CityLIS Writes: A History of the Photograph and Photographic Technology


This essay was written by CityLIS student Sharon Seals in December 2016. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.

You can follow Sharon on Twitter as @sjseals.



This article will consider how the photograph has developed throughout history. It will examine the implications of the medium for the way the images have been communicated, viewed and understood.  It will expand on these ideas to look at whether the advancement of technology has changed our relationship with the images, ourselves and the world around us. Views of photographers and critics, especially those from the turn of the 19th century, will be brought into focus to highlight how the revolutionary new way of documenting the world was received.

Keywords: document; photograph; photography; image; history; technology

The purpose of this article is to explore the history of the photograph and highlight some of the main drivers behind the explosion of the use of photographic images. It is divided into five sections. The first section takes a brief look at pre-photography and the recording of images up until the 19th century.

The second part starts with a summary of how the permanently recorded image was invented and introduces the early adopters and critics of the new technology during the 19th century. The nature of photographs and the characteristics of a document will be discussed before considering the view that a photographic image is a document.

The main body of the article will focus on the medium that helped to spread the adoption of photography, transforming the sectors that it penetrated.

The benefits, ethical implications and dangers associated with such freedom of expression, especially during the birth of the digital age, will be emphasised in the penultimate section.

The final part will touch on two considerations for the future, preservation of images and emerging technologies.


Human beings have had the desire to portray themselves and their surroundings for at least 35,000 years. Millions of images have been discovered across thousands of sites globally depicting life, and possibly death, using figurate art in the form of cave paintings and rock art (Bahn, 2010).

The absence of explicit text leaves the viewers to find their own meaning in the images. Without being able to communicate with the artists, we can only speculate on their intentions behind the creations. The same holds true for photographs today. Without accompanying metadata, future generations will not necessarily know who took a photograph, where it was taken, why it was taken, what it means and whether it was intended to represent reality or something symbolic. The question of how important metadata is can be subject to debate. It is a common belief that if an image were strong enough it would stand on its own and tell a story without the need for supporting text. Auction houses might disagree and argue that the lack of context reduces the value of an image.

Until 1839, replication of the physical world relied on the skills of artists such as painters and sculptors. The precision levels varied but even the most talented artists could be influenced by their imagination. During the 16th century, the Camera Obscura was used by artists to help them record more accurately. An image of a scene, albeit inversed and upside-down, was projected into a box by filtering light through a small hole. The illustrator was then able to trace the image. This natural optical phenomenon was first noticed by Aristotle during a partial eclipse in a darkened room (Spira, Eaton and Spira, 2001).

These projections remained temporary until the beginning of the 19th century when two separate processes were discovered simultaneously, in France and England, capturing images lastingly on materials using chemicals.

Invention of the photograph

The first known recorded photograph, entitled ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’, was taken by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 from his studio window. The exposure took eight hours to project onto a metal plate covered with asphalt. The image was revealed when Niépce washed the liquid away. The original photograph is currently housed in the Harry Ransom Centre in Austin (Harry Ransom Centre, no date).

Niépce was subsequently introduced to Louis Daguerre, a French artist specialising in the painting of realistic scenery, and they began to exchange ideas. Following Niépce’s death in 1833, Daguerre invented a successful process called the daguerreotype which he revealed to the world in 1839 (Spira, 2001). One year previously, Daguerre had successfully taken the first ever picture of a human being, although no-one knows the man’s identity (Withnall, 2014).

The British inventor Fox Talbot produced his first photographic images in 1834, by placing objects onto paper brushed with light-sensitive silver chloride, which he then exposed to sunlight. Talbot named his invention the Calotype which he patented in 1841. The advantage of Talbot’s invention was that it produced a negative from which many photographs could be produced (Marbot, 1987). Talbot was also the pioneer of photography in the field of archaeology.   He was an antiquarian with interest in taking shots of manuscripts and engravings. Dorrell points out that at this time, archaeology was influenced by antiquarianism (Dorrel, 1994).

The adoption of these processes changed culture and communication forever. The combination of nature, science and technology allowed snapshots of reality to be captured, frozen in time and shared around the world in a universal language. Scientists and progressives welcomed the recording device claiming that it contributed to knowledge. Edgar Allen Poe was euphoric about the daguerreotype exclaiming that “The instrument itself must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science” (Poe, 1840).   Transformational innovations inevitably incite adversaries and there was none more scathing than Baudelaire, who declared “As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance” (Baudelaire, 1955, p, 231).

The word photograph was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel by combining the words photo and graph. The Greek root word ‘photo’ means light and ‘graphia’ means drawing, so photograph means light drawing (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). Light drawings capture and convey information on a physical entity, so they take on the characteristics of a document. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a document as “Something written, inscribed, etc., which furnishes evidence or information upon any subject, as a manuscript, title-deed, tomb-stone, coin, picture, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016).

The documentary concept sparked debates as to whether photography captured reality or a version of it as experienced and infused by the photographer. For example, Susan Sontag’s belief that “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed” (Sontag, 1977). Lady Eastman was adamant that photography is simply a mechanical process adding nothing more than speed and convenience (Eastlake, 1857). Eugène Atget also rejected the notion that photographs are works of surreal art. In 1861 Atget was asked to exhibit one of his photographs, and he replied with “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make” (Edwards, 1993, p. 86). Henri Bresson-Cartier, while emphatic that scenes should not be staged, shot his frames in a decisive moment wherein he could express himself intuitively and spontaneously (Cartier-Bresson and Sand, 1999).

It might be said that when a photographer shoots a scene, it is a personal interpretation of reality where other photographers could choose different angles, compositions and lighting conditions based on their own moment of serendipity. It is questionable whether reality is portrayed when we stop what we are doing and stand perfectly poised for the camera. Detail frozen in an action shot that would otherwise be missed by the naked eye poses an interesting dilemma. Whichever view you take, it is clear that the act of taking a photograph is considered to be a method of documenting the world.

Michael Buckland discusses the physical representation of information, beyond that of textual content, and recognises that documents can contain images. He goes on to acknowledge that early in the 20th century the word ‘document’ was increasingly used to replace words such as bibliography (Buckland, 1997). This aligns with Joel Snyder’s observation that “the term document entered the vocabulary of photography in the early 20th century. It came in as a substitute for copy or reproduction” (Snyder, 2003). In Snyder’s opinion, “All photographs are inherently documentary because they stand in a strict and unvarying causal relationship to the objects they depict” (Snyder, 2003).

The introduction of photography led to considerable interest worldwide, especially among the most affluent members of society.   It was an expensive luxury, but not as costly as having a portrait painted. Studios were set up in major cities in Europe and the cities and smaller communities of America.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who embraced new technologies, built a royal dark room where they learned to make their own daguerrotypes.   They commissioned family portraits, and The Queen sold thousands of them as part of a set, known as Carte de Visites, propelling the couple to celebrity status evoking individuals to copy their attire. “Their enthusiasm for photography undoubtedly influenced its early growth and the public’s reception of the medium” (Tramz, 2014).

During the Victorian era, premature death was widespread due to illnesses such as cholera. It became fashionable to be photographed with dead family members, particularly babies and young children. The deceased would be propped up, often surrounded by their favourite toys, and the everlasting proxies would support the families through the grieving process. As healthcare was improved the demand for these types of photos fell away (Bell, 2016).

By the 1840s, the use of photographic technology spread to other domains. One of the first being the medical profession when Alfred Donné in Paris attempted to shoot sections of bones, teeth and red blood cells. Reproduction of daguerreotypes was laborious in the early days as the images required copying by hand on to engraving plates (Marien, 2006, p.23).   There is a noticeable lack of evidence at this time concerning regard for the patients being photographed, for example, respect for their anonymity.

Technological advances continued to improve the quality of production, for example, in 1851 Frederick Archer invented a process he named the collodion, commonly known as the wet-plate process. A glass plate was deployed, rather than a paper or metal base, marking a new era resulting in more detailed prints (Spira, 2001).

In 1856 an Englishman named William Thompson is believed to be the first person to take a photograph underwater, at a depth of eighteen feet (The Telegraph Online, 2016). The casing leaked and the photograph was faint, but it paved the way for extraordinary advancements exposing life underwater for the world to see.   Roland Barthes described a photograph as a “transparent envelope” which we can see through to gather information about the world (Barthes, 1981, P.5).   That certainly is the case with Thompson’s innovative camera housing.

For the realists, there was one important element missing, and that was colour. Human beings see the world in colour, so as a remedy artists hand-painted daguerreotypes with pigments in the form of watercolours and oils. Colour can help to add mood and focus to a picture; it can enhance a story by drawing attention to what is important. Also, colour can be used to communicate on an emotional level. At this time, photography was mostly rejected as an art form until the early 20th century when black and white became appreciated for its ability to detach subjects from reality.

The first permanent colour image, entitled “tartan ribbon”, was created in 1861.   There is some controversy over the ownership of the tri-colour process, drawing its name from the method of using red, green and blue filters, but Cat concludes that it was a collaboration between scientist James Maxwell and photographer Thomas Sutton (Cat, 2013).

Another domain transformed by photography was forensics. Permanent visual records could be taken for the first time and examined at a later date. The case of the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879 was re-opened some time later, and the photographs were scanned in and enlarged revealing new facts about the condition of the bridge (Lewis, 2004). No matter how articulately crime scenes can be described verbally, images are more powerful.

There is evidence that ‘mug shots’ were taken as far back as 1857 (BBC, 2016). Crime scene photography requires its own set of rules. Although it calls for a creative approach, creativity is not the purpose. Evidence must be a “fair and accurate representation of the scene” (Robinson, 2012, p. 358) because it can be used to convict criminals or even sentence them to death. Metadata is imperative and must include the case number, date and time, location and the name of the photographer (Robinson, 2012, p. 3). Digital photography poses many challenges for investigators, not only due to the amount of data currently being stored on devices but because it is difficult to search for images and files can be hidden or deleted to conceal crucial evidence. Special programs have been developed to combat these issues, but investigators must keep up-to-date with current software and hardware developments.

The fashion industry was another early adopter, initially concerned with objectively recording the latest styles. Edward Steichen was chief photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue during the 1920s and 1930s and is widely acknowledged as being the father of fashion photography (Holliday, 2000). Visual presentations became as important as the production of apparels themselves. Thomas Condé Nast was one of the first publishers to use photographs in place of illustrations (Ewing, Brandow and Bezzola, 2007). Additional roles have evolved to support the fashion shoot, for example, models, stylists, designers, creative and artistic directors, make-up artists and set-builders (Shinkle, 2008).

Alfred Stieglitz fought long and hard to persuade the world that photography was as much an art form as painting and sculpture. He formed a group called the Photo-Secession Group in 1902 and opened a gallery to display his artistic photographs alongside other artist’s work. He succeeded in helping to turn the tide towards one of acceptance and was recognised for his efforts by the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1971 (Oden, no date).

Images significantly enhanced the area of journalism. According to Hicks, as we read text we transmit sound symbols to our brain, which relates to the use of our ears. Viewing pictures engage the use of our eyes, and it is the combination of these two senses working in together that make photojournalism so powerful (Hicks, 1973, p. 3). By 1913, communication networks replaced traditional transportation methods for distributing images to news agencies, speeding up the process of broadcasting news (Gürsel, 2015). Exposure to prints of wars, starvation and suffering can motivate us to take action, but overexposure can desensitise us according to Sontag (2003).

At the end of the 19th century, camera usage increased due to the introduction of handheld devices, high street developing facilities and better quality lenses. The number of amateur photographers surged extending the range of images captured (Mulligan et al., 2012).

Early advances in technology challenged the way the field was classified. As photographers moved away from simply documenting the world to adding artistic flare, a level of confusion ensued that remains to an extent today.   The Library of Congress categorised photography as a technology. In contrast, the Dewey Decimal System includes photography as part of its 700-art section and has done from the start (Bunting and Matosian, 2011).

In 1947 Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, unveiled the first instant camera. Chemicals and photographic paper contained within the device empowered individuals to print their own images within a minute of clicking the shutter button (Polaroid, 1947).

Surprisingly, the first computer image was produced in 1957 by Russel Kirsch. He used a device to scan a photograph of his baby son, resulting in a tiny grainy monochrome image (Kenny, 2016).

In 1977 Apple launched the Apple ll personal computer and over the next 20 years, we saw the release of the IBM computer, digital cameras, software programs for image manipulation, portable digital devices, the World Wide Web, Web browsers, consumer-grade photographic printers and megapixel cameras. The number of amateur photographers rose steeply, and the professionals were no longer restricted to taking the one perfect shot.

Although handheld cameras were widely used, it was the advent of mobile phones in the mid-1990s that pushed digital photography out to the masses. InfoTrends estimates that last year more than a trillion images were taken worldwide and this figure is predicted to rise in 2017 (Lee, 2016).

The impact of digital

Each domain engaged with photography has experienced huge transformations with the introduction of digital communications. For example, citizens now feed into the world of photojournalism contributing content from their smartphones. The blurring of lines between professional and amateur means that more people are operating outside a framework of professional conduct.

Individuals have expressed themselves by furnishing their homes with depictions of their loved ones, pets, favourite objects and places for centuries. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have penetrated the boundaries of bricks and mortar and details of our lives have spread out into the Infosphere, an online existence where ICTs are “changing not only our interaction with the world but also our self-understanding” (Floridi, 2010, p. 9). Likewise, images are flooding into our homes and onto our handheld devices from around the world, mostly entertaining and educating us but occasionally shocking us. Identity theft, loss of privacy, predators and scammers are just some of the risks associated with communicating who we are to the masses.

Camera phones have propagated a ‘selfie’ culture, especially among millennials. A selfie is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A photographic self-portrait; esp. one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). Technically, the first selfie was taken in 1839 when photography pioneer Robert Cornelius made the first self-portrait by dashing to the front of the camera to produce an image of himself (Library of Congress, no date).   Today, millions of selfies are posted on social media daily. A recent study by (Pounders, Kowalczyk, and Stowers, 2016) reveals that the motivation behind this form of self-preservation is self-esteem, although the study is limited to a small number of young female participants. A wider range of interviewees would be more helpful.   Debates on whether selfies increase the risk of narcissism and body-dysmorphia are ongoing. The growing number of mobile applications allowing us to apply flattering filters and manipulate body parts could ultimately be harmful to vulnerable people. With RAW formats coming to mobile phones a more sophisticated level of manipulation is going to be possible.

Images have the ability to alter our perceptions. Marketers are becoming increasingly sophisticated at using them to influence the way we shop, eat, travel and spend our leisure time. Combined with big data analytics and smart algorithms personalising advertising campaigns, they are in a strong position to motivate us into taking action.

The Future

Library and information professionals have a major part to play in the conservation of our cultural heritage, both digital and physical. Librarians, archivists, curators and private collectors need to know how to preserve images for future generations. Digital collections require an understanding of digital architecture, software, selection, storage, security, metadata, documentation, accessibility, findability, user behaviour, life cycles, legal and ethical issues (Krogh, 2009). Hardcopy considerations specifically include lighting, humidity, temperature, pollution, insects, rodents and handling (The Institute of Conservation, 2006).

The next wave of technology to impact digital images includes 3D printing, lithophanes (Krassenstein, 2015), drones, and virtual reality (Scoblete, 2016). We can also expect to see improved searching, categorising and sorting capabilities with artificial intelligence programs (Monckton, 2016). For example, Amazon has acquired Orbeus’s PhotoTime, a facial recognition application that is capable of grouping and sorting (Clark, 2016).


From the evidence presented, constantly evolving technology has had a profound effect on the development of the photographic image. It has transformed the way the we document reality and the way images are created, manipulated, shared, viewed, searched, used, stored and understood.

We have seen how changes in economic conditions, trends, cultural shifts and other social factors can influence demand, just as much as new mediums can impact on the societies they infiltrate. Technological advances have extended the ability to record and produce images from a handful of skilled scientists to billions of people around the globe. As the capability spreads so does the level of responsibility. With mobile technology, the Internet, increasing WiFi access, social media and cloud storage it is easier than ever to engage in the digital photographic world. However, it is equally accessible to those who wish to misuse it. Awareness and education, especially for young people, is essential for the future health of photography and its users.

The creation of Daguerreotype and Calotype prints were limited to experts with specialist equipment and the facilities to process them.   The initial rejection from the art community meant that galleries refused to display photographers’ work. Therefore, viewing was restricted unless people had access to private collections or the finances to pay for them. Digital and mobile communications have given everyone with a photographic device the opportunity to take a picture instantly, virtually anywhere at any time, with no previous photographic experience or cumbersome apparatus. The results can be viewed immediately and shared around the world within minutes.

Technology has provided us with the tools to edit and manipulate images post-capture and share them in a variety of ways. Websites such as Flickr, Instagram and Snapchat form entire communities where users can interact, share ideas and learn from each other. However, the extent to which images are manipulated, especially by the media, means that we can lose faith in the authenticity of what we see at times.

ICTs have given us more control over how we chose to portray ourselves and our reality. We can carefully compose a frame before releasing it for viewing. Paradoxically, it can also relinquish our power, for example, when someone posts a picture of us on social media against our will.

Ultimately, as a result of enhanced technologies, we have access to imagery from around the world that we could only have imagined 200 years ago. It has broken through barriers of time and space spreading information in a universal language.


Bahn, P. (2010) Prehistoric rock art: polemics and progress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida. Translated by R. Howard. New York: Hill & Wang.

Baudelaire, C. (1956) ‘The modern public and photography’, in Mayne, J (editor and translator) The Mirror of Art. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

BBC (2016) Historians claim to have found the oldest criminal mugshots ‘in the world’. Available at: (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

Bell, B. (2016) Taken from life: The unsettling art of death photograph.

Available at: (Accessed: 18 November 2016).

Buckland, M.K. (1997) ‘What is a document’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48(9), pp. 804-809.

Bunting, L. and Matosian, A. (2011) ‘Classifying photography’, Art Libraries Journal, 36(04), pp. 44–49.

Cartier-Bresson, H. and Sand, M.L. (1999) The mind’s eye: Writings on photography and photographers. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Cat, J. (2013) Maxwell, Sutton, and the birth of color photography: A binocular study. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Clark, J. (2016) Amazon Acquires Image Analysis Startup Orbeus. Available at: (Accessed: 16 December 2016).

Dorrell, P.G. (1994) Photography in Archaeology and Conservation: Available at: (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

Eastlake, L.E. (1857) ‘Photography’, London Quarterly Review, pp. 442-468.

Edwards, S. (1993) ‘A Walk on the Wild Side: Atget’s Modernism’, The Oxford Art Journal 16(2) pp. 86-90. Available at: (Accessed: 17 November 2016).

Ewing, W.A., Brandow, T. and Bezzola, T. (2007) Edward Steichen: In high fashion: The Condé Nast years 1923-1937. London: Thames & Hudson.

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gürsel, Z.D. (2015) ‘A short history of wire service photography’, in J.E. Hill and V.R. Schwartz (ed.) Getting the picture: The visual culture of the news. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp.206-211.

Hicks, W. (1973) Words and Pictures. New York: Arno Press.

Harry Ransom Centre (no date). First photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826. Available at: (Accessed: 10 December 2016).

Holliday, T. (2000) Edward Steichen: Man of Many Styles Available at: (Accessed: 10 December 2016).

Kenny, K. L. (2016) The science of color: Investigating light. North Mankato, Minnesota: Abdo Publishing.

Krassentstein, E. (2015) New Website Allows You to Create a 3D Printable Lithophane of Any Photo You Choose in 3 Seconds. Available at: (Accessed: 20 December 2016).

Krogh, P. (2009) The DAM book: Digital asset management for photographers. 2nd edn. Sebastopol: O’Reilly.

Lee, E. (2016) Fun Facts About the Photography Market. Available at: (Accessed: 16 December 2016).

Lewis, P. (2004) The beautiful railway bridge of the silvery Tay: Reinvestigating the Tay bridge disaster of 1879. London: The History Press.

Library of Congress (no date) Robert Cornelius, self-portrait; believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photo. Available at: (Accessed: 10 November 2016).

Marbot, B (1987) ‘Towards the discovery’, in Lemagny J.C. and Rouillé, A. (ed.) A History of photography: Social and cultural perspectives. (Translated by Lloyd, J.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marien, M.W. (2006) Photography: A cultural history. 2nd edn. London: Laurence King.

Monckton, P. (2016) Google’s New AI Tech Knows What’s In Your Photos. Available at: (Accessed: 20 December 2016).

Mulligan, T., Wooters, D., Johnson, W.S., Rice, M. and Williams, C. (2012) A history of photography – from 1839 to the present. Edited by Steven Heller. Germany: Taschen GmbH.

Oden, L. (no date) Alfred Stieglitz. Available at: (Accessed: 17 December 2016).

Oxford English Dictionary (2016) OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Poe, E.A. (1840) ‘The Daguerreotype[Part l]’, Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 4(3), p. 2. Available at: (Accessed: 14 December 2016).

Polaroid (no date) 1947. Available at: (Accessed: 18 November 2016).

Pounders, K., Kowalczyk, C.M. and Stowers, K. (2016) ‘Insight into the motivation of selfie postings: Impression management and self-esteem’, European Journal of Marketing, 50(9/10), pp. 1879–1892.

Robinson, E.M. (2012) Introduction to crime scene photography. Oxford: Elsevier/Academic Press.

Scoblete, G. (2016) ‘Five technologies shaping photography and filmmaking today’, Photo District News, 36(6), pp. 42-42,44.

Shinkle, E. (2008) ‘Fashion as Photograph: Viewing and Reviewing Images of Fashion’, New York: I.B. Tauris.

Snyder, J (2003) Photography and the Limits of the Document – Part 1. (Video). Available at: (Accessed: 10 November 2016).

Sontag, S. (1977) On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sontag, S (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Spira S.F., Eaton, S. and Spira, J. (2001) The History of Photography: As seen through the Spira collection. Singapore: Aperture.

The Institute of Conservation (2006) Care and conservation of photographic materials. London: Icon. Available at: (Accessed: 20 December 2016).

The Telegraph Online (2016) 10 useless but exceedingly interesting facts about 19th-century photography. Available at: (Accessed: 14 December 2016).

Tramz, M. (2014) Magnificent Obsession: How Queen Victoria Influenced Photography. Available at: (Accessed: 11 November 2016).

Withnall, A. (2014) This is the first ever photograph of a human – and how the scene it was taken in looks today. Available at: (Accessed: 16 November 2016).

About lyn

Dr Lyn Robinson is Reader in Library & Information Science, and Head of Department at City, University of London. She established and directs the Library School, and co-directs the Centre for Information Science alongside Prof David Bawden. Contact:
This entry was posted in CityLIS Writes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.