What is photography from 1750 to 1850?

Daguerreotype of Mrs Morrow

The year 1839 is usually offered as the date of photography’s invention, but the idea of photography had circulated well before that time. When the invention of photography was announced publicly in Paris in August of 1839, others had already been experimenting with photographic processes for decades. Historian of photography Pierre Harmant, in the article "Anno Lucis 1839: 1st Part," has shown that at least 24 people claimed to have invented photography by 1839: seven people from France, six from England, six from Germany, and one each from the USA, Spain, Norway, Switzerland, and Brazil. Harmant remarks: “Quite a list for a single discovery in so short a time!” And we would add: Those are just the inventors we know about! 

Though multiple photographic processes were proposed, two attracted the most attention at the time and in subsequent literature: 1) Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce’s daguerreotype; and 2) William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype. Though both processes made use of a camera obscura and light-sensitive materials, they each captured just one of the ideas that has become central to photography. The daguerreotype recorded details with clarity, but resulted in a single material object without allowing for multiple copies of the image. The calotype allowed for multiple copies to be created from a negative, but resulted in a grainy picture. Soon these two technologies would drop out of use in favour of processes that achieved both clarity and reproducibility.

In this section, we will look at some of the image-making techniques used before and in the early years of the invention of photography, while the idea of photography was taking shape. Some of these examples are not photographic at all, but highlight forms of image-making that competed with photography in its early years. 

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