Today, where was photography headed in 1854? The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The 1854 Cyclopaedia of Useful
Arts has a long article on photography.
That was less than a decade after Daguerre worked the kinks out of
his process and gave us the first practical
photography. Now here are thirteen two-column pages
on this new technology.
Not all of this was new. The ancients built an aid
to artists called a camera obscura. A hole
in one wall of a dark room casts a sharp image,
upside down, on the opposite wall. That's how our
cameras work, but we have some kind of
light-responsive material (like film) on the far
wall to capture the image. Sixteenth-century
inventors equipped their camera obscuras with
lenses that sharpened the pictures.
till the 1830s could we take pictures -- that is,
take them away from the camera without first
tracing them out. When this article was written,
you still couldn't go to the store to buy film or
even a complete camera. Here's a vast user's manual
for assembling a camera and preparing plates
that'll carry pictures away.
It reminds me of articles on computers before
software appeared, twenty years ago. Integrated
circuits were then no older than these embryonic
cameras. In the late 1970s we had to write our own
programs, just as we had to make our own "film" in
So this article gives us a chemistry tutorial. It
tells of nitrate of potash, iodide of potassium,
collodion, hyposulphite of soda, albumen, and
pyrogallic acid. But beneath all that process
chemistry rises another question:
"What will photography be in our lives?" Is it to be a fine
art or a useful art?
The Crystal Palace
Exhibition had just laid out the tapestry of
mid-19th-century art and technology, and it'd
presented photography as art. The article looks for
greater emphasis on natural history -- images of
dissected plants and animals. Wouldn't a more
scientific view of the new art have produced color
photography? Color was feasible in principle; why
hadn't it been invented yet?
A quotation in the article says,
"Photography holds a place at present intermediate between an art and a science."
It could go either way. Of course,
captured images are now so pervasive that the issue
loses all meaning. Every corner of art, technology,
science, and entertainment teems with captured
By century's end, the Impressionists reacted to the
literal eye of the camera by trying to capture the
impression beyond the image. One typical
commentator spoke of the supposed sterility of
cameras when he compared a live speech with
"the colourless photography of a printed record." Art
and technology seemed to be on a collision course,
but they were actually fusing into a single
enterprise. It finally took artists like Alfred
Stieglitz to show how far from simple reporting the
camera lens would go. Perhaps the greatest surprise
in the evolution of the camera is exactly how far
from literal truth it has eventually taken us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds