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Last Updated on 15th March 2021 by Sophie Nadeau

φωτός +γραφή = drawing with light …

Have you ever deleted a photograph by accident, only to realise that you don’t have a copy? Well, can you imagine taking painstaking hours to take just one landscape photograph, only for the materials to disintegrate? No? Well this is what the early pioneers of photograph had to contend with! The word photography comes from the Greek words φωτός (light) and γραφή (drawing). This quite literally means ‘drawing with light’.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved learning about the etymology of words. Plus, if you’ve been reading this blog or following me on Instagram for all of 2 seconds, you’ll know that I’m a little bit more than obsessed with photography! So it makes sense that the time has come for me to combine my two loves into one short and handy blog post.

But where and how did Photography start?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact start of photography as it depends on what your definiton of ‘photography is’. And that’s because the first photography did not capture an image but simply projected it into a ‘camera obsucra’ (dark room).

A Camera Obscura is basically where a beam of light is projected through a pin point hole into a darkened space (this can be anything from a professional room to a tent- the only requirement is that the space be dark). Estimates suggest that mankind has been using this form of light projection from as early as 30,000 BCE. This means that perhaps photography is 32,000 + years old!

It’s believed that a lot of artists used a camera obscura in order to aid them in drawing. Using the projection, they would just need to sketch over the projection in order to create an accuratre representation of the suject. Obviously most artists denied doing this!

Photo below: a camera obscura etching dating from 1544!

drawing with light

Believe it or not, photography as we know it, with a printed image, has been around for almost 200 years (woah)! The first ever photograph is believed to have been taken in 1826; thus at the time this post is written, photography is at least 190 years old.

Although the photo is supposedly taken from a window, it looks like it may has well have taken a picture of the floor. However, whatever the subject, the photo is still impressive. I mean, it’s the first photo to have ever survived! The photo was taken by French inventor Joseph Niepce and the exposure time was eight hours! Drawing with light indeed!

first ever photo drawing with light

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The beginning of commercial photography

Photography as a hobby/ photography on a commercial level did not start for another 13 years in 1839. It’s therefore often said that the ‘real‘ birth of photography was in 1839. The very same year, the very first ‘selfie’ was created! Robert Cornelius, chemist and photographer lover, took a self-portrait in what is believed to be the world’s first portrait.

Considering that photographs would have to be exposed for up to 10-15 minutes just to get enough light into the camera, I’m surprised that the photo is so sharp and in focus! Oh, and that the photograph has survived 170 years is always a plus!

robert cornelius first ever selfie

Surprisingly, the first colour photograph (that actually lasted) was taken as early as 1861 by a physicist and mathematician… It’s a photo of a tartan ribbon tied in a knot! I personally think it looks a little bit like ‘the golden snitch’!

first colour photograph

But how were the first photographs made?

Before digital technology, photographs were made through compex chemical reactions. This is why so many of the photography pioneers were also Chemistry enthusiasts. It also happens to be why so many of the first photographs no longer survive to this day; they were made using volatile materials that easily disintegrated.

The first successful photograph was made by shining light projected using a camera obscura onto a pewter plate. A cocktail of chemicals, including the naturally occuring tar, bitumen, was used to process the light in such a way that it left an impression on the pewter plate. The process was then refined; silver replaced the bitumen and the exposure time was lowered.

Since that very first photograph was taken in the early 1800s, technological advances have charged forwards at an astounding rate. Today, photography is one of the most popular hobbies in the world, an industry that is worth billions annually. In fact, if you’ve not picked up a camera yet, I highly recommend it!

Cottingley Fairies

Two cameras, five photographs, and a children’s book were all that it took to fool the world. Two little girls managed to convince the world that fairy tales exist and paranormal lies just around the corner… The Cottingley Fairies appeared a century ahead of their time.

Before the age of Facebook,  Photoshop, and prior to the smartphone, there were the Cottingley Fairies. A series of five photographs appearing to prove that fairies exist. In what may well be the case of the oldest doctored photos in history, one set of snaps fooled people into believing in the paranormal for decades…

Cottingley Fairies

Although photography began as early as the 1800s, photos remained a rare art form well into the 1900s. Expensive, difficult to manage and not readily available to the general public, most people had few snaps taken of themselves during their lifetime. And even fewer had access to a camera.

In 1917, a nine-year-old girl arrived in the UK with her mother to stay in the village of Cottingley, England with cousins. Her father was away fighting in the first world war. Little Frances Griffiths loved playing by the stream with her older cousin, Elsie Wright, then sixteen. T

hey used to return home and tell their parents that they’d been ‘playing with the fairies all day’. Then, one day Frances and Elsie went out playing in the garden, as usual, only this time with Elsie’s father’s camera in tow.

What they returned with that day would shock and amaze the world for decades to come. When they returned from the stream, they brought back them a set of photographs, the likes of which had never been seen before.

Frances appeared in the snaps surrounded by what appeared to be fairies. Elsie’s father dismissed the photo as nothing more than a childish prank. The photos were forgotten and the girls carried on playing with the camera.

A couple of months later, the pair returned with yet another set of photographs, this time the fairies were much more convincing than the previous ones. Whilst Elsie’s father maintained that the photos to were nothing more than a foolish joke, her mother believed them to be real.

The rest of the world hears of the Cottingley Fairies

By 1919, Elsie’s mother had shown the photos to a number of fairy intrigue societies. It was around this time that the photos caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What is most surprising about this story is that the fairies would most likely have remained in obscurity had it not been for the author of the Sherlock Holmes books.

A strong believer in spiritualism, he found the photos to be conclusive proof that fairies existed. He found the photos fascinating and published them within a high definition and widely circulated newspaper. What’s more is that he added his stamp of approval, claiming that he believed the photos to be genuine. The world remained intrigued well into the 1920s and for generations to come.

However, by the 1980s it was all over. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, ‘the jig was up’ by the end of the 1980s. During a rare interview with the magazine The Unexplained, Elsie and Frances admitted that the majority of the photos were fake.

They explained that they had created the photos using cardboard cutouts, hatpins and artistic angles. Whilst Elsie said that the fifth and final photo was fake, Frances always insisted that it was real…

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drawing with light

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Tuesday 6th of December 2016

Informative blog! It's good to know about the history of photography as I am quite interested in photography and I found this blog gives me the knowledge of photography. Thanks for sharing and keep posting such type of information.

Albert Nesmith

Saturday 26th of November 2016

Photography, amazing shots and subjects! I wonder what it takes to be a professional one?

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