A technological device of immense consequence for the modern experience was invented shortly before the mid- 19th century: the camera, with its attendant art of photography. From the time Frenchman Louis-Jacques-mandé Daguerre (1789–1851) and Briton William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) announced the first practical photographic processes in 1839, people have celebrated photography’s ability
to make convincing pictures of people, places, and things.
The relative ease of the process, even in its earliest and most primitive form, seemed a dream come true for 19th-century scientists and artists, who for centuries had grappled with less satisfying methods for capturing accurate images of their subjects. Photography also perfectly suited an age that saw the emergence of Realism as an art movement and a pronounced shift of artistic patronage away from the elite few toward a broader base of support. The growing and increasingly powerful middle class embraced both the comprehensible
images of the new medium and their lower cost.
For the traditional artist, photography suggested new answers to the great debate about what is real and how to represent the real in art. Because photography easily and accurately enabled the representation of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface, the new medium also challenged the place of traditional modes of pictorial representation originating in the Renaissance. Artists as diverse
as Ingres, Delacroix, and Courbet welcomed photography as a helpful auxiliary to painting. Other artists, however, feared the camera was a mechanism that would displace the painstaking work of skilled painters. From the moment of its invention, photography threatened to expropriate the realistic image, until then the exclusive property of painting.
Artists themselves were instrumental in the development of the new photographic technology. The camera obscura was familiar to 17th- and 18th-century artists. In 1807, the invention of the camera lucida (lighted room) replaced the enclosed chamber of the camera obscura. Now the photographer aimed a small prism lens, hung on a stand, downward at an object. The lens projected
the image of the object onto a sheet of paper. Artists using either of these devices found this process long and arduous, no matter how accurate the resulting work. All yearned for a more direct way to capture a subject’s image. Two very different scientific inventions that accomplished this—the daguerreotype and the calotype — appeared almost simultaneously in France and England in 1839.