A camera obscura box with a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees throwing the image on a glass at the top of the box, a configuration resembling the later film reflex camera. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
G. B. Wright in the November 1955 issue of Modern Photography Magazine wrote that “The History of Photography From 1839 to the Present Day” by Beaumont Newhall is “the one single source on the subject in English which is both reliable and exceedingly interesting.” First published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York in 1937, if you look on Amazon.com today you will see that “The History of Photography” 5th Edition, published in 2010 is now available.
“Camera pictures have been made ever since the Renaissance,” Beaumont Newhall begins his definitive volume. “Artists turned to mathematics and optics for assistance in solving perspective problems, and they found the phenomenon of the camera obscura (literally “dark room”) a mechanical aid of the greatest value. Leonardo da Vinci described the principle: light entering a minute hole in the wall of a darkened room forms on the opposite wall an inverted image of whatever lies outside.”
Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Battista della Porta, first published a description of how the camera helped the draftsman accurately depict perspective drawings, in his 1558 book “Natural Magic.” Danielo Barbaro, a University of Padua professor, wrote a treatise on perspective and showed that a more vivid image could be projected by replacing the pinhole with a lens. He explained that by “holding the paper steady you can trace the whole perspective with a pen, shade it and delicately color it from nature.”
The camera started as the size of a room, but grew smaller over time. Beaumont Newhall recounts that in the 17th and 18th Centuries, a lens was often fixed in one end of a two foot box and a sheet of frosted glass on the other, on which the resulting image could be seen outside the camera. Count Francesco Algarotti in his 1764 “Essay on Painting,” said, “The best modern painters among the Italians have availed themselves greatly of this contrivance; nor is it possible they should have otherwise represented things so much to life.”
A century of experimentation ensued before the painter Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre produced the first photograph in 1837. Stay tuned for the story of M. Daguerre and the first photograph…