Telling the History of Photographic Processes, from Daguerreotypes to Digital

The history of photography from the perspective of its technology is presented by The George Eastman House with the release of a 12-part video series. Photographic Processes Series are available on YouTube and it starts with the silhouette and traces photography’s development through daguerreotypes, cyanotypes, Kodachrome, and right up to digital.

Six of the videos were put online in 2012, and the other six in 2014 , funded by a grant from the US Institute of Museum and Library Services. Each is around six minutes and draws on the Eastman House’s vast, usually unseen-by-the-public, vaults. Its holdings include one of the world’s largest collections of daguerreotypes, the process launched in 1839 that first made photography mass-produced. Interviews with curators, archivists, and historians describe how different processes changed the perspective of time, and reflected their respective eras. The daguerreotype, for example, was widely popular in the United States, where a highly nomadic population cherished the silver-coated copper plate photographs as representations of loved ones in distant places.

“We make photographs in a different way from the way we used to, but we make them for the same reasons,” independent photography curator Alison Nordström says in the Photographic Processes Series. “I would argue that a 19th-century Victorian family album has exactly the same purpose as the 200 pictures of your kid that you carry on your phone.”

Beginning with 18th-century innovations like the camera obscura that inspired 19th-century innovators like William Henry Fox Talbot with his negative and positive photographic process, the dominant voice in the video series is that of Mark Osterman, a process historian who also demonstrates or reenacts the historic techniques. He explains that despite his deep knowledge of often obsolete processes, he loves digital, among other reasons because it serves as a reminder of the absence of a physical contact with the photograph.

“Artists have come to a point where many of them are saying, ‘I feel like the machine is in control and I want to have my hands in this object’,” Osterman explains in the series. “When the finished object is something other than a computer screen it harkens back to the day when photography was a craft. It’s not just about the image, although the image is king. It’s about the object itself, and you made that object.” Below you can watch the complete Photographic Processes Series. The George Eastman House also regularly hosts workshops on many of these processes, which are listed on their website.

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