Every Picture Has a Story
The Smithsonian Institution
was founded in 1846, six years after photography arrived in America. From the beginning, photographs were part of the Smithsonian collections. The oldest
predates the oldest Smithsonian building -- it is a
picture of the architect's model. Today, our museums and archives house more
than 13 million photographs.
These lessons examine four important steps in the history of the medium:
introduction of portrait photography
of a photographic printing process
the capture of
the advent of
Spanning less than fifty
years, the pictures show the technology becoming at once more sophisticated and
more widely available. In the beginning, photography was in the hands of a few
professionals skilled in chemistry and optics. By 1900, nearly everyone could
own a camera and could take a picture just by pushing a button.
In this story, there are
parallels to the development of other forms of technology. We hope that the lessons will be helpful in any
broad study of technology and society.
In both lessons,
students see that, while not every picture tells its own story, every picture
has a story behind it. In the first lesson, they make observations and
inferences about the pictures. In the second, they use their predicting skills
to try to determine the chronological order of the pictures. Therefore, the
background information should not be shared with the students until the end of the second
THE FOUR PHOTOGRAPHS
French theatrical painter
Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre introduced the first practical method of
photography in 1839. Earlier photographic experiments yielded images that
quickly faded away or that required hours and hours of exposure - so much time
that the movement of the sun caused blurring. Daguerre's images, which he
called daguerreotypes, were permanent impressions on silver-coated copper
plates. They required about thirty minutes of exposure. By the 1850s,
technical improvements had reduced the exposure time to less than thirty
This childhood portrait of the
American artist Thomas Eakins and his sister Frances is a typical
daguerreotype. The subject matter of these early photographs was limited by
the long exposure, the difficulty of controlling light with the camera, and the
lack of a means of printing the image. With a few exceptions, daguerreotypes were
stiffly posed portraits produced in a studio. Like a painted portrait, each
daguerreotype was a unique object - the copper plate itself was the medium for
the image, so the image could not be reproduced.
The daguerreotype brought a new
democracy to portraiture. The people we know from painted portraits are mostly
the rich and famous. By the 1850s, one could attain this kind of immortality - a
permanent visual record of oneself - for less than a penny.
This photograph was probably commissioned by the Pacific
Express telegraph company, which had just been established in the building in
the foreground. It is a paper print of a negative image developed on a wet
plate, a heavy glass plate coated with the sticky substance collodion.
The wet-plate process, introduced in 1851, was an advance
over the daguerreotype's direct impression on a copper plate. Because it was
easier to control light with a wet-plate camera, photography began to move
outside. Because the photographer could make an unlimited number of prints of
the negative image, photography began to move from the private to the public
realm. The wet-plate process gave rise to photojournalism. During the Civil
War, Mathew Brady's team of photographers gave the world the first extensive
documentation of battlefield scenes.
Still, there were great
limitations to the process. The plates had to be developed immediately. A
photographer working outside had to set up some kind of darkroom, usually a
tent. The exposure time, five to fifteen seconds, was too long to capture
motion, which accounts for the quietness of this street in the rollicking
boomtown of San Francisco. Pedestrians were moving too quickly to be seen.
In 1872, Leland Stanford,
former governor of California and a breeder of racehorses, hired San Francisco photographer Eadweard Muybridge to make a study of one of his horses at full
gallop. At the time, photographers were still using the wet-plate process,
with its slow exposure. Muybridge designed a camera with a very wide lens to
take in as much light as possible. He set up twelve of the cameras along the
racetrack at Stanford's horse farm. He attached a string to the shutter of each
camera and ran the strings across the track. As the horse came down the track,
bursting through the strings, the shutters snapped one by one.
In those first pictures,
Muybridge could only record shadow images of the horse, but he captured, for
the first time in history, actions so rapid that they cannot be seen in life.
As he continued his studies of motion, he took advantage of great technical
advances in photography. In the late 1880s, when he created the pictures here,
he was working with the latest thing, gelatin-coated dry plates. The gelatin
was much more sensitive to light than collodion. The plates allowed for exposure
as fast as 1/2,000th of a second.
Pictures of motion led,
ultimately, to motion pictures. Even before the invention of photography,
there were machines that worked on the principle of the movie projector - a
series of drawings whirling on a wheel gave the illusion of movement.
Muybridge's motion studies were the first photographs that could be used in
such a machine.
In 1888, the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company introduced
a handheld camera, the Kodak, with the slogan You push the button, we do the
rest. The camera came loaded with a roll of gelatin-coated film. When the
film was used up, the photographer mailed the entire camera to an Eastman
factory. Eastman returned the camera newly loaded with film, along with prints
of the pictures. Girls Outside is an early example of a genre born of
the Kodak - the snapshot.
The first Kodaks cost $25 - about $450 in today's money, or
roughly the price of a low-end digital camcorder. In 1900, Eastman introduced
the Kodak Brownie, which cost just a dollar. The factors that made cameras
convenient and affordable were related to the technical advances that aided Muybridge's
work. The exposure time of gelatin was so fast that the camera did not have to
be held steady on a stand; it could be held in the hand. Gelatin did not
require immediate chemical treatment. This freed the photographer from the
And so began the mass
manufacture of handheld cameras, for which there was a ready market in the America of the 1880s. As photography curator Keith F. Davis has written: "The rapid
expansion of the middle class created an enormous pool of consumers with money,
leisure time, and artistic inclinations. For them, photography represented a
thoroughly up-to-date pastime, perfectly in keeping with the progressive spirit
of the age."
Girls Outside took less than a second to expose.
Before the 1880s, the world had to stop for the camera. By end of the decade,
amateur photographers had the power to stop the world for a moment.