1960s, and created a number of pioneering works in that genre, which has been furthered by the work of artists such as Bill Viola and Tony Oursler. Contemporary artists like Shirin Neshat and Ai Weiwei are realizing the power of film to make powerful artistic and political statements about themselves, their cultures, and their work.


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