A History of Black + White Photography

March 30, 2021

Lauren Gray

Wild Fyre Co. | Kansas City, MO | FB & IG @wildfyreco

Photographer: Laura Straub- lastphoto.kc | Kansas City
Model: Lauren Gray- Wild Fyre Co | Kansas City

We are so blessed in today’s world with having so many color options and profiles that we often forget the days when we did not have a choice, and we had to wait a long time to see if our photos even developed properly. Let’s take a quick trip through history and learn about some of the early moments in photography history. 

Around the 5th Century BC, the Chinese were the first to discover the basics of a pinhole camera when they saw how letters refracted upside down through a hole in the wall. In the 4th Century BC, Aristotle wrote about his experience with pinholes in his works. 

When we fast forward to 1664 to 1672, we find that Sir Isaac Newton discovered that clear white light is composed of seven visible colors that make up the rainbow spectrum when he was experimenting with sunlight and prisms. 

The first camera by design was created in 1685 by Johann Zahn, but unfortunately was not able to truly create a photograph and carry out what he had envisioned. Johann Heinrich Schulze made further strides in 1717 when he discovered that silver nitrate darkened upon exposure to light. 

In 1816, a Frenchman named Joseph Nicephore Niepce designed a wood camera with a microscopic lense. He ended up with negative images, but continued to experiment until he created what he was searching for. About 10 years later in 1826, Niepce invented the Heliograph. This contraption captured light onto a piece of glass or metal, using a coating called bitumen, or asphalt. The plate was then washed off with lavender oil, exposing the captured image. The first image captured is called ‘View from the Window at Le Gra, and is believed to have taken a few days to develop completely. 

The first commercially viable commercial photography method was invented by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre in 1839, which captured images onto a copper plate that became polished with silver. The images captured on a Daguerreotype (the name of the format) were widely used until the mid 1850’s until new formats were introduced. 

Salt prints were patented in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot when he decided to use sodium chloride to make photographs more light sensitive. This type of photography was popular until around 1860, and faced issues with fading over time. The salt print was elevated in 1850 when Louis-Desire Blanquart Evrard created albumen paper. Egg whites were brushed onto a thin piece of paper, which helped hold in the silver salt, and helped remedy the issue of the fading photographs. Photos taken on albumen paper typically have a brownish purple hue to them. These prints were typically stuck onto a card, like cardboard-de-viste, or CDV’s. CDV’s measure about 2.5 to 4 inches and were a popular way to display portraits predominantly.

There are so many more different methods from the 1800’s that were invented to capture photographs, each one a tad different or better than the rest, all before color photography was invented. Happy shooting!