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The road to riches

Photographer pioneer Fox Talbot
outside his studio in 1840
Programme 5

A Brief History of Photography

By Mathew Butson, Hulton Getty Picture Collection

Very recently a single photograph, taken in 1855 and entitled Grande Vague - Sete by Gustave Le Gray, was auctioned at Sotherby's in London for an astonishing £ 507,500. Why? The technical achievement? The beauty of a simple seascape? The quality of the original print, perhaps? Some would suggest it was simply a sound business investment. Whichever, one can safely assume that the pioneers of photography - men such as Fox Talbot, Nadar and Daguerre - could never have imagined the enormous impact that their 'art' would have on the world.

We have perhaps come a full circle from those early days where photography, much as it is now, was considered to be an art form. However, just as the impressionists, the cubists and latterly the pop artists struggled for recognition, so the photographers went through the same trials. It is only comparatively recently that photography has gained acceptance within the art world and now sits comfortably alongside the works of Monet, Picasso and Warhol - a visit to the recently opened Tate Modern would confirm this viewpoint.

However one is touched by the style, the content or the composition of a photograph one should not overlook the huge technical barriers these new 'artists' overcame. From the earliest processes the photographer was as much a highly skilled technician as he was a creative artist. First came the the daguerrotype in 1837, in which Daguerre exposed silvered copper (and later glass) plates, which he then processed with vapours of mercury and hot saltwater solution.

Fox Talbot in 1860
Two years later William Fox Talbot unveiled the calotype, which fixed images on light sensitive paper for the first time (he patented this as photogenic drawing in 1841). Further developments included the the wet colloidion process (1851) and the dry plate albumen process (1855), the carbon printing process (1864), the dry gelatine, sliver bromide plate (1871) and ultimately the first mass-produced celluloid negative (1888, the process most of us still use today).

The continued evolution of the photographers toolkit - the camera itself, the negative, the range of photographic papers and the introduction of colour photography with the autochrome in 1907 - brought about whole new genres of photography. It even introduced new words into the English language such as photojournalism, reportage and the Polaroid. The recent developments within the world of digital technology mean that medium of photography continues to evolve.

The rapid development of photography as a medium - from the high-end professional to the mass market amateur 'snapper' - has been phenomenal. Yet the apparently simple process of marrying the creative vision with the technical process is perhaps as illusive as ever - just try and reproduce the sheer majesty of Gustave Le Gray's masterpiece, Grande Vague. Worth every penny…

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