Seeing the Light

We’ve all seen them, those strange people hiding behind a camera, crouching in silly positions, contorting their bodies like some shape shifting yoga expert, observing the scene, being a part of the action but somehow completely detached.  The observer of things, the creator of beauty or presenter of atrocities, the inquisitive voyeur, the asker of questions and giver of answers, the culture vulture, the compulsive collector, the obsessed cameraman with one thing on their mind – to capture the experience – to tell the story – to reveal a happening and to hold it forever within a two dimensional space.seeing the light

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh but having been involved in photography and film for over a decade I have had more than enough time questioning the subject.  At times I have found myself completely absorbed by the moment losing all track of time through the enjoyment of the action or scene and my place within it, and then there were times when I have beaten myself up for acting like a machine without compassion for the feelings of others, sometimes I even chose not to take a photo, allowing myself the pleasure of keeping some pictures just for me. I guess it’s fair to say that over the years I have definitely wrestled with the medium although I would never live without it. So whether you’re an artist, a fashionista, a journalist or simply take snaps or film movies for family album or social media purposes, we are all partial to using the camera at some point in our lives. This blog aims at understanding the history of the camera in more detail and is for all our future photographer and film makers out there.

Photography has come on a long way since the days of the camera obscurer (Latin for ‘darkened chamber/room’). The pin hole technique was first observed over 2000 years ago by philosophers such as Aristotle and Mozi who recognised that an upside down image of a scene could be projected into a darkened chamber by using one source of light shining through a hole.  It was the scene on the opposite side of the hole which would appear like magic and led people to think ‘how can I make this image more permanent’.


An automatic response regarding this phenomenon was to simply trace around the image and then turn the paper 180 degrees so as to have a copy of it.  This technique is said to have helped many great artists from around the world and it’s argued that Johannes Vermeer, famous for his window compositions, used such a device to create his more detailed masterpieces.  Over time the device would also give rise to more astrological and medical discoveries with help from the invention of mirrors and lenses and eventually develop in to the photography and cinematography that we all take for granted today.

Latticed_window_at_lacock_abbey_1835It is widely understood that there was three people behind the invention of photography in terms of producing permanent reproductions of actuality.  These were French inventors Joseph Nicephore Niepce who created the first permanent photo-etching in 1822 and Louise Daguerre who invented the silver coated daguerreotype in 1837.  However it was our very own William Fox Talbot who invented the calotype in 1835, a process using a translucent negative which allowed for multiple positive copies to be made of the same image, thus giving rise to mass printing.


Around the same time the ‘daedalum’ was invented by British mathematician William George Horner and this would be the first time that the illusion of moving pictures was born, although the magic lantern (a type of projector) had already been developed by the 17th century.  The device is better known as a ‘zoetrope’, which translates as ‘wheel of life’ and uses a spinning cylinder with slits cut into the side, and a strip of drawings that are placed inside the interior depicting some form of action (similar to stop frame animation).  As the cylinder spins, the viewer looks through the slits and the images appear to move.

One of the most famous representations and earliest known motion picture exhibition was shown by photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the 1880’s, who’s photographic observations on motion study was projected through his zoopraxiscope.  The device is said to be one of the primary inspirations behind the first motion picture cameras and film projector inventions by the likes of Louis Le Prince, Thomas Edison, William Kennedy Dickson and the Lumiere Brothers.


Over the years the development of film, movie cameras and projectors would evolve into the film industry we know today.  Picture houses or art cinemas became big business regarding this new form of entertainment with the Lumiere Brothers being the first to conceive the notion of producing films for mass consumption (see ‘Workers leaving the Lumiere Factory’).  As the medium developed silent films would be accompanied with captions and music (see A Trip to the Moon by George Melies), black and white films would be coloured and tinted, editing or splicing tricks introduced, story lines and plots written, actors and actresses hired, and backdrops painted or locations found. All the necessary components for a film production to take its audience into another reality and succeed in holding their attention as the story unfolded.

The world of cinema in all its guises had been born and we have photography to thank for that.  It’s hard to believe that a simple observation of the pin hole effect has taken us on such an epic journey of reproducing reality and capturing life. The camera (both moving and still) is a perfect tool for preserving our history, it freezes time and documents our past, it allows us to remember and also wish we could forget.  The device selects, zooms and follows although it would be nothing without its operator and the eye that it needs to see.  It’s this operator who ultimately makes the decisions and choices of what is to be filmed or what style is created so the pictures you choose to shoot usually end up reflecting a part of your own personality as well.  The documentary pioneers like Flaherty, Grierson and Vertov may seem a million miles away from filmmakers such as Kubrick & Tarantino although somehow, through the evolution of the camera and the medium of the subject, they are all intrinsically linked.

For more research on local historical images why not not take a look at the Bolton Worktown Archives and have a look at some of Humphrey Spender’s Mass Observation photographs, or visit the British Pathe film archive on YouTube who have uploaded 85.000 vintage films & newsreels for your viewing pleasure.  If you need more tips on multi-media productions why not follow the World Press Photo Academy via facebook and check out the free online master classes, plus there’s also a video production toolkit now available through the Jisc Digital Media platform.

The Cybrarian