Photography: The First 100 Years (Part Two)
Action, Flash and Color
Content Contributed by: David Gremp
While the first 50 years of photography provided proof of what our loved ones and ancestors actually looked like, as well as many of the wonders of the world, it’s only practical applications applied to posed, stationary subjects, architecture and landscapes.
That all changed with the introduction of gelatin-based emulsions and plastic substrates. However, before the introduction of these dry-plate emulsions, there were several successful attempts to “stop action” that proved insightful to both artists and scientists. In one of photography’s more enlightening experiments, a West Coast photographer named Eadweard Muybridge was able to prove a commonly held belief that the feet of a galloping horse do actually leave the ground at once, but not in the way that had been depicted by artists for centuries. By using a series a dozen cameras, each with its shutter, capable of exposures as fast as 1/2000th of a second, attached to an electronic tripping switch, he showed in a series of photographs that a horse’s feet actually did leave the ground all at once when they were tucked under its body, and not in the commonly rendered outstretched position in a “hobby horse.” Other individuals who explored stop-action photographic techniques included French physiologist Etienne Jules Marey and the American painter Thomas Eakins.
By the 1870s, new materials and techniques were developed using gelatin emulsions which allowed for faster shutter speeds (as fast as 1/25th of a second) and a process that freed the photographer from having to coat, expose and develop their plates before the emulsion dried, which ultimately lead to the introduction of the photo-finishing industry. One of the first people to take advantage of this new technology was George Eastman, a dry-plate maker in Rochester, New York, when he introduced the Kodak camera, which was a hand-held 31/4 x 33/4 x 61/2” box with a fixed-focus lens and a roll of paper coated with a gelatino-bromide emulsion that could capture one hundred 21/2” diameter exposures. After the owner exposed the film, the camera was returned to the factory, the film was processed and printed and returned to the owner along with the camera reloaded with another roll of film. Eastman’s $25 camera and slogan, “You press the shutter, we do the rest,” brought photography to the masses for the very first time. It also brought standardized materials and processes that made it easier for anyone to process their own film.
In addition to providing families with the ability to produce their own memories and documents of everyday life and travels, these small, hand-held “snapshot” cameras also allowed “amateur” photographers to express their thoughts and feelings about the world around them. This concept led to the introduction of camera clubs and photographic societies that promoted self-expression and artistic vision. Out of this movement came such noted fine-art photographers as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Gertrude Kåsebier, Eward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, to name a few.
The ability of these portable cameras to capture more spontaneous and surreptitious moments also led to some applications that were less than welcome. In an interesting essay by photo historian Bill Jay, “The Photographer as Aggressor” that appeared in the book Observations: Essays on Documentary Photography (1984, The Friends of Photography), Jay points out some of the moral issues that these cameras introduced. “With the snapshot camera,” says Jay, “anyone at any time could be the victim of an embarrassing or even incriminating picture.” The use of the “candid camera’s” ability to capture people in uncompromising situations became a popular pastime by the end of the 19th century that prompted numerous articles in newspapers such as the New York Times condoning “the camera epidemic” which allowed “camera lunatics” to use their concealed cameras to take pictures of people “without their agreement or participation.” Shades of early paparazzi!
The advancement of smaller cameras and simpler processes also led to the some important and welcome social changes when Jacob Riis, a New York police reporter who was concerned with the squalid living conditions of the poor, picked up a camera to document these conditions and expose them to the public with his lantern-slide lectures and, eventually, his book How the Other Half Lives which was published in 1890 with 17 halftone illustrations. In order to capture many of these night scenes, Riis was one of the first Americans to use flashlight powder, or Blitzlicht-pulver, invented in Germany by Adolf Niethe and Johannes Gaedicke in 1887.
Another individual who took up photography in order to expose social injustices was sociologist Lewis Hine, who used his camera and open flash to photograph children working in factories and mines under deplorable conditions. The documentation of social and economic concerns were further advanced by such photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and others during the Great Depression.
Further advancements in flash were made by Dr. Harold Edgerton, who in 1931 designed an electronic lamp and high-voltage condenser system that was capable of “freezing” a splash of milk and a bullet in flight with a single flash.
The desire to capture photographic images in living color goes all the way back to Joseph Niépce, whose experiments with photography preceded Daguerre’s. However, because of the complexities of recording and fixing colors photographically, a commercially practical and affordable process wasn’t developed until 1931 with the introduction of Kodachrome film, which produced a positive transparency. While many individuals’ hard work and efforts lead to this eventual invention, including most notably James Clerk Maxwell, brothers August and Louis Lumiére and Rudolf Fischer, it was the Eastman Kodak Company’s collaboration with Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky that produced the final product. Since processing Kodachrome required complex machinery and controls that could only be done by the manufacturer, simpler processes that the photographer could do at home were introduced in 1942 by Ansco (Ansco-Color) and Kodak (Ektachrome). Kodak also introduced Kodacolor film in 1941, which was a more practical and reproducible negative-positive process.
This brief overview of photography’s first 100 years brings us to the beginning of Calumet Photographic, which was established in 1939, and will be discussed in detail in upcoming blogs.
For more detailed information on photography’s history, we suggest reading Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography (The Museum of Modern Art) and Naomi Rosenblum’s A World History of Photography (Abbeville Press). Other insightful essays by Bill Jay are available in his books, Cyanide & Spirits: An Inside-Out View of Early Photography and Occam’s Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography (both by Nazraeli Press).