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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) (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)

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)

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

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

8 replies on “Telling the History of Photographic Processes, from Daguerreotypes to Digital”

  1. “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.”

    Just goes to show that a “process historian” knows nothing about art, or about the craft involved in digital photography and printing. The craft has changed along with the tools, but believe me, digital photography is still a craft.

    1. In the context of this series that is focused on physical processes, I think he is referring to the hands-on nature of “craft” and not suggesting that craft as creative action isn’t happening.

      1. Yes, I think he means as you say — but what I do with the computer to develop my images in the digital darkroom is hands-on, too. Too many people think using Photoshop is simple, when in fact it’s very complex and knowing what to do to a properly exposed digital file (which looks awful when the maximum amount of digital information is captured), and how to do it, is a matter of hands-on craftsmanship.

        1. Agreed, and I think watching the series it’s clearly depicted as an evolution rather than a break from photographic processes of the past.

  2. Glad there is an interest and effort in documenting the history of photographic processes and getting it out to the general public but this series is like Downton Abbey replete with inaccurate and overly-romanticized stagings of obscure processes. I know demonstration is helpful to aid understanding but please indicate these are merely simulations. It is bad scholarship to fake documentation and not admit they are facsimiles or simulations. It is not fair to your process historian to make him look like a faker. It also breeds misunderstanding about these technologies and 19th century photographic documentation is already full of omissions and inaccuracies. Does the George Eastman House really need to contribute to the confusion?

    1. It would be great to say what specific omissions/inaccuracies you saw as if there was anything grievous I would like to note it.

  3. the thing about digital image making is that everything is reversible. there is no sense of commitment b/c decisions can be erased. it’s not a judgment, it’s a fact. and that fact profoundly changes the artist’s process mentally. the image is not a reality until it’s printed, so it can go through multiple iterations virtually and never see the light of day. what if we never saw artists’ mistakes or evolution of work? it would change everything.

    Other than the finished product, I don’t see much similarity in the process of digital image production and film photography. I’ve done both and they are very different mental, emotional, and physical processes. I also think it’s important for me, as the viewer, to know how the image has been produced, although some don’t find that important. it gives me more insight into the artist’s process.

    1. I’m thankful to get out of the darkroom. After thousand of hours I was developing an aversion to being in the dark.

      “…insight into the artist’s process.” How do you ever see the artist’s process? I never show incomplete or half thought out ideas. I only present finished work. I went digital 12 years ago and have never looked back, in fact I find digital to be FAR more flexible and inexpensive and creatively enabling than wet darkroom.

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