A World History of Photography

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9780789209467: A World History of Photography
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From the camera lucida to the latest in digital image making and computer manipulation, photographic technology has dramatically changed throughout its nearly 200-year history, as succinctly explained and powerfully illustrated in A World History of Photography. Thanks to the unique immediacy with which photography captures perspective and history, the popularity and use of the camera spread rapidly around the globe. Today, photography is ubiquitous: from newspapers and fashion magazines to billboards and the film industry, cultures worldwide have embraced this malleable artistic medium for a limitless variety of purposes.

Naomi Rosenblum’s classic text investigates all aspects of photography aesthetic, documentary, commercial, and technical while placing photos in their historical context. Included among the more than 800 photographs by men and women are both little-known and celebrated masterpieces, arranged in stimulating juxtapositions that illuminate their visual power. Authoritative and unbiased, Rosenblum’s chronicle of photography both chronologically and thematically traces the evolution of this still-young art form. Exploring the diverse roles that photography has played in the communication of ideas, Rosenblum devotes special attention to topics such as portraiture, documentation, advertising, and photojournalism, and to the camera as a means of personal artistic expression. The revised fourth edition includes updates on technical advances as well as a new chapter on contemporary photographers. Armed with the expressive vigor of its images, this thorough and accessible volume will appeal to all.

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About the Author:

Naomi Rosenblum, an independent curator and scholar who has written many articles and lectured extensively on a range of subjects in photography, first published A World History of Photography in 1984. The book has since been translated into French, Japanese, Polish, and Chinese, and it has been updated and expanded through many editions. Rosenblum is also the author of A History of Women Photographers.

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1. THE EARLY YEARS: TECHNOLOGY, VISION, USERS 1839 1875

What is the secret of the invention? What is the substance endowed with such astonishing sensibility to the rays of light, that is not only penetrates itself with them, but preserves their impression; performs at once the function of the eye and the optic nerve the material instrument of sensation and sensation itself?

Photogenic Drawing,” 1839


In the year 1839, two remarkable processes that would revolutionize our perceptions of reality were announced separately in London and Paris; both represented responses to the challenge of permanently capturing the fleeting images reflected into the camera obscura. The two systems involved the application of long-recognized optical and chemical principles, but aside from this they were only superficially related. The outcome of one process was a unique, unduplicatable, laterally reversed monochrome picture on a metal plate that was called a daguerreotype after one of its inventors, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (pl. no. 1) (see Profile). The other system produced an image on paper that was also monochromatic and tonally as well as laterally reversed a negative. When placed in contact with another chemically treated surface and exposed to sunlight, the negative image was transferred in reverse, resulting in a picture with normal spatial and tonal values. The result of this procedure was called photogenic drawing and evolved into the calotype, or Talbotype, named after its inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot (pl. no. 2) (see Profile). For reasons to be examined later in the chapter, Talbot’s negative-positive process initially was less popular than Daguerre’s unique picture on metal, but it was Talbot’s system that provided the basis for all substantive developments in photography before the advent of digital images.

By the time it was announced in 1839, Western industrialized society was ready for photography. The camera’s images appeared and remained viable because they filled cultural and sociological needs that were not being met by pictures created by hand. The photograph was the ultimate response to a social and cultural appetite for a more accurate and real-looking representation of reality, a need that had its origins in the Renaissance. When the idealized representations of the spiritual universe that inspired the medieval mind no longer served the purposes of increasingly secular societies, their places were taken by paintings and graphic works that portrayed actuality with greater verisimilitude. To render buildings, topography, and figures accurately and in correct proportion, and to suggest objects and figures in spatial relationships as seen by the eye rather than the mind, 15th-century painters devised a system of perspective drawing as well as an optical device called the camera obscura that projected distant scenes onto a flat surface (see A Short Technical History, Part I) both means remained in use until well into the 19th century.

Realistic depiction in the visual arts was stimulated and assisted also by the climate of scientific inquiry that had emerged in the 16th century and was supported by the middle class during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. Investigations into plant and animal life on the part of anatomists, botanists, and physiologists resulted in a body of knowledge concerning the internal structure as well as superficial appearance of living things, improving artists’ capacity to portray organisms credibly. As physical scientists explored aspects of heat, light, and the solar spectrum, painters became increasingly aware of the visual effects of weather conditions.

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