From the black box to Dropbox

Nowadays, the majority of all popular content online is visual: videos and images rule the internet, and they’re what people want to see and watch most. Barely anyone still bothers reading, unless it’s supplementary text that doesn’t drag out and exists to serve yet another image. It’s become the medium for entertainment, and in many cases the medium for expression. We’ve simply discovered and have taken full advantage of the ability to permanently capture what usually only our eyes could see – and I think it’s time to look back in awe at how that came to be.

Even the concept, despite being very commonplace nowadays, is still partially mind blowing. A perfect, physical copy of what is real, captured and printed out on paper or screen for all to see again. History, personal and global, kept immortal by an invention many barely understand. How did we go from scratching at clay and woven paper with sticks and ink to the capability to create thousands of digital images, and even further the capability to store them all on the tiniest of plastic flash drives? It wasn’t even 200 years ago that the first, very poor quality permanent image was created – before that, photographs were literally a thing of impossibility, of myth and magic, dreams and gods.

The camera, as we know it, is very, very young – yet its roots travel as far back as the 5th century BC, when the Ancient Chinese and Ancient Greek first dabbled with the visual phenomena that would one day be known as the camera obscura (literally being Latin for dark chamber, camera meaning chamber). The concept, as observed in the natural environment and manipulated first by the Chinese, was and is simple (and still quite dumb founding). All that is needed is a dark room, with all six walls closed off to prevent even the slightest light from entering – and a single pinhole, made in the wall facing the image you want reproduced. The smaller the whole, the sharper the image – although also dimmer in brightness. Light would pass from behind the object through the hole and an image would be projected upon the opposite wall to the pinhole, albeit upside down. This is because of how light travels, and its similar to how the eye functions – our biological lens captures light, our cones and rods translate the light into colors and data, and an inverted image sent to the brain, which immediately flips it to present it the way it is – or at least the way our eyes perceive it.

This phenomenon was first mentioned by the Chinese philosopher Mozi, who made mention of a “locked treasure room” that fit the criteria of the pinhole camera method, and later by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who viewed the shape of a partial solar eclipse reflected onto the ground from a gap within the dense foliage of an overhanging plane tree. He noted that “sunlight travelling through small openings between the leaves of a tree, the holes of a sieve, the openings wickerwork, and even interlaced fingers will create circular patches of light on the ground.”. Later, Theon of Alexandria observed that “candlelight passing through a pinhole will create an illuminated spot on a screen that is directly in line with the aperture and the center of the candle.”

Their discoveries were shared throughout the centuries, as other artists discovered the same thing, and used it to his or her advantage. Although it was not until after the 9th century that someone noted that not only did light pass through a hole in a concentrated beam, but projected an upside down image of what was on the other side of the aperture – this someone was Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham), who, in a lamp experiment, successfully transferred an image of the outside world onto a wall in the inside of his room, using different light sources and holes to project images of different sizes and quality.

The term “camera obscura” first came into use much later in 1604, after it had been changed and improved and had come into common use among artists as a tool for aid in painting and sketching, as well as astronomy. Then, in 1816, the first breakthrough in the development of the camera since the camera obscura’s inception – the first permanent photograph. The concept had been dabbled with in the 1700s, but no one quite got the chemistry right in trying to find the right combination of plate and light-sensitive powder, for the key to making a photo was to find a way to burn the image the camera projected into the material. Nicéphore Niépce was the very man to discover with key, and with Louis Daguerre, he aimed to create a commercially viable photography set. However, Niépce died before the whole thing was done, so Daguerre completed the work on his own, improved on his partner’s previous designs, and attempted to go public – yet to his dismay, he did not find success. The French government bought the rights and the invention from Daguerre, and left him and Niépce’s son with a handsome pension as payment.

And it was then that the daguerreotype method, as Daguerre aptly named it, became popular. At first, the design featured a copper plate coated in silver, and treated with iodine vapor for light sensitivity, and the resulting image, garnered after enough exposure, was then treated in mercury vapor and salt. Exposure times remained another drawback of photography until mechanical shutters came along.

1888 then saw the market hit with George Eastman’s “Kodak”, the very first camera which featured photographic film instead of treated plates. In 1900, photography became even simpler and more people had access to inexpensive photos with the arrival of the Eastmans’ “Brownie”, which stayed on shelves and went through several redesigns all the way to the 1960’s. Yet film photography, albeit cheaper and a sensation to the industry, did not threaten the likes of plate photography, which still created far sharper and more high quality photographs.

Film made an innovative comeback later in the 20s with the 35 mm cine film-camera, which allowed camera’s to be even smaller while retaining high-quality in their images. The first to market this invention was Oskar Barnack, who’s Leica I hit the market with success. Competitors spawned left and right, which saw the rise of Contax and Kodak’s reply, the Retina I, and made the 35 mm camera a staple in the industry. The rise in popularity for the production of 35 mm cameras also saw the beginning of modern-day camera giant Canon.

Alongside the 35 mm film roll came the practical TLRs and SLRs, twin- and single-lens reflex cameras. By that, I mean that while the technology had been there for ages, they were too bulky and unpopular to be used – but that changed in 1928. After the Second World War, production increased, and the Japanese market stepped into the industry. When the Polaroid finally came in 1948, it was too expensive for people to really buy into, but that changed later in the 60s with the release of the Polaroid Swinger – and the instant pictures became an instant hit.

1988 then birthed what we know to be the staple of photography today – the digital camera. Equipped with an entire 16 MB of memory, it was a beast at the time, although the first actual model built by Fuji never shipped internationally – and perhaps domestically. A year later, the digital market began with Fuji’s second attempt, and continued a long line of extremely pricey cameras from competitors. The Kodak DCS SLR was $13,000 on release.

With the continued flourish in technology and the introduction of digital file formats (like MPEG and JPEG), the camera industry continued its development – in 2000, Japan even released a phone with a camera. Nowadays, that’s commonplace – but 13 years ago, it was a mark of the future. Fast forward just a flash, and integration between computer and camera became common, and in the early 90s, the first file sharing websites opened up to let people flaunt and share their pictures all across the Internet.

Now, there’s a saying that the iPhone may be the world’s most popular camera. 80 years ago, color pictures were a thing of impossibility, and the telephone was nothing more than a thing you used to call someone (and maybe beat over the head) with.

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