Light & Shadow

Historic Disruptions in Photography (part one)

Photography was born as part art mixed with a a great big heap of science. The first photograph is credited to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. He made this photograph through a window in Le Gras in 1826 or 1827.


Niépce and his partner Louis Daguerre worked together on making photography work in a practical way. The photo above took days to expose. After Niépce’s death in 1833, Daguerre inherited his notes. More interested in silver based imaging than had Niépce, Daguerre discovered the “latent image” that required developing to bring out that image. This was super dangerous. The developer was mercury fumes. They were quite poisonous. The advantage was that exposure times dropped from days to minutes. Practical photography was presented to the French Academy of Sciences meeting on January 7, 1839. Arrangements were made for the process to be made public for free by the French government who published the complete instructions on August 19, 1839. It was still difficult until the advent of glass plate negatives in 1841. Many refinements made glass plates the standard. Photographers then had to be artists and chemists too. Photography was not easy. It required dedication. Professional photographers could produce consistent results often in much less than ideal situations. The first war photographer was Roger Fenton who documented the Crimean war in 1855. His “Photographic Van” shows his assistant in the driver’s seat.


He was followed shortly after that by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.

The First Disruption

Glass plates were the accepted method for making photographs until the first disruption in 1888 that marked the beginning of the commoditization of photography.

Brownie ad courtesy of Duke University Library

The amateur photographer arguably can be said to have appeared on the scene in large numbers because, in 1888 George Eastman invented a disruptive technology—black and white roll film. He not only made roll film holders for practically every glass plate camera in existence, he also introduced the Kodak Box Camera a.k.a. “the Brownie.” It was promoted with the slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.” The camera preloaded with enough film for a hundred pictures. It cost $25.00. When the last picture was made, the camera was sent to Rochester along with $10.00 for processing, including a set of prints and another 100 shots.

Thus began the demise of professional photography.

If I were writing a rant instead of a history of disruptions in photography, I would make the case that the Brownie destroyed the profession of making photographs for a living. I could easily chronicle how the quality of photography was taken away from the few experts that really understood how photography worked. They knew  how to compose a photograph. They could deliver a quality photograph–consistently in spite of the technical challenges. It could be argued that quality photography was taken away and put in the hands of the button pushers who would let someone else do the rest.

That’s really disparaging of people who want to embrace photography and do it themselves—for a hobby. Photographic gear has always been expensive. $25.00 in 1888 is around $600.00 today. It was only the natural next step for the hobbyists to see shooting jobs to make some money to offset the cost of the hobby. The truth is that fans of photography have been disrupting the work produced by professionals since shortly after roll film was invented. Fine. This is really a good thing because throughout photography’s history disruption has forced the pros to step up their craft so their work was still something people would buy. This was true then, and is even truer now. The first disruption of professional photography started by the original Kodak camera was, relative to today, stable for close to a hundred years.

“Going Pro” Back Then


Cameras then were manual. Different format cameras were pretty much required to be a pro. It was normal to have a 35mm camera for documentary & annual report style image making. It was also necessary to have at least a 4 by 5 inch format camera if not an 8 by 10 inch camera for most printed advertising or high quality print work. It was also standard to have a medium format camera that shot two and a quarter inch square or rectangular photographs with differing lengths up to a panorama version spanning almost seven inches in length. Each format required its own set of lenses.

Kevin Ames with Sinar P on location GP01

The high cost of practicing photography

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers points out that proficiency at any craft takes about ten thousand hours of practice. The question “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” is always answered with “practice, practice, practice.”


Practicing photography was difficult and expensive. Imagine a musician practicing the way photographers did in the time of film. Sitting at the piano, he or she would play, hearing only a scratchy, slightly out of tune and out of rhythm version (the aural equivalent of a Polaroid.) Then they would take the performance, get in the car, and drive to a lab where it would be processed. Two hours later the musician would drive back to the lab, pay for the processing (slide film was about $7.00 a roll then), then drive back to the piano to play it back. The feedback loop was unbelievably long. There would be very few good musicians if their learning was like that of a film photographer.

Yes, it cost less for black and white or color slide film–35mm slides still cost around a dollar a photograph. Medium format slide photos were a couple of dollars. Anyway, you get the idea. Getting that ten thousand hours of practice was pricey to say the least.

Ames contact sheets

Mastering Photography

During this time photographers still had to understand how photography worked. Then a photographer absolutely had to know what would be on the film before it was sent out for processing. It was common practice for a set to remain for quite some time. Here’s how it played out. Everyone (photographer, art director, stylist and client) would agree that the set was ready to be shot. The exposure went to the lab. For transparencies, in a couple of hours they were back. A change would be made and the process repeated. That the exposure and color was right and that the image was in focus was simply assumed. That was the craft–the skill part that anyone had to master to be a professional photographer. Later expensive Polaroid® instant film gave photographers a quick look at composition, lighting and contrast. Color Polaroids® gave rise to the song “shake it like a Polaroid® picture” and explaining to a client that “the final film wouldn’t look like that…”

Canon AE-1: The Next Disruption

Fast forward to 1976. Canon introduces the AE-1. Their slogan, “So advanced, it’s simple” upped the game, starting with “You push the button, we do the rest” salvo from Kodak 88 years earlier. The AE-1 featured algorithms for making “better” photographs. The barrier of having to truly understand how photography worked was irrevocably breached.

Canon AE-1 courtesy wikipedia

My next post charts the disruptions caused by Photoshop and digital capture.

By Kevin Ames