The History of Photography

The History of Photography

From its invention to its current omnipresence, photography captivates us. It shows us things that would otherwise remain unseen, in an entirely unique way. The stunning wall art by masters like Man Ray and Edward Steichen have long since become classics from the history of photography.



“One might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing.”

MoMA Curator John Szarkowski



But when was photography invented? And by whom? Join us for a look into the origins of photography, from the early days with silver chloride-coated paper to the world of digital photography and video we have today. Find a curated selection of masterpieces in the LUMAS collection. Take a journey through time, discover famous photographers, and find your personal favorite pieces!



Contents – The History of Photography




The Camera Obscura and the Origins of Photography

When was photography invented?


The roots of photography extend back further than you might assume. In the 4th Century BC, Aristotle made use of the principles of the camera obscura, in which an image is projected through a small hole. Through a camera obscura’s pinhole, the image of the world is often reversed or upside-down. While our notion of a camera has evolved dramatically, the “camera obscura” is considered the ancient building block upon which further revolutionary developments and inventions in the field of photography were built.


Who invented photography?


Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre are often considered the inventors of photography with cameras as we now know it. The former started out experimenting with silver chloride and silver halide photography, but couldn’t figure out how to prevent them from darkening with exposure to light.

  • Then in 1826, Niépce succeeded in taking the first camera photograph. He used a sheet of pewter coated with bitumen, which required an exposure time of at least 8 hours! The subject of this photograph hit close to home for Niépce; it is the view from his workroom in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France.
  • Painter Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was so excited by this achievement, he partnered with Niépce. Daguerre continued to develop, refine, and tinker with the process using silver-plated sheets of copper and fuming them with mercury vapor. As he continued to develop this process, Daguerre was able to vastly reduce to the exposure time.


  • In 1839, with exposure times of just a few seconds, the daguerreotype first became a means of using photography commercially for portraits. This has proven to be a critical juncture in the history of photography when it comes to the proliferation of cameras and the medium’s success.
  • Just a few years later, William Henry Fox Talbot came up with the calotype process. This was the first process that let photographers create a negative from which multiple prints could be made.
  • In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer introduced the collodion wet plate process, which produced a negative image on a transparent glass plate. Although it was surpassed by the gelatin dry plate process in the late 1800s, the collodion process was used for tintype portraits and in the printing industry well into the 1900s.


Photography Then and Now: Selfies and “Sex Sells”


These days we think of the camera as an artist’s tool, similar to a painter’s brush. But before photography became its own art form, painting was especially dominant in the art world. In the 1800s and in the beginning of the 1900s, artists regarded photographers as inferior competition. Traditionally, people would have their portraits made by painters, who were now starting to fear for their livelihood. Regardless, the first artists soon began to integrate the camera and photography into their repertoire.

The first “selfie” ever was taken in 1839 by American lamp-maker and photography enthusiast Robert Cornelius using the daguerreotype process. Business-minded photographers immediately recognized the commercial value of easily reproducible images.


With their erotic, nude photographs in the 1850s, Alexis Gouin and Bruno Braquehais produced the predecessors to the classic pin-up photograph. They sold well, which should come as no surprise – “sex sells” was every bit as accurate then as it is now. These days, nude photography is still part of many photographer’s portfolios, although few are able to walk the narrow line between aesthetic and erotic images.




The History and Development of Photography

35mm Cameras, Color Film, and Polaroid: Milestones in the History of Photography


After their invention, it took a long time for photographs and cameras to develop into what we have come to know today. This required more revolutionary ideas and exciting reinventions, which we can now look back on as milestones in the history of photography.

  • The film roll: In 1889, George Eastman created the roll of film, which made it possible to shoot multiple pictures one after the other. He released it through his company Kodak, and it was a breakthrough in the practical application of photography. It made snapshots possible, and no longer did the images need to be immediately and individually processed. In the same year, Thomas Edison cut it down the middle and added perforated edges, establishing the 35mm format that became so prevalent later.
  • The 35mm camera: The first Leica camera was developed by Oskar Barnack. Introduced in 1925, the Leica prototype used a small-format, 35mm film. In comparison to the bulky box cameras previously in use, the compact Leica camera was a highly modern improvement.
  • Color photos: In 1936, photographic technology took an exciting step forward with advances in color film. Kodak released Kodachrome, a film with multiple layers for developing in color.
  • Polaroid Pictures: Around that time, the first instant camera was also invented. The aesthetic is as popular as ever, enthusiastically coopted by photo services such as Instagram. The Polaroid camera introduced by Edwin H. Land in 1848 was capable of producing a fully developed photo shortly after taking it.
  • The Digital Camera: While the concept of digital cameras has existed since the 1960s, the camera Steven Sasson of Eastman Kodak built in 1975 is generally considered the first self-contained digital camera. Much like photography with film, advances in the technology have led to explosive growth in the medium’s popularity.




Classics from the History of Photography: Heinrich Heidersberger and Alfred Eisenstaedt

Over the years, photographers and artists experimented with the possibilities afforded them by new technologies and camera innovations in order to create fascinating and enduring works that would go down in photographic history.

Dress of Light: Heinrich Heidersberger



With his “Dress of Light” series near the end of the 1940s, photographer Heinrich Heidersberger created some of the most revolutionary images. He created these iconic, black-and-white images for Henri Nannen’s newly founded Stern magazine. It was cause for an uproar in prude, post-war Germany. Today, the pictures are photo art classics, globally respected for their innovative technical execution and aesthetic. The idea for these photographs was as simple as it was ingenious: Heidersberger fashioned a cooking pot into a “light gun” to “clothe” naked female bodies with patterns of stripes and dots made entirely of light and shadow. The images were a sensation.

In this way, he combined nude photography with experimental photography in a way that had never been seen before. He depicted unclothed women with his camera in such a way that they do not seem naked. Although the nude female form is at the center of these experimental photos, it is so largely as a canvas on which a game of light and shadow plays out.


Photographs of Everyday Existence



Photography confronts us with stories and aspects of life that we might otherwise never notice. And this has always been the case! An early pair of daguerreotypes paved the way for the genre of street photography. But probably the most famous champion of “slice of life” photography was Alfred Eisenstaedt. He never committed to specific photographic subjects, using his camera to capture historical figures and unknown everymen alike. One especially impressive example of the latter would be his pictures form the workers in a spaghetti factory. Nothing in these images is staged or specially lit. It is the individual circumstances that gives his pictures their vitality – pictures that tell an entire story of their own. They bring us close to the three Neapolitan boys and show us spaghetti hung out to dry like laundry in the Italian factory.


The Right Moment: Photographer Will McBride



Lenses, f-stops and film speeds are not the only factors in great pictures. The location and the right light are every bit as important. But the most important is the exact instant when the photographer presses the shutter. With a talent for sensing that exact split-second, photographer Will McBride came to photograph political heavyweights including John F. Kennedy and Willy Brandt, documenting moments in world history.




The road to digital photography

Photography in the mid-20th Century


In the medium’s early days, advancements in the technology made the photographic apparatuses easier to use. By the 1950s, they had developed into the comfortable-to-use devices we now know.

  • In 1956, Agfa released the first camera with aperture priority, meaning photographers no longer needed to set the exposure time themselves.
  • A few years later in 1963, Canon introduced its first camera prototype with autofocus, a development making snapshots much easier for the everyday photographer.
  • Rollei presented the first fully automatic camera about 10 years later. Aperture, shutter speed, focus – photographers no longer needed to set these themselves to create a usable image.

Digitalization and Image Editing in the Photography History


With the digital revolution at the end of the 20th century, once again, the world experienced photography in a new light. Photos no longer needed to be produced on analog mediums, but could be saved and edited digitally instead. This simplified the editing process tremendously.


This digitalization also brought unimaginable possibilities in photographic post-processing. Artists put the technology to the widest variety of creative uses. Pep Ventosa, for example, digitally layers countless individual images. Sabine Wild does intricate line-based editing, and Isabelle Menin uses computers to assemble photographs into floral compositions. All three are evidence of the medium’s sheer boundless potential.




The History of Photography: Short and Sweet

Since Nièpce and Daguerre introduced photography in 1839, the medium developed very quickly. A look back at how photography developed shows how many different ways artists are able to use the medium, from the first nude images to slice of life photography to classic portraits and fashion photography. Currently, with all of the possibilities afforded us by modern digital photography and image editing, we are at a high point for the medium.


Want to purchase classic photographic works in wall-ready art? In the LUMAS collection, you will find an expertly curated selection of works in the most successful medium of all time. Get swept away by the latest creations from these artists and photographers! Explore the fascinating world of photography with LUMAS and start your own art collection with a piece of photographic history.





The History of Photography Timeline

4th Century BC Aristotle describes the camera obscura
1826 Joseph Nicéphore Nièpce takes the first preserved camera photograph
1839 Daguerre and Niépce present the daguerreotype
ca. 1841 William Henry Fox Talbot develops the negative-positive process
1851 Frederick Scott Archer introduces the collodion process
1889 George Eastman presents the film strip (Kodak)
1925 Leica releases the first small-format camera with 35mm film
1936 Invention of color film (Kodak: Kodachrome, Agfa: Agfacolor)
1948 The first Polaroid camera delivers instant images using quick developing process
1956 The first aperture priority camera his the market (Agfa Automatic 66)
1963 Canon presents the first camera with autofocus
1974 Rollei produces the first fully automatic camera
End of the 1900s Transition from analog to digital photography
4th Century BC Aristotle describes the camera obscura
1826 Joseph Nicéphore Nièpce takes the first preserved camera photograph
1839 Daguerre and Niépce present the daguerreotype
ca. 1841 William Henry Fox Talbot develops the negative-positive process
1851 Frederick Scott Archer introduces the collodion process
1889 George Eastman presents the film strip (Kodak)
1925 Leica releases the first small-format camera with 35mm film
1936 Invention of color film (Kodak: Kodachrome, Agfa: Agfacolor)
1948 The first Polaroid camera delivers instant images using quick developing process
1956 The first aperture priority camera his the market (Agfa Automatic 66)
1963 Canon presents the first camera with autofocus
1974 Rollei produces the first fully automatic camera
End of the 1900s Transition from analog to digital photography

Discover Classic Photographs in the LUMAS Collection