Photography History: The Film Era

Right, yesterday’s post was all about how photography came about before film was invented. We had people printing on pewter and inventing the photographic negative, but we all know that the real fun began when we started losing our films down the back of sofas and ruining them when clumsily pressing the wrong button on the camera…

So without further ado, the second installment in our 3-part series: The history of photography: The Era of Film.  

In 1884, the world of photography was changed forever through the invention of film. The bulky, cumbersome photographic plates which had been the standard in photography up until this point became a thing of the past as they were replaced by the much more practical film roll technology.

George Eastman and Kodak

At age twenty-three George Eastman abandoned his career as a bank clerk and started working in a photographic lab. It was then that George imagined a new type of photographic plate which would be lighter and more portable. This would become what Eastman called the “dry plate” and what we call “film.” Once he had fully worked out this technology, Eastman invented a compact camera to compliment the film and started his own company to market this product. The company was called “Eastman Kodak” and continues to be one of the largest commercial photography companies to this day. (You know – Kodak, as in “Kodak moment.”)

Eastman’s Kodak camera was sold to consumers with 100 pictures-worth of film preloaded. For the first time, a camera had been built which was small enough to take anywhere, and which required no technical knowledge to use. Any person with $25 could buy Eastman’s camera and take pictures with the push of a button. Once the customer had taken 100 pictures, they would merely post the camera back to the Eastman Kodak Co. and within weeks they would receive back prints of their pictures and a fresh load of film. This sudden burst of accessibility completely changed the photography industry. Eastman Kodak’s slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest.”

More? Sure thing, how about George Eastman’s Grave, Kodak’s own Biography of George Eastman, The George Eastman House (A museum dedicated to Eastman) and Information on and Pictures of Antique Kodak Cameras

Film Photography Going into the 20th Century

As the world moved into the twentieth century photography was still attempting to define its role in society. As photography became more accessible, it in some ways took over the function which painting had fulfilled in the nineteenth century. Many felt, that it was a superior tool for creating realistic portraits, as well as landscape and still life studies. At the same time, advances in the technology of film resulted in increased commercialization as well as the rapid development of the world’s newest art form: cinema.

But throughout all of these changes, photography as an art never ceased to flourish, and many of the photographs which have become indelible elements of our global consciousness were created during this period. Below are just a few of the important names who helped to capture these images.

Jacob Riis

The Danish-American Riis began his career in photography at just about the time when film was becoming an industry standard. From the beginning Riis had an unflagging dedication to using his art as a means for bringing the lives of the poor of New York City into a venue of representation visible to all.

It was Riis’ great collection of photographs How the Other Half Lives (1890) which exposed the sordid reality of poverty in America to the public eye and which convinced the then president Theodore Roosevelt to shut down the inhuman state run poor houses of New York. His photographs of working class people and their lives still communicate a sense of awe and shocking immediacy today.

It’s well worth delving into Riis’ history a bit further, so check out Riis on Wikipedia, A short biography of Riis on the Harvard site, and some Photographs by Riis

Edward Curtis

By the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the cultures of the native peoples of the North American continent had begun to disappear as a result of United States expansionism. Wealthy American financier J.P. Morgan paid photographer Edward Curtis to photograph these cultures and compile his photos into a book called The North American Indian.

Although Curtis has sometimes been criticized for manipulating his photographs to represent Native Americans in a way consistent with the stereotypes of his day, it nevertheless remains that he succeeded in capturing images of many Native American leaders who would have otherwise been forgotten by history.

More on Curtis on Wikipedia, and a good essay; Edward S. Curtis in Context.

André Kertész

By the 1920′s, while many photographers continued in the tradition of the realism of Curtis and Riis (most notably: Dorothea Lange), other photographers worked to discover a more esoteric style which could answer to the new developments in Modernist painting and sculpture. Hungarian born André Kertész was just such a photographer.

Born in the final years of the nineteenth century, Kertész was completely self-educated in photography. When he moved to France in 1925, he fit in easily with the Dada movement of artists and poets. His work is conceptual, and often attempts to make visible elements of the world which are not immediately visible to the naked eye. He accomplishes this through close-ups, unusual lighting, and mirrors, among other tropes.

More on Kertész: Photographs by Kertész, André Kertész on PBS’s American Masters and More photographs by Kertész

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams is perhaps the most well known photographer in the English Speaking world for his famous landscape and nature photographs. Images such as Monolith, Adam’s imposing portrait of the Half Dome cliff in Yosemite California have made his name internationally recognizable.

Throughout his life, which lasted well into the latter years of the twentieth century, Adams was dedicated to nature photography and to nature itself as a treasure to be protected. He saw his photographs as a way to communicate the value of natural open spaces. However, Adams always insisted that beyond any political motivation, the final purpose of any photograph should be its sheer aesthetic beauty.

More on Adams can be found at The Ansel Adams Gallery, Zpub’s Short Biography of Adams and Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film on PBS

Annie Leibovitz

Moving closer towards the digital age the role of photography again found itself destabilized. Annie Leibovitz, born in 1949 is a contemporary photographer who has repeatedly problematized the distinction between art and popular photography. She has worked in both media, but her work is powerful regardless of its “content.”

Most famously, she captured the final photograph of John Lennon of Beatles fame. What had been intended as a solo portrait of Lennon became the famous image of a nude John holding on desperately to the fully clothed Yoko. Leibovitz has continued to produce work in all subject categories which is varied in conception. From political to comic, dense to sparse, it continues to amaze.

More on Leibovitz; Leibovitz’s Portraits.

Oh, and if you’re hanging about in London, there’s a Leibovitz exhibit on at the National Portrait Gallery until mid-February. Well worth a trip.

Haje’s History of Photography

The History of Photography part 1 - Before Film
The History of Photography part 2 - The Firm Era
The History of Photography part 3 - The Digital Era

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