"In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality." Alfred Stieglitz
In 1727 the German professor of anatomy "Johann Heinrich Schulze" proved that the darkening of silver salts, a phenomenon known since the 16th century and possibly earlier, was caused by light and not heat. He demonstrated the fact by using sunlight to record words on the salts, but he made no attempt to preserve the images permanently. His discovery, in combination with the camera obscura, provided the basic technology necessary for photography. It was not until the early 19th century, however, that photography actually came into being.
In 1816, "Nicephore Niepce" positions sheets of paper coated with silver salts (that blacken when exposed to daylight), on the back of the camera obscure. This method was only temporary, as the image could not be fixed, therefore the salts continued to darken. A tenacious Niepce continued to formulate a fixative additive to make the images permanent. This he achieved by using the resin of Gaiacum extract, but it was still a far cry from producing a recognizable photographic image. By 1826/27, using a camera obscura fitted with a pewter plate, Niepce produced the first successful photograph from nature, a view of the courtyard of his country estate, Gras, from an upper window of the house. The exposure time was about eight hours, during which the sun moved from east to west so that it appears to shine on both sides of the building.
Niepce produced his most successful copy of an engraving, a portrait of Cardinal deAmboise, in 1826. It was exposed in about three hours, and in February 1827 he had the pewter plate etched to form a printing plate and had two prints pulled. Paper prints were the final aim of Niepce's heliographic process, yet all his other attempts, whether made by using a camera or by means of engravings, were underexposed and too weak to be etched. Nevertheless, Niepce's discoveries showed the path that others were to follow with more success.
Like many other artists of his time, Daguerre made preliminary sketches by tracing the images produced by both the camera obscura and the camera lucida, a prism-fitted instrument that was invented in 1807. His attempt to retain the duplication of nature he perceived in the camera obscura's ground glass led in 1829 to a partnership with Niepce, with whom he worked in person and by correspondence for the next four years. However, Daguerre's interest was in shortening the exposure time necessary to obtain an image of the real world, while Niepce remained interested in producing reproducible plates. It appears that by 1835, three years after Niepce's death, Daguerre had discovered that a latent image forms on a plate of iodized silver and that it can be "developed" and made visible by exposure to mercury vapour, which settles on the exposed parts of the image. Exposure times could thus be reduced from eight hours to 30 minutes. The results were not permanent, however; when the developed picture was exposed to light, the unexposed areas of silver darkened until the image was no longer visible.
By 1837 Daguerre was able to fix the image permanently by using a solution of table salt to dissolve the unexposed silver iodide. That year he produced a photograph of his studio on a silvered copper plate, a photograph that was remarkable for its fidelity and detail. Also that year, Niepce's son Isidore signed an agreement with Daguerre affirming Daguerre as the inventor of a new process, "the daguerreotype."
Still Life, daguerreotype by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, 1837
Throughout most of the 20th century, the art world was dominated by painting and sculpture, with photography seen as a separate but not necessarily equal art form. In the 1980's and 1990's, however, as new media such as video, performance, and installation blurred definitions of "art," photography became one of the art world's most prominent media.
Citation: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Helmut Erich Robert Gernsheim. https://www.britannica.com/technology/photography
The moment of photography's "puberty" was around the time when the technology moved from analog to digital although it wasn't until the arrival of the Internet-enabled smartphone that we really noticed a different behavior. That's when adolescence truly set in. It was surprising but it all seemed somewhat natural and although we experienced a few tantrums along the way with arguments about promiscuity, manipulation and some inexplicable new behaviors, the photographic community largely accommodated the changes with some adjustments in workflow.
But these visible changes were merely the advance indicators of deeper transformations and it was only a matter of time before people's imagination reached beyond the constraints of two dimensions to explore previously unimagined possibilities. And so it is that we find ourselves in a world where the digital image is almost infinitely flexible, a vessel for immeasurable volumes of information, operating in multiple dimensions and integrated into apps and technologies with purposes yet to be imagined.
Digital capture quietly but definitively severed the optical connection with reality, that physical relationship between the object photographed and the image that differentiated lens-made imagery and defined our understanding of photography for 160 years. The digital sensor replaced to optical record of light with a computational process that substitutes a calculated reconstruction using only one third of the available photons. That's right, two thirds of the digital image is interpolated by the processor in the conversion from RAW to JPG or TIF. It's reality but not as we know it.
The differences contained in the structure and processing of a digital file are not the end of the story of photography's transition from innocent childhood to knowing adulthood. There is so much more to grasp that very few people have yet grappled with the inevitable but as yet unimaginable impact on the photographic image. Taylor Davidson has described the camera of the future as an app, a software rather than a device that compiles data from multiple sensors. The smartphone's microphone, gyroscope, accelerometer, thermometer and other sensors all contribute data as needed by whatever app calls on it and combines it with the visual data. And still that's not the limit on what is already bundled with our digital imagery.
Our instruments are connected to satellites that contribute GPS data while connecting us to the Internet that links our data to all the publicly available information of Wikipedia, Google and countless other resources that know where we are, who was there before us and the associated economic, social and political activity. Layer on top of that the integration of LIDAR data (currently only in some specialist apps) then apply facial and object recognition software and consider the implication of emerging technologies such as virtual reality, semantic reality and artificial intelligence and one begins to realize the mind-boggling potential of computational imagery.
Things will go even further with the development of curved sensors that will allow completely different ways to interpret light, but that for the moment remains an idea rather than a reality. Everything else is already happening and will become increasingly evident as new technologies roll out, ushering us into a very different visual culture with expectations far beyond simple documentation.
Computational photography draws on all these resources and allows the visual image to create a picture of reality that is infinitely richer than a simple visual record, and with this comes the opportunity to incorporate deeper levels of knowledge. It won't be long before photographers are making images of what they know, rather than only what they see. Mark Levoy, formerly of Stanford and now of Google puts it this way, "Except in photojournalism, there will be no such thing as a "straight photograph" everything will be an amalgam, an interpretation, an enhancement or a variation either by the photographer as auteur or by the camera itself."
As we tumble forwards into these unknown territories there's a curious throwback to a moment in art history when 100 years ago the Cubists revolutionized ways of seeing using a very similar (albeit analog) approach to what they saw. Picasso, Braque and others deconstructed the world and reassembled it not in terms of what they saw, but rather in terms of what they knew using multiple perspectives to depict a deeper understanding.
While the photographic world wrestles with even such basic tools as Photoshop there is no doubt that we're moving into a space more aligned with Cubism than Modernism. It will not be long before our audiences demand more sophisticated imagery that is dynamic and responsive to change, connected to reality by more than a static two-dimensional rectangle of crude visual data isolated in space and time. We'll look back at the black-and-white photograph that was the voice of truth for nearly a century, as a simplistic and incomplete source of information about what was happening in the world.
Some will consider this a threat, seeing only the danger of distortion and undetectable fakery and it's certainly true that we'll need to develop new measures by which to read imagery. We're already highly skilled in distinguishing probable and improbable information and we know how to read written journalism (which is driven entirely by the writer's imaginative ability to interpret reality in symbolic form) and we don't confuse advertising imagery with documentary, nor the photo illustration on a magazine's cover with the reportage inside. Fraud will always be a risk but with over a century of experience we've learned that we can't rely on the mechanical process to protect us. New conventions will emerge and all the artistry that's been developed since the invention of photography will find richer and deeper opportunities to express information, ideas and emotions with no greater risk to truth than we currently experience. The enriched opportunities for storytelling will allow greater complexity that's closer to reality than the thinned-down simplification of 20th Century journalism and will open unprecedented connection between the subject and the viewer.
The twist is that new forces will be driving the process. The clue is in what already occurred with the smartphone. The revolutionary change in photography's cultural presence wasn't led by photographers, nor publishers or camera manufacturers but by telephone engineers, and this process will repeat as business grasps the opportunities offered by new technology to use visual imagery in extraordinary new ways, throwing us into new and wild territory. It's happening already and we'll see the impact again and again as new apps, products and services hit the market.
Citation: Lightbox Technology. Stephen Mayers. http://time.com/4003527/future-of-photography/ August 25, 2015