Explore Photography’s Origins with George Eastman Museum’s Photographic Processes Series

Photography may already have progressed by leaps and bounds, but an interesting video series by George Eastman Museum reminds us of how it all began.

For today and future generations, film photography may already seem to be as traditional as photographic processes go. But it actually stretches way back. For us to be able to appreciate how far photographic technology has come, George Eastman Museum created a series of videos that take us back to the processes that revolutionized how we see and capture the world through photography.

Some of these age-old photographic processes, such as the wet collodion processes and large format photography, have survived well and are still being practiced by a handful of photographers today. But these also have their own origins worth exploring. George Eastman Museum walks us through these important chapters of photography’s history in the fascinating seven part series below:

Before Photography

The series begins by explaining to us that photography was not a one-off invention, but rather a series of experiments that explored its potential. These include the invention of mechanical devices used to create silhouettes, the camera obscura, the discovery of light-sensitive silver salts, and early attempts to make images.

The Daguerreotype

Here, we learn about the two minds, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre, who developed the Daguerreotype, the first commercially successful photographic process announced in 1839. Niépce is best known for creating the first photograph taken in 1826 through a process called the heliograph. Daguerre took over and was eventually able to create sharply defined, highly reflective, and one-of-a-kind photographs on copper plates coated with silver.

Talbot’s Processes

While Daguerre was busy developing his photographic process in France, William Henry Fox Talbot was also working on his own in England. Later, he became known for inventing the negative/positive photographic process that emerged as the standard for creating photographs during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Albumen Print

In 1850, the albumen silver print was invented and became the 19th century’s most popular photographic printing process for creating mass-produced photos. This print involved coating a sheet of paper with albumen (egg white) and salts, then applying to it a silver nitrate solution. This chapter explores how the process made it possible to create a sharp image with fine details over a smooth and glossy surface.

The Platinum Print

The platinum print was developed at around the same time as the albumen silver print, but yielded very different results. It involved sensitizing paper with iron salts before exposing it to a negative until a faint image forms. To intensify the image, the paper would be developed in a chemical process that replaces the iron salts with platinum. The result is a matte finish print with more neutral tones. This printing process became popular with art photographers during the 20th century, and was the start of elevating photography as an art form.

Color Photography

Reproducing the world in color was something that the earliest photography practitioners actively sought after, as we learn in this chapter. Their experiments included developing chemical formulations aimed at creating color images through direct exposure, and painting over the monochrome prints. Eventually, early additive color processes and later subtractive processes like chromogenic color and Kodachrome film emerged.

Digital Photography

When the digital camera was invented in 1975 by Kodak engineer Steven Sasson, he probably didn’t expect that it would overtake film photography and dominate the industry. This chapter explores the timeline of digital camera technology from Kodak’s perspective, beginning from Sasson’s first prototype all the way to the ubiquitous smartphone.

Check out the George Eastman Museum YouTube channel for more of this fascinating photography stuff!


Screenshot image from the video by George Eastman Museum