From the Camera Obscura to the Magic Lantern

Could it be that by using a machine, a mechanical device created by humans, we were able to create art? In Aristotle's age, the word techné referred to mastery, art, ability, creativity; in other words, to the group of necessary skills to carry out activities such as navigation, war or writing a poem. The etymology of the word ars (art) drives us to the Greek word techné (technique), which, as one can observe, provides a vague meaning. Over the centuries, the use of the term "art" was limited to those activities aimed to provide an aesthetic look and to those acts through which the human being was seeking emotions, expressing fears, anguish, and spiritual aspirations.

Illustration of the camera obscura or pinhole camera




In 1826, thanks to Joseph Nicèphore Niépce, we witnessed an extraordinary event in the history of inventions when from a window of his house in Gras, near Châlons-sur-Saône in France, he took his first photograph, which is preserved up to this day. Photography, the art of freezing the moment, of capturing what we think is unique and elusive, is an invention of hybrid nature; purely technological in a material sense (the technique of setting and reproducing on a material sensitive to light the images collected in the back of a camera obscura) and drastically intangible in its results, given that its products, which can be touched though, are the origin of a new artistic language. Truly interesting. Perhaps, a unique case by the perfection of the mixture between matter and spirit combined into a technological apparatus.

Photography, as we know it nowadays, is the result of the convergence of two phenomena, separated up to a certain point, the camera obscura or "pinhole camera" and the registration of an image through light. And, like nearly all inventions, it was born from the synthesis of experiences that have been depositing like layers of dust over time. The contemplation of light properties, incredible gift from the gods, couldn't stop fascinating and strongly attracting attention from the most curious minds since immemorable times. In ancient times, Aristotle suggested that the elements that made up light translated themselves to the observer's eye in a wave motion. To prove his idea, he built the first camera obscura ever in history, which he described as follows: "The light is allowed to pass through a tiny hole made in a room with all its walls closed. On the opposite wall of the hole, it will be represented what is found in front of the room". From the Greek's description, lots of names started to appear, names of people related in some way to the issue of "copying reality" to leave credible testimony of it, to send accurate images: the Arab sage Alhacen, with his description of the lunula formed during an eclipse of the Sun, physicist Reiner Gemma-Frisius, who illustrated for the first time the camera obscura in 1545 in his work De radio astronomico et geometrico liber or Leonardo da Vinci and Giambattista della Porta, who left evidence of their works in their manuscripts on the functioning of an apparatus that allowed painters and architects to basically draw on a translucid sheet the contours of the objects reflected. While all of these investigations were looking for the design of a primitive photographic camera, the process of image fixing using light was very far from being discovered. Some photography historians situate the first attempts to find a substance sensitive to light in 1727, when German Johann H. Schulz, an anatomy professor who was experimenting with phosphorus when in an act of serendipity, he discovered that silver salts became darker when exposed to light. In 1802, the English chemist Humphry Davy and his friend Thomas Wedgwood, son of a potter, managed to reproduce in black and white paintings on glass when silver nitrate was applied on a leather surface that they later put in a pinhole camera (camera obscura). By using this proceeding, they obtained silhouettes from leaves and insect wings. However, they had no way of fixing those images permanently.

But, let's go back to Niépce. In 1826, he made his first heliography from an oily solution, bitumen of Judea, which when exposed to light turned partially soluble, and he used as a base a glass plate, even though, he would obtain the most durable results using pewter plates. When exposing the plate to light, the coating areas affected turned insoluble or soluble, depending on the intensity of the light received. After the exposition, which often lasted up to 2 hours, the plate was bathed in a dissolvent made up of lavender essential oil and white oil of petroleum, and thereby, the non-affected coated areas disintegrated. Then, the plate was cleaned up using water, so that it could be seen the image made up of the bitumen layer for the clears and the shadows by the silver plate surface. In 1827 Niépce directed himself to the Royal Society of London to try to publish his invention but all of his attempts were in vain and two years later he signed a partnership agreement with another character in the field of photography, whom he contacted through the opticians Vincent and Charles Chevalier. The person in question was nothing less than the painter Louis Jacques Mandè Daguerre, who, in parallel, was also working on the photographic proceedings. But, as usual, history is thankless and Niépce died in 1833 and left Daguerre, whose name was added to the catalog of names that everyone remembers, leading the investigations that finally ended with the invention of the daguerreotype.

Unlike the calotype, exposed by W. H. Fox Talbot in the Royal Institution in 1839, which inaugurated the principle of negative image, the daguerreotype produced a single photography, not reproducible, on a metal plate. The result was images both positive and negative that differentiated each other by their reflecting aspect due to the material of the base and their extreme accuracy. In fact, at the end of the 1830s, the desire to fix images produced in a camera obscura created two very different processes that provided different aspects in the fixations. From the clarity obtained using Daguerre's proceeding to the depth of shadows and figures from the calotype on paper. If the metallic plate offered great accurate lines and precision in the details, the calotype promoted the overall composition and the sets of lights under the equilibrium of the masses and the density of shadows obtained with this particular photographic process.

Paradoxically, as an irony of history, the daguerreotype, icon par excellence of the new bourgeoisie and of the democratization of art established in the industrial revolution, was improved and publicized by a painter who announced the end of the oil portraits as a privilege of the powerful to be passed on to posterity. Before Talbot, in 1839, Daguerre allowed his proceeding to be revealed publicly at the Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts in Paris by a very well-known scientist, the physicist Aragó, whose task was to exhibit Daguerre's process as an empirical source of reality's manifestation. In fact, the invention had true scientific, technical, medical, astronomical, judicial and ethnological uses, since at a very early stage was exposed as a new and astonishing way of documentation. Perhaps, because of this, the French newspaper Lumiére claimed: "from now on we will be able to travel without moving".

The 19th century was booming, the machinery from the industrial revolution howled, and the chemists, physicists, opticians, physicians, and biologists were working at the same frenetic rhythm as of the society at the moment; a rhythm that rapidly satisfied the necessity of improving the photographic proceedings, of perfectionating what would later become one of the obsessions in the Western World, technological and narcissist: the desire to see themselves in a picture, to immortalize and capture life moments, to reflect the reality of what was happening and, if possible, to stop time. During "The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations", the first of the largest universal exhibitions, which was celebrated in the city of London in 1851, Great Britain included photography both in the category of machinery and in the category dedicated to fine arts. This double classification showed pretty well the intermediary position between a science and an art.

Photography (and the photographers) is so peculiar, so revealing of what happened in the 19th century as the great historical novels are. The documental, artistic and symbolic value substituted its initial nature of playing, curiosity or entertainment. Photography ended up interested in all aspects of life, from portraits of kids, pets, scientific taverns to ethnography, which focuses on capturing the tools or the inside scenes of villages from all over the world. But what nowadays amazes our souls and drives us to look in-depth at those snapshots is the sensitivity of the great pioneers. Among them, Félix Turnachon Nadar, journalist, caricaturist and novelist who was the first person in history to take photographs of Paris from the air, while flying in a hot-air balloon, and also the pioneer of the photo report while interviewing famous people; and Charles Clifford who, during his stay in Spain, carried out a series of singular and original snapshots of famous public buildings, such as the Canal de Isabel II and the northern railway lines, starting what we know today as "industrial photography".

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