The 150th Anniversary of Photography

A brief history of photography

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1839 was an extraordinary year . . . it is forever a testament to the ingenuity of independent thinkers and to the miracle of simultaneity of invention! In 1839, Louis Daguerre presented his invention of the daguerreotype, the forerunner of the photograph. But he was not alone in his discovery! In Latent Image—The Discovery of Photography, Beaumont Newhall recounts the interaction between Louis Daguerre in Paris, William Henry Fox Talbot in London, and other pioneers and experimenters as far away as Brazil, each of whom had discovered important techniques for producing permanent images by the action of light—and each of whom, in 1839, challenged or confirmed Daguerre's discovery. Mr Newhall:

"Photography has no single inventor. At the same time—and distantly removed from one another—experimenters were working on the same problem unaware of each other's work until, in January of 1839, an announcement was made in Paris by the Academie de Sciences of the success of one of them, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. What had been underground now came to the surface as other experimenters challenged Daguerre and claimed priority. The mutual reaction between these pioneers, each learning from one another, each striving to out do the other, produced at last a universal technique."

Daguerre's revolutionary process, while it is now nearly extinct in practice, completely changed the world. His method of fixing an image on a metal plate was the first commonly used photographic process, and since no duplication process existed, each daguerreotype was an original, hence a true Collector’s item. But by 1860 the daguerreotype was essentially obsolete, supplanted by the more practical wet-plate, negative-positive process that remains the basis of photographic technique. To William Henry Fox Talbot, English scientist, mathematician, botanist and classical scholar, goes credit for discovering the "negative-positive" principle, which is the process used in modern photography.

As Beaumont Newhall reminds us in his master work The History of Photography, universal progress is being made in the acceptance of photography as a valid and needed art form:

More and more people are turning to photography as a medium of expression as well as of communication. While it is too soon to define the characteristics of the photographic style of today, one common denominator, rooted in tradition, seems in the ascendancy: the direct use of the camera for what it can do best, and that is the revelation, interpretation, and discovery of the world of man and nature. The present challenge to the photographer is to express inner significance through outward form.

1839 at a glance

The United States population was approximately 16.5 million.

The population of Santa Fe was 5759; Taos was 3606; Albuquerque was 2547. The Pueblo population in New Mexico was approximately 10,000.

The first photographic equipment in the United States was brought from Paris by Samuel Morse, painter and inventor. Morse had learned the process from Louis Daguerre, and he made the first daguerreotype portraits in America.

Martin Van Buren was the 8th President of the United States.

Voices of the Night, the first collection of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was published.

Dueling in the District of Columbia was prohibited by an act of Congress.

Charles Goodyear made possible the commercial use of rubber by his discovery of the process of "vulcanization."

Paul Cezanne, French painter, was born.

The first bicycle was constructed by Scottish inventor K. Macmillan.

Abner Doubleday laid out the first baseball field and conducted the first baseball game.

George Cadbury, English chocolate maker and social reformer, was born.

California, the first book in English about the territory, was written by Englishman Alexander Forbes who suggested cutting a canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

Suggested Reading

Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982.

Newhall, Beaumont. Latent Image—The Discovery of Photography. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 3

Related Pages

Alternative Process Photography article
Collecting Photography of the Southwest article
E.S. Curtis: The Shadow Catcher article

Glossary of Photography Terms article
New Mexico — Photographers' Eden article
Photography in New Mexico article
Platinum Photography article

Collector’s Resources


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