The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
A Short History of Photography from Cigar Box to Cell Phone
Imagine that you are the first person to take a photograph. What would you choose to picture? Most likely something pretty important to you, something of value, something or someone you loved. In the United States many of the first photographers were scientists—chemists, doctors, dentists, astronomers—and those nineteenth century tinkers’ skills quickly lent themselves to an understanding of the chemical recipe for fixing an image in the darkroom. Not surprisingly, among the earliest images are pictures taken through telescopes and microscopes of things ordinarily too distant or too small to otherwise be studied. And that suggests another challenge of early photography. Even if you knew what you wanted to photograph, you would then have to make a camera that could make the image. Dr. John William Draper was a professor of chemistry at New York University. With the help of his friend and frequent collaborator, Samuel Morse, Draper began experiments with photography in 1837, two years before the public announcement of the inventor Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype process in France, and three years before it arrived in the United States. Draper’s scientific knowledge gained during his previous experimentation on light (see Steve Turner’s click! photography changes everything commentary) meant that he was able to take advantage of all the minute details of a technique which led to making photographic images. He also must have had a talent for re-purposing the stuff of everyday life. Draper constructed his first camera out of a cigar box and an eyeglass lens which he used to photograph his sister, Dorothy, one of the first portrait photographs made in America. At first he coated her face with flour in order to enhance the capture of light during the long exposure. He then discovered that by increasing the aperture of the lens and reducing its focal length he could significantly reduce exposure time (and also eliminate the flour makeup that Dorothy had to wear). And then he enhanced the detail even more by adding a blue filter to his lens and controlling the spectrum of light taken into the camera and onto the photographic plate. Even so, it still left room for Draper’s other discovery: that the sitter still had time to blink her eyes without it showing in the final image. When Draper sent the image of a wide-eyed, stylish young girl to John Hershel, another early photographic experimenter in England, it was greeted with astonishment. Even Daguerre had despaired that his invention could never be used to make portraits of any quality. Though today Dorothy’s face is available only through later copy prints (due to a bad cleaning job early in the twentieth century the original daguerreotype is now quite dark), we still have a glimpse of the intensity the Drapers, both maker and sitter, brought to their unprecedented collaboration. Besides photographing things he loved on earth, Draper also photographed the heavens. In the same year he photographed his sister, he made a little wooden camera that fitted onto the end of his telescope, making the first photograph of the moon. He also made cameras that fit onto the end of his microscope and photographed things too small to be seen by the naked eye and today, many of these images are in the collection of the Smithsonian. A modern day Draper, Phillipe Kahn, a proud father in search of a way to more easily transmit images of his family, and the inventor of the first camera phone solution, writes in his click! commentary that, "In the history of photography, function often follows necessity when it comes to invention and innovation." However they are made—cigar boxes or cell phones—photographs remain amazing instruments of progress and passion.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.