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by John H. Lienhard

Darkness and light truly unfurled their contradictions when it came to inventing the camera. For millennia we’d wondered how we might preserve the images cast by light. Our word camera comes from the Latin word for a darkened chamber — a camera obscura. Our word comrade comes from camera. A comrade issomeone one who sits in the same room, or chamber, with us.

Imagine a totally dark room with a tiny hole in one wall. That hole projects an accurate image of the outside world onto the opposite wall. Without film, we can't really take a picture with it. But we can trace the image with a pen. Aristotle was familiar with that idea, and medieval writers had a lot to say about it.

This contradiction of using darkness to claim the image of light was familiar even to me as a young boy — we built pinhole cameras. A pinhole camera is simply a camera obscura with film.

Photographic film was pretty slow when I was a kid, and it came in large sizes. We'd punch a pinhole in one end of a shoebox and mount a sheet of film on the opposite end, with everything sealed up tightly. Then we'd point the box at a subject and uncover the pinhole for just a moment. I’d get my father to develop the film, and I’d have a passable photograph.

The pinhole camera and camera obscura principle illustrated in 1925, in The Boy Scientist.

But no one had film to put in a camera — that is, a camera obscura — until the 19th century. Cameras did have lenses long before film. As early as the 1604, Kepler used one with a fairly complicated lens system to make solar observations. He’s the person who coined the term camera obscura.

Now many art historians have come believe that some old masters used camera obscuras to lay out their paintings. Many of those paintings present scenes with greater precision than their artists’ eyes would have recognized. Philip Steadman's book, Vermeer's Camera, analyses ten paintings. Each shows exactly what Vermeer would've seen from a single point — a single pinhole. They are paintings, but they’re photographically exact.

The age of optical instruments was then upon us. Along with those elaborate camera obscuras, there arose telescopes and microscopes. We also began seeing remarkable improvements in the way painters handled perspective. Vermeer lived at the very apogee of this optical renaissance.

So photography did not have to fight for acceptance the way many inventions must. The camera itself had been highly sophisticated for two hundred years – just waiting for someone to find a way to record a picture automatically.

That couldn't happen until we had eighteenth-century improvements in chemistry. French lithographer Joseph Niépce finally made the first photograph in 1826. It was an eight-hour exposure of the view from his window. The image was formed out of hardened bitumen on a pewter photographic plate. (By the way, that photo now resides at the University of Texas.)

View from a window at Les Gras, Nicéphore Niépce's earliest surviving photograph of a scene. It was taken with the help of a camera obscura. [Wikimedia Commons]

It’d taken Niépce ten years of experimentation; but he’d finally provided the long-awaited solution for a long-standing puzzle. After two thousand years, we finally had primitive film for the then-venerable camera. And that was two centuries after Vermeer had shown us his lovely views of domestic Dutch life — haunting, luminescent, and photographically precise.

By then, another idea had been afoot. And it also involved the now rapidly-developing (no pun intended) science of chemistry. That was the notion that we could place a complex object on some sort of chemically treated surface, and let the sun expose it. We know that Josiah Wedgwood experimented with such processes around the turn of the 19th century — even before Niépce. He laid leaves on paper that was coated with a silver nitrate solution.

Wedgwood and James Watt were friends, members of a scientific seminar that met every four weeks. They met when a full moon illuminated the roads to their meetings, and they called themselves the Lunar Society. So Watt wrote that he would try similar experiments. Did he? We don't know. Sir Humphrey Davy wrote a paper about the idea in 1802: An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass and Making Profiles by the Agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver.

Something surely came of all this, no? Well, Wedgwood spoke only of his inability to preserve the images he got. In the end we had no images to show for all this work. We were long frustrated by the lack of any corpus delicti.

Yet we know such images can be preserved. After 1834, another experimenter, Henry Fox Talbot, figured out how fix a silver nitrate image. If he could do it, might it not have been done by someone else earlier. That possibility recently opened up when Southeby's auction house heard from a person with an old photo image of a leaf. It was the color of rust — on paper.

It'd turned up along with others in the papers of one Henry Bright. The problem is this particular Henry Bright lived back in Wedgewood's time. He was part of a technologically savvy family in Bristol. He'd gone to school with family members of the same people who were doing these solar exposure experiments.

Needless to say, this caused a good deal of fuss in the art auction world. But, more important, it once more turned back time in our history books. This image clearly came out of the circle of late 18th-century technologists who were busy rebuilding Britain as they led its Industrial Revolution. Who made the picture — Wedgwood, Bright, Watt, Davy — we don't know and we might never know.

But once more, as we turn furrows of the past, the past retreats. The more we know the older all our antecedents become. There was always someone earlier than we thought — steam engines before Watt, light bulbs before Edison. Now we have photos before Niépce. The closer we look, it seems, the older all our useful technology becomes.


B. Newhall, The History of Photography. (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1964).

P. Steadman, Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

See this site for the art of Vermeer:

See the Wikipedia articles on Camera Obscura, Nicéphore Niépce, Henry Fox Talbot, and the Lunar Society.   

R. Kennedy, An Image Is a Mystery for Photo Detectives. New York Times: The Arts, Thursday, April 17, 2008, pp. B1 and B5.

This is a very thoughtful, analytical article on the Henry Bright “photo”: