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From Still Life to Snapshots; Tracing Early Photography

September 19, 2012

Autumn is generally considered one of the most picturesque of seasons. Though some leaves are turning early this year with the drought, no doubt for the next month or so we will enjoy colorful panoramic views similar to those enjoyed by turn of the century Iowans. So whether you head out to see us at Living History Farms, or take a drive through Rural Madison County to visit the bridges, get out and enjoy the fall colors we are blessed with here in Central Iowa, and don’t forget to pack your camera.

As early as the 1830s, photographic processes were starting to take place in Europe. In the 1850s, New York City was home to 70 portrait studios. Common early photographs were Daguerreotypes. Using sheets of copper treated with iodine, early photographers would develop these plates using mercury and salt. It may be hard for us to imagine in the age of digital photography and photocopies, but in the 1830s -1860s when these were popular, only one copy of a photo could be made. Exposure times were about 10-15 seconds in the 1840s.

The 1850s would bring Ambrotypes and Tintypes to the profession. Ambrotypes were pictures created on a glass plate. Tintypes, made on tin of course, would shorten both the development time and the exposure time to only a few seconds by the 1870s.

By 1888, George Eastman had delivered cameras into the American home. For $25, a person could buy a camera loaded with film. To develop the pictures, one would send the whole camera to the factory, along with $10 for processing. This was quite expensive, but by 1900, Eastman had developed the Brownie camera. With 100 exposures and the cost of only $1, it could be sent back to the factory for photo processing. The Brownie camera invented what we might consider the modern snapshot, an informal photo taken by an amateur photographer.

It’s hard to believe how far photography has come in 100 years. Now we can take thousands of pictures, delete the ones we don’t want, and save the rest on a memory card that fits in the palm of your hand. I am anxious to see how the next 100 years will change this art. Everyone can be a photographer now (even in amateur status), and in some ways I wonder if it has changed the way we see the world. What do you think?
I have a feeling we will come back to this topic again. Stay tuned.

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