Brief History of Photography

(350 BC to the 18th century)

Decades ago I read in a book published by the prestigious Mexican Autonomous University (UNAM) that the Iraqi physicist Abu Ali Al-Hasan (965-1038 DC) made the first impressions with light on a chemically treated surface during the Middle Ages, when Europe was a stronghold of obscurantism. This statement deserves serious attention, yet all textbooks I have seen present a French inventor as the creator of photography (see below).

Before we continue, I must declare that all history books available to me ignore the contributions and developments of Asian, African and Latin American photographers and inventors, so I could not include them although I know that, for example, the Japanese passion with photography started in the mid 19th century and that scientists such as Clodomiro Picado in Costa Rica used it in the late 19th century to document cryptic coloration in a study of Darwinian evolution (Latin American photography began in the 1840's, at the time of Talbot). Please bear in mind this chauvinistic nature of history books, which tend to overstate the accomplishments of people from the area where the books are written, and vice versa.

The German artist Albrecht Dürer, among many other "classical" painters such as Van Meer, is thought to have used a camara obscura. The device, refined by Geovanni della Porta (1538-1615), was later adapted to produce photographs. Even the most advanced digital camera of today is based on the same principle.

However, for a fair treatment, I most mention the theoretical pioneers that are ignored by many history books. Aristotle (384-322 BC) suggested the idea of photography more than a millennium ago, and several other workers invented components that were necessary to produce photographs:

Albertus Magnus (1139-1238) silver nitrate, Georges Fabricius (1516-1571) silver chloride, Girolamo Cardan (1501-1576) the objective and Daniel Barbaro (1568) the diaphragm. Wilhelm Homberg described how light darkened some chemicals (photochemical effect) in 1694. The fiction book Giphantie (by the French Thiphaigne de La Roche, 1729-1774) described photography unequivocally.

Camera obscura
A camara obscura (1646).