Image credit: Probal Rashid
On 19 August 1839, the French government officially announced the invention of the Daguerreotype. While this was not the first iteration of photographic technology, it is hard to understate the momentous nature of this day in history. The accessibility and uptake of the new medium revolutionised how we see and think about the world around us – since the first-time humankind looked through a lens, the world has never looked quite the same.
As you might know, Louis Daguerre was the inventor and namesake of the Daguerreotype process, building on knowledge accumulated by the likes of the Ancient Greeks, Leonardo da Vinci and technological advancements made by Charles Marie Bouton and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.
Louis Daguerre, painting of Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh; daguerreotype of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Daguerre was a painter and a photographer, and in both mediums, you can witness his ambition for achieving bold chiaroscuro. Compare his 1824 painting of the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh, to his similarly composed daguerreotype of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris. The cityscape filled with architectural lines and curving streets offered new opportunities for chiaroscuro dramatically heightened by the latest technology’s ability to capture the impression of natural shadow and light.
It makes sense that the first generation of photo artists wouldn’t reinvent the wheel. But there is avant-garde energy to these early images. The roughness and imperfections of these earliest photographs have a strange, uncanny beauty. To modern eyes, these images capture a half-alien world, similar yet different from ours.
Recognising the potential of this amazing invention, the French king Louis-Philippe I bought the patent for the Daguerreotype off Daguerre and released it ‘free to the world’.
If you have seen or read Les Mis, you’ll recognise Louis-Philippe as the figure the revolutionaries were fighting for – lauded for caring for the people and wanting to see society progress. Sure, he would be kicked out of office ten years later in favour of the Second French Republic, but he did manage to change the world (just perhaps not in the way he intended).
(Left) Oil painting of Louis-Philippe I, King of the French, from 1830 (artist unknown). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Right) Daguerreotype of Louis-Philippe I, King of the French, 1840s. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
It’s hard not to think that people must have been a bit disappointed with the rich and powerful – from only visualising these figures through heroic portraiture to seeing the reality in photography. Compare this oil painting of the king himself to a photograph of the same man taken just a few years later. How would perceptions have changed? Were they disappointed? Or did the Daguerreotype’s sheer novelty or exciting innovation overshadow this? Either way, seeing this major technological shift plainly in the portraits of the same man shows how fast and exciting this shift must have been.
While some glorified the technology’s ability to capture reality, others criticised it for not living up to other standards of picture-making (painting and drawing). A close relationship that has both helped and haunted photography throughout its lifespan.
Back then, many were disappointed by the Daguerreotype’s inability to record colours. Another unavoidable restriction was that they were limited to still subjects, the slightest movements blurring over the extended exposure time.
But perhaps the artistic potential was most threatening about the new medium. It was seen by many as a creative shortcut. You didn’t need to train in drawing or sculpting or learn classical form and techniques like linear perspective. While we now know how much technique goes into taking a picture – the lack of the ‘artist’s hand’ in the final product was seen as a threat to classical high art traditions.
Some still find the notion that anyone can pick up a camera and take a picture a scary proposition. However, I would argue that it is/was less a fear of not having to work hard than the frightening idea that art could be for and by anyone – not just the bourgeois.
Photography effectively democratised all representative mediums – it was no longer about who had the pedigree to make a picture but who had the guts to take a picture.
(Left) Lewis Hine, Adolescent Girl, a Spinner, in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Right) Civil Rights Protesters, Washington DC. Image credit: Ted Eytan.
Photography has been a critical player in every significant human rights movement since its inception. Photography made the everyday person understand the importance and significance of being seen.
As camera technology developed from prolonged exposure times to practically instantaneous photography by the 1920s, more and more of the world could be captured, giving us some of the most iconic images in history. From exposing the injustices of war, poverty and child labour to promoting causes like women’s suffrage, civil rights and disability advocacy.
Photography gave these movements a face, a time and a place. Photos can show us how far we have come and how far we have to go.
In the last couple of years, we have experienced the world through a lens more keenly than ever before. Locked in our homes, our world was boiled down to frames, the frames of pictures, televisions, phones and windows. We saw things we never thought we would have to.
To the things we have seen and the things we are yet to, this World Photography Day we reflect on the medium that has made it possible.
Image credit: (L to R) Angus Mordan, Probal Rashid, Tom Goldner