Art

Telling the History of Photographic Processes, from Daguerreotypes to Digital

Woman with a camera, albumen print cabinet card, by A. J. Davison (188) (via George Eastman House)
Woman with a camera, albumen print cabinet card, by A. J. Davison (188) (via George Eastman House)

The George Eastman House released a 12-part video series last month that examines the history of photography from the perspective of its technology. Photographic Processes Seriesavailable on YouTube, starts with the silhouette and traces photography’s development through daguerreotypes, cyanotypes, Kodachrome, and right up to digital.

Daguerreotype portrait of Rollin Heber Neal by Southworth & Hawes (1850) (via George Eastman House)
Daguerreotype portrait of Rollin Heber Neal by Southworth & Hawes (1850) (via George Eastman House) (click to enlarge)

Six of the videos were put online in 2012, and this new release, funded by a grant from the US Institute of Museum and Library Services, includes six new videos. Each is around six minutes and draws on the Eastman House’s vast, usually unseen-by-the-public, vaults. Its holdings include one of the world’s largest collections of daguerreotypes, the process launched in 1839 that first made photography commercially successful. Interviews with curators, archivists, and historians contextualize how different processes changed the perspective of time, and reflected their respective eras. The daguerreotype, for example, was widely popular in the United States, where a highly nomadic population cherished the silver-coated copper plate photographs as representations of loved ones in distant places.

“We make photographs in a different way from the way we used to, but we make them for the same reasons,” independent photography curator Alison Nordström says in the Photographic Processes Series. “I would argue that a 19th-century Victorian family album has exactly the same purpose as the 200 pictures of your kid that you carry on your phone.”

Beginning with 18th-century innovations like the camera obscura that inspired 19th-century innovators like William Henry Fox Talbot with his negative and positive photographic process, the dominant voice in the video series is that of Mark Osterman, a process historian who also demonstrates or reenacts the historic techniques. He explains that despite his deep knowledge of often obsolete processes, he loves digital, among other reasons because it serves as a reminder of the absence of a physical contact with the photograph.

“Artists have come to a point where many of them are saying, ‘I feel like the machine is in control and I want to have my hands in this object’,” Osterman explains in the series. “When the finished object is something other than a computer screen it harkens back to the day when photography was a craft. It’s not just about the image, although the image is king. It’s about the object itself, and you made that object.”

Below you can watch the complete Photographic Processes Series. The George Eastman House also regularly hosts workshops on many of these processes, which are listed on their website.

Lace slated paper print by William Henry Fox Talbot (1845) (via George Eastman House)
Lace slated paper print by William Henry Fox Talbot (1845) (via George Eastman House)
Portrait of three women, daguerreotype (1856), made by Southworth & Hawes (via George Eastman House)
Portrait of three women, daguerreotype (1856), made by Southworth & Hawes (via George Eastman House)
Pink lilies, color autochrome, by C.E. Wheelock (1915) (via George Eastman House)
Pink lilies, color autochrome, by C.E. Wheelock (1915) (via George Eastman House)

View the George Eastman House’s Photographic Processes Series on YouTube.

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