Although the principles of the camera obscura – a smile light projection box – had been understood for thousands for years, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that Thomas Wedgwood discovered he could make simple prints using silver nitrate exposed to the sun
We live in strange times. Our day-to-day lives are now recorded for all to see. From photos posted on social media sites I can see what someone has had for dinner or where they went at the weekend and with who. I can enjoy pictures of pets, loved ones and even inside someone’s bedroom even though I might not actually know that person personally. How times have changed!
Once upon a time family photos were pasted into albums or hoarded in boxes in the attic to be looked at occasionally and reminisced over. I have vivid memories of sitting with my granny looking at old photos and listening to her stories of who the people in the photos were, how she knew them and what the story was behind the picture. I now have my granny’s wedding picture – a beautiful black and white studio shot of her and my grandfather looking solemn in their 1926 wedding outfits. It’s a photo I treasure in a way I can’t imagine valuing a mobile phone shot of someone’s big day.
Although the principles of the camera obscura – a simple light projection box – had been understood for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that Thomas Wedgwood discovered he could make simple prints using silver nitrate exposed to the sun. Over the next 100 years, a series of technical advances brought cameras into everyday life.
On a summer day in 1827, Joseph Nicephore Niepce made the first photographic image with a camera obscura. Prior to Niepce people used the camera obscura for viewing or drawing purposes not for making photographs. His heliographs, or sun prints as they were called, were the prototype for the modern photograph, by letting light draw the picture. However, Niepce’s photograph required eight hours of light exposure to create and after appearing would soon fade away.
At the same time Louis Daguerre was also experimenting to find a way to capture an image, but it would take another dozen years before he was able to reduce exposure time to less than 30 minutes and keep the image from disappearing afterwards.
Daguerre developed a more convenient and effective method of photography, naming it after himself – the daguerreotype. His process ‘fixed’ the images onto a sheet of silver-plated copper. The inventor of the first negative from which multiple positive prints were made was Henry Fox Talbot, and a contemporary of Daguerre.
In 1889, George Eastman invented film with a base that was flexible, unbreakable, and could be rolled. This made the mass-produced box camera a reality. By the early 1940s colour film became commercially available producing prints whose colour would last 50 years or more and by the 1960s many people were able to afford both cameras and colour film.
Scarcity, condition, the identity of the photographer and subject all play a role in determining the value of antique and vintage photographs. However, if the photograph is by someone famous the price does rise considerably. A photograph by Edward Steichen called The Pond – Moonlight, a multiple gum bichromate print from 1904, sold for almost $3 million in 2006 for example, whilst a tin type picture of Billy the Kid by an unknown photographer dating to 1879-80 sold for $2.3 million also in 2006.
The Victoria & Albert in London was the first museum in the world to collect and exhibit photography as an art form and the museum now holds the UK’s national collection of the art of photography which is one of the largest and most important in the world, comprising more than 500,000 photographs.
Antique and vintage cameras are valued by collectors for many reasons – from the historical significance of 19th century wood cameras to the fine optics of classic vintage Leicas. Kodak and Polaroid are two other big names in camera collecting, as is Bolex in movie cameras.
Oskar Barnack began experimenting with 35mm film in 1914 and built some prototypes of what eventually become the Leica I, the first practical 35mm camera, released in 1925. In 2012 a Leica prototype camera produced in 1923 sold for a record-breaking 2.16m Euros (£1.74 million) at an auction in Austria. More improvements came when Kodak introduced the Retina I, the first camera to use a modern 135mm film cartridge.
Photography soon became affordable to all, even before the 1947 introduction of Polaroid’s instant camera.