By the mid-19th century, the search for what is photography moved from the laboratories of the Frenchmen, Joseph-Nicephore Niepce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, and the Englishmen, William Henry Fox Talbot and F. Scott Archer, to the first photographers, who would transform the science of photography into a new form of mass communication. The portraits that were the dominant subject matter of daguerreotypy and these other early methods were fine for the individuals photographed, but they didn’t hold much interest for the great mass of people.
When F. Scott Archer’s wet-collodion process forced photographers to use a portable darkroom (tent, wagon or railway car), so the glass plates were still wet when exposed, it also allowed them to take photography to the locations of important events. The first of these were the Crimean War and the American Civil War. Now the answer to the question of what is photography became a visual report of important news, or the earliest examples of photojournalism. Roger Fenton followed the troops from England to the Crimea on the north shore of the Black Sea to record camp scenes. Then, Mathew Brady and his team of photographers were able to travel to U.S. Civil War battlefields to capture the horror of war in ways never before seen. Many of these photographs started to appear in newspapers and at exhibits throughout the Northern states, bringing the war to the great public masses. Following the war, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan and James Gibson, who worked with Brady, would photograph the settlement of the American West. When their work was published in the East, it was often credited with influencing some to “go west” too and others to stay home.
Another breakthrough in the search for what is photography is attributed to Hamilton L. Smith. He was an American that developed the tintype process, which was actually a thin sheet of iron that was also coated with light-sensitive silver particles. The process was considerable less complicated and costly than the daguerreotypy, making the tintype a popular choice for portraits.
The development of photography, as a mass communication medium, continued to advance quickly with the introduction of the first stereoscopic camera. It featured two lenses that took two photographs of the subject or scene. This caused the invention of a viewer that allowed people to see a three-dimensional image. An entirely new market was created for travel photos, landscapes, events and even comic visual short stores. The public purchased millions of these images.
Just when scientists, photographers and the public thought they understood what is photography, English photographer R.L. Maddox stunned the world during 1871 with the introduction of the first dry-plate process. Photographers, such as Fenton and Brady, no longer needed to keep glass plates wet until ready for use; plus, dry plates were competitively priced. The other major breakthrough of dry plates was that exposure to light only required a fraction of a second instead of minutes. This meant that heavy, cumbersome camera stands were unnecessary. This quickly led to the development of smaller, portable cameras that could be operated handheld. The what-is-photography question would be totally turned on its head because now nearly anyone could become a photographer, without the need for extensive training or expensive equipment.
The quest for what is photography would become the mission of a man named George Eastman and a company that the world would know as Kodak.
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