Since the mid-nineteenth century, photography was considered an objective representation of reality, despite its limitations with regard to capturing color or movement and its capacity for manipulation. The discovery of photography was announced publicly in January 1839 at the Academy of Sciences in Paris. The artist and inventor of the diorama Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was credited with the invention of what became known as the daguerreotype (a unique photographic image captured on a highly-polished surface of a copper plate.) Canonical surveys of photography often celebrate Daguerre as the inventor of photography, even though there had been numerous earlier experiments to fix the image of the camera obscura (latin for “dark room,” an optical device in the form of a room or box through which an image of nature is projected onto a screen by means of light passing through a pinhole.).
View from the Window at Le Gras by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter by Alexander Gardner
Déjatch Alámayou, King Theodore's Son by Julia Margaret Cameron
The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge
Two Ways of Life by Oscar Gustave Rejlander
Julia Jackson by Julia Margaret Cameron
Cameron’s photograph of her niece Julia Jackson concentrates on the subject’s head, showing clearly only limited planes of her face and leaving half of it shrouded in shadow. Known as a great beauty, Jackson was a favorite subject for Cameron, who made dozens of photographs of her. In April 1867, a month before Jackson’s wedding to her first husband, Herbert Duckworth, Cameron photographed the young bride-to-be. With her hair down and eyes wide, she is unsentimental, looking forward with purpose to her own personal and social transformation.
Big River, from the Rancherie, Mendocino, California by Carleton Watkins
Like the vast and untapped landscape of the American West, Carleton Watkins’s photographic images are grand in spirit and in size. Using a giant wet-plate camera whose thick glass negatives—coated with a sensitized emulsion called collodion and exposed while still wet—were often as large as the average easel painting of the time, Watkins here fused a sense of the picturesque with a Romantic expression of nature’s timelessness, immensity, and silence. The trees are sharply defined, still, and majestic. Depicted with equal clarity is the river, which winds into the receding hills. Photographs such as Big River and Watkins’s famous views of Yosemite (which helped persuade the US Congress to pass legislation protecting the valley’s wilderness) provided the world with some of the first glimpses of the American West.
Le Geant, Champ de Mars by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon)
Nadar cultivated an illustrious career as a writer, caricaturist, and, most notably, photographer, producing arresting portraits of his renowned friends and contemporaries. He was also an enthusiastic balloonist, an obsession that led him to construct the largest hot air balloon the world had seen and make the first aerial photographs in 1858. Viewing the Earth’s surface from above, he wrote, "reduces all things to their relative proportions—to the Truth." Nadar’s first flight aboard his balloon Géant (Giant) on October 4, 1863, was a great success. On the second launch, however, the balloon eventually crashed in Hanover, leaving Nadar with a fractured leg. This photograph of that launch establishes the sheer size of the balloon—which was made with 20,000 meters of silk and carried 80 passengers in a two-story basket—by juxtaposing it with the crowd of 200,000 who have come to watch it.