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The Dark Chamber – The Birth of Photography

Article by James Dean

These days we take the camera for granted. Anyone with a decent mobile phone can capture images, even moving pictures, with sound, something that a few years ago would have required equipment that was barely lift-able, let alone portable. It is good to know that many memories can be saved and shared for years to come, thanks to all the digital advances in the field. About 400 years ago, however, the first proponent of the principles of photography was tried for sorcery!The suspicion of sorcery probably falls into the ‘people fear what they don’t understand’ category, because, as with most things, people opt for the uncanny as an explanation to things they have never seen before, or simply cannot explain. Giambattista Della Porta, also known as Giovanni Battista Della Porta and John Baptist Porta had created and perfected the ‘Camera Obscura’ – from the Latin meaning ‘Dark Chamber’. The camera obscura was a room with a hole containing a convex lens on one side which focused inverted images onto the wall on the other side of the room. The images were those of actors moving around. Porta invited people into the room in order to view the images on the wall. The results – upside down, moving pictures of people on the wall – were simply too much for the participants to stand, and they ran screaming from the room. Imagine – an experience which is repeated every time we go to the movies, or watch TV for that matter, albeit the right way up and with sound, was far too sinister for people to contemplate 400 years ago. Porta was a renowned, published scientist, and the camera obscura was but one of his achievements, but it became the forerunner of the modern-day camera. Even so, he wasn’t the first to identify the concept of producing images in this way. Nearly 2000 years before Porta, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had already observed the principle of how the camera would work. An Arabic Scholar described the principle in the 10th Century, and Da Vinci wrote about it in his notebooks in the 15th Century. All of this is no surprise, however, because the camera obscura is no more than a crude representation of the human eye:

All of the above was extremely useful, but it did not address the main requirement for photography – keeping a permanent record of the image. For this development, if you will pardon the pun, we would have to wait for another 200 years. Enter physicist Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce who, in around 1816, began his quest to produce permanent photographs. He had his breakthrough in the 1820’s when he discovered a light-sensitive material call bitumen of Judea. Sometime in the mid-1820’s, he placed a pewter plate, coated in bitumen, into a camera obscura for eight hours. The final result was the first known ‘photograph’. Admittedly it was not a very good image at all. It was a very blurred picture of a tree, a building and a barn, but Niepce was delighted with it. In 1929 Niepce entered a business partnership with a man named Louis Daguerre. Niepce himself died in 1833, but Daguerre continued in the work that Niepce had started. Instead of using bitumen, Daguerre used silver iodide, instead of pewter, copper plates. The silver iodide was more light-sensitive than bitumen. Later, apparently by ‘accident’, Daguerre found that when he treated the exposed copper plate with mercury fumes, a picture appeared clearly. Exposure time was greatly reduced. A later discovery was that, when the plate was washed in a salt solution, the picture did not darken over time, and photography was about to burst onto the world scene.Daguerre’s invention, christened the Daguerrotype, was first introduced in France in 1839. It caught on so fast that – within an hour of its introduction – opticians could not supply enthusiasts with the required equipment quickly enough to meet demand! In the days that followed, amateur enthusiasts had planted three legged boxes in front of churches all around Paris.

You may, however, be surprised by the lack of reference to a certain English physicist by the name of William Henry Fox Talbot. It has to be admitted that, when the announcement of the Daguerrotype surfaced, Fox Talbot was also surprised that he hadn’t been mentioned. This was because he believed that he had invented photography already. His method was slightly different to that of Daguerre, and did not produce images of the same quality as daguerrotypes, but it was, nonetheless the method which would prove to have the most potential. See if you recognise the process:Fox Talbot had been placing silver-chloride-coated sheets of paper into a camera obscura to produce a negative image, which he then waxed to produce a transparency. The transparency was placed over another coated paper, and when exposed to sunlight a positive image was produced. He could produce an unlimited number of copies from a single negative, and paper copies were easier to handle and cheaper to produce than fragile daguerrotypes. The daguerreotype itself proved to be a dead end in comparison, and modern photographs are produced in much the same way as Fox Talbot’s discovery, some 170 years ago.Since then, many improvements have been made in the way photographs are captured, providing rich, colour photographs which have added to, rather than threatening, the art world. Many photographs are considered to be an art form all on their own. With the proliferation of digital photography over the last decade or so, experts are able to produce works of art limited only by the imagination. From a dark chamber, full of alleged witchcraft and dark arts, to millions of images worldwide – in only 400 years. That’s progress!

About the Author

For more on photography from Gillman & Soame on graduation photography and school photography.

Pastor William Flippin Jr. St. Matthew Lutheran Church Columbus, Georgia In the bleak realities of life today, there are found blessed assurances of the Trinity as found in the Father (Mother), Son, and Holy Spirit. From these divine persons there is good news! Amidst humanity’s sin, God has provided a solution to our problem. The solution is God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Through the sonship of Christ and his redeeming work, the apostle Paul draws out assurances of a new life. The first benefit of our salvation is “Peace with God.” In chapter 5:1, Paul writes, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul writes with conviction that we have been “justified by faith.” God has declared us righteous. Justification is a pardon from the death penalty. It’s like sitting in the electric chair and having the phone ring five seconds before the switch is to be thrown. The message comes over the phone that you have been pardoned; you are free to walk out of prison. That would be something to celebrate!!! If that happened to you, you wouldn’t just yawn and say, “That’s nice.” Not when you were in the electric chair! We ought to be celebrating the fact that we have been justified because of Christ’s death. The word “peace” refers not so much to an inward peace, but a relationship characterized by God’s peace toward the sinner. A Divine peace that David felt and allowed him to walk through the valley of the shadow of death yet fearing
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