Vintage Photography

Vintage Photography

Vintage Photography

The history of photography goes back hundreds of years to when images were first projected onto surfaces. Artists in the 16th century traced scenes using the camera obscura and camera lucida. Whilst it is true that these cameras did not capture a permanent image, they did not take a photograph as such. The image was temporary, the room where the projection took place was turned into a pinhole camera. The meaning of camera obscura is “darkened room”, and all modern cameras are named after this.

Key Discoveries Leading to Vintage Photography

Vintage Photography Discoveries
Vintage Photography Discoveries

Several key discoveries over a number of years led to the development of what became known as photography:

  • 15th Century – Robert Boyle discovered that when exposed to air, silver chloride turned dark, not when exposed to light.
  • 1727 – Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that some liquids that changed their colours when they were exposed to light.
  • Early 19th Century – Angelo Sala discovered that silver nitrate turned black after being left in the sun for long periods.
  • Early 19th Century – Thomas Wedgwood was able to capture images.

The term “photography” was invented by Sir John Herschel, an English polymath, in 1839. The photography process was also presented to the public in this year.

The Beginning of Vintage Photography

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

The French inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, is widely regarded to have produced the first true photograph in 1826. The black and white image was stored on a polished pewter plate covered with bitumen of Judea, a petroleum derivative. Niépce used a camera but the process was laborious, requiring an eight-hour exposure and bright sunshine.

Niépce applied the 1724 discovery by Johann Heinrich Schultz that a silver and chalk mixture darken when exposed to light to refine the process. Working in partnership with artist Louis Daguerre, Niépce was able to make considerable advances to the process. When he died of a stroke in 1833, Niépce left his notes to Daguerre. Daguerre did not come from a scientific background but was still able to make two significant contributions.


  1. Daguerre discovered that when the silver was exposed to iodine vapour before being exposed to light, and then exposed to mercury fumes after taking the photograph, an image formed which could then be fixed by bathing in salt.
  2. Daguerre pioneered a process in 1839 called the “Daguerreotype.” This used silver on a copper plate, a similar technique to that used for Polaroid images. The French scholar, Paul Delaroche reported this and the patent was bought and made public domain by the French government in 1839.

Exposure time was reduced from 8 hours to around 30 minutes with the invention of photographic plates. The demand for portrait photography from the middle classes was served by the Daguerreotype. Oil paintings could not compete with the volume and relatively low cost of photography and helped to provide impetus for improvements in photography.

Daguerreotypes were almost impossible to copy and easy to break, although the results were beautiful. No negatives were produced during the process so the only way to make copies was to place two cameras side by side to take the image. They were also expensive, costing over $1,000 by modern currency. The cost drove chemists to find a way to reproduce copies more inexpensively. This set in motion a series of modifications, refinements and improvements that set the blueprint for the photographic process for many years to come.

Developments in Black and White Vintage Photography

In England, William Fox Talbot adopted a much more secretive approach to his early vintage photography technique. Talbot had read about Daguerre’s process and speeded it up so that it was now possible to capture images of people. This gave rise to the calotype process in 1840.

The process involved using silver chloride to coat paper sheets which were treated to become a negative image. Apart from speed, the calotype had one major advantage over the daguerreotype in that it could reproduce positive prints in the same way as modern films. Although the Daguerreotype produced better results than the calotype, all future developments followed this path.

Talbot's Calotype Photography
Talbot’s Calotype Photography

In sharp contrast to the French government placing the Daguerreotype in the public domain, Talbot patented his process, restricting its use. Talbot spend much of his life engaged in lawsuits to defend the patent until he abandoned photography.

The French photographer, Hippolyte Bayard, produced the world’s first public photographic exhibition in 1839. He claimed to have invented a method of producing paper prints before Daguerre and Talbot but delayed its announcement, and so was not credited with the invention of photography.

An English sculptor, Frederick Scott Archer developed the collodion process in 1851. The collodion wet plate process used a coated photographic material which was sensitised, exposed and developed within fifteen minutes. This strict time restricting necessitated a portable darkroom to be used. Archer’s invention made photography more accessible to the general public and was used by Lewis Carroll. Unfortunately, Archer died in poverty as he did not patent the process. A public subscription raised a gift for his family after his death and his children also received a small pension after his wife also died.

Janez Puhar (Johann Augustin Pucher) invented the technical process for making photographs in 1841. This was recognised in Paris by the Académie Nationale Agricole, Manufacturière et Commerciale in 1841.

George Eastman and Vintage Photography Cameras

Kodak Brownie
Kodak Brownie

In 1884, George Eastman improved all earlier techniques and effectively pioneered the technology used by chemical film cameras for years to come. Eastman, of Rochester, New York, replaced the photographic plate with a process that involved dry gel on paper or film. This was a huge leap forward, not least because it removed the need for photographers to carry heavy boxes of toxic chemicals and plates.

This led to the launch of the Kodak camera in 1888. The slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest”, said a lot about the simplicity of the product. This was an enormous advance and left the general public able to take photographs whilst chemists dealt with the development of images. The launch of the Kodak Brownie in 1901 truly saw the dawn of the era of mass-market photography.

The First 35mm Camera

Oskar Barnack built the early 35mm film prototypes in 1913 at Ernst Leitz Optische Werke, Wetzlar. The prototype was designed to be portable for landscape photography. The first classic vintage photography camera was marketed by Leica. This was the first fully functional 35mm camera to use what was to become standard film.

The Leica company was founded by Ernst Leitz in 1914. The name Leica comes from the first three letters of his surname and the first two letters of the word camera.

Leica 35mm Camera
Leica 35mm Camera

After several prototypes, Barnack talked Leitz round to the production of 31 cameras to be tested by photographers. In spite of the fact that approval was far from universal, Leitz marketed the camera in 1924 and became a huge success when showcased at the 1925 Leipzig Spring Fair. Thus, the Leica I, as it was called, became the standard mode of photographic development for many years to come.


The images in this post were taken from Internet Archive Book Images, a library of thousands of copyright free vintage photography. Check it out here:

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