Lesson Plan:

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 Smithsonian-related photograph 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:

  • the introduction of portrait photography
  • the invention of a photographic printing process
  • the capture of instantaneous action
  • the advent of home photography

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 lesson.


Thomas Eakins and Frances Eakins, 1851

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 seconds.

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.

San Francisco, Corner of California and Montgomery Streets, ca. 1857

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.

Horse in Motion, 1887

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.

Girls Outside, ca. 1892

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 development process.

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.