Photography and Film


The term graphic art can be defined as "two-dimensional visual art". In the nineteenth century, the traditional graphic arts (e.g. painting, engraving, mosaic) were joined by two revolutionary new forms: photography, in which scenes are "captured" by a device rather than imitated by an artist, and film, in which motion is captured by a rapid series of photographs. Innovation in these fields was led by France, England, and the United States.1,2,3,4

A photograph may be thought of as a painting executed by the visual world itself; indeed, the word "photograph" literally means "light-drawing". A film work, on the other hand, may be thought of as "assembled drama", in which the performance is constructed from a body of raw footage. Like traditional drama, film can be augmented with such auxiliary elements as music, lighting, staging, and costumes.

Emerging as they did in the modern period of art history, photography and film experienced rapid experimentation and expansion of both form (the appearance of art) and content (the message conveyed).

Rise of Mass Media
ca. 1800-1900 ca. 1900-present
audio and video recordings
radio broadcasts
television broadcasts


A camera is essentially a box with a small opening (aperture) at the front. By limiting incoming light to this small opening, a sharp image can be projected on the rear inner wall of the box. Thus may a scene from the visual world be "captured" and displayed elsewhere (which is all a device need do to qualify as a "camera").

The first camera was the ancient camera obscura, which is simply a box with a pinhole opening; light passes through the hole, projecting an image on the back of the box. Fancier models might add a lens to the pinhole, or mirrors inside the box to reflect the image to an outside surface. The camera obscura served as a learning tool for many pre-modern painters.1,2

Diagram of a Basic Camera Obscura
Artist Preparing to a Sketch a Building (with aid of a camera obscura)
Camera Obscura with Mirror (to project image onto a glass surface, from which it can be traced)

Today, the term "camera" typically means a device capable of permanent image storage, achieved by focusing incoming light upon a layer of light-sensitive material. The first such camera was constructed by Nicéphore Niépce, in 1820s France. Niépce thus produced the world's first photographs, making him the inventor of photography.

The title of first photograph cannot be assigned with ease or certainty. To begin with, Niépce's early experiments produced a number of temporary photographs, which quickly faded due to chemical instability. Given their impermanence, these fleeting images are generally not considered true photographs.

Niépce's first few permanent photographs (so far as is known) were pictures of engravings. Since these images are simply pictures of pre-existing images (i.e. photocopies), however, they are often passed over for the title of "first photograph". Excluding pictures of engravings, the very first photograph was View from the Window at Le Gras, taken by Niépce from an upstairs window of his Burgundian home.1,2,7

View from the Window at Le Gras (the world's first photograph, excluding pictures of engravings)
Photograph of an Engraving (the very first photograph)
Photograph of an Engraving (modern photograph on the left, Niépce's photograph on the right)
Niépce's House in Burgundy
One of Niépce's Cameras

The principal impracticality of Niépce's camera was the required exposure time of many hours. This technical hurdle was overcome by Louis Daguerre, who (building on Niépce's technology) invented the daguerreotype, the world's first practical camera. The daguerreotype, which reduced exposure time to mere tens of minutes, transformed photography into a commercially viable industry. As camera technology continued to advance throughout the late nineteenth century, photography came to flourish in all the traditional genres of visual art, including portraiture, landscape, still life, and everyday scenes.1,2,8

Daguerre's most famous picture, Boulevard du Temple, is the very first photograph of a human being. Indeed, the picture contains two people: a shoe-shiner and a customer. Given the long exposure time, no vehicles were captured in the image, nor were most people; only the aforementioned pair remained stationary long enough to be recorded.1,2,8

Boulevard du Temple, Daguerre
View from Daguerre's House, Daguerre
Notre Dame Cathedral, Daguerre
Portrait of M. Huet, Daguerre
Portrait of Samuel Morse, Daguerre
Still Life with Shells and Fossils, Daguerre

From early on, photographers could be largely divided into two aesthetic camps. One camp embraced deliberate manipulation, whether pre-photo (in which a scene is carefully arranged before the picture is taken) or post-photo (in which the captured image is altered before printing). The other preferred direct photography, which aims to simply capture the world as it is, though naturally the photographer must still make creative decisions (e.g. subject choice, image composition). Ansel Adams, a leading exponent of direct photography, is likely the most famous photographer of all time. Adams is known especially for his sweeping landscapes of the American West.1,2

The Tetons and the Snake River, Ansel Adams
Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, Ansel Adams
Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, Glacier National Park, Ansel Adams
Close-up of Leaves in Glacier National Park, Ansel Adams
Farm workers and Mt. Williamson, Ansel Adams
Manzanar Calisthenics (Japanese-American internment camp), Ansel Adams
Acoma Pueblo, Ansel Adams


A motion picture consists of multiple images displayed to a viewer in rapid succession, creating the illusion of motion. The first motion pictures, which date to the early nineteenth century, were produced by rotating devices (circular or cylindrical) with circumferential strips of images. These images were either hand-drawn or (eventually) produced via stop-motion photography (in which objects are moved in small increments, then photographed after each movement).3,4

The two aforementioned types of motion picture (hand-drawn and stop-motion photography) may be classified as "artificial", given that they assemble a moving scene that never actually occurred. "Natural" motion picture, on the other hand, captures a moving scene by photographing it many times per second. This procedure is known as filming.3,4

Natural motion picture required the reduction of exposure time to a tiny fraction of a second, which was finally achieved in the 1870s. That decade, English photographer and scientist Eadweard Muybridge produced very the first filmed event: Horse in Motion, a 3-second film demonstrating that a galloping horse becomes airborne with its legs gathered together (rather than with legs outstretched, as was widely believed).3,4,5,6

Horse in Motion was created with a line of 24 tripwire-activated cameras. The following decades witnessed the development of the movie camera (a single device capable of taking many photographs per second) and movie projector, both achieved by the 1890s. Thus was the film industry born.3,4,5

Horse in Motion, Eadweard Muybridge (the first filmed event)

Initially centred in France, the film industry shifted to the United States in the early twentieth century. The earliest films were short (lasting minutes or tens of minutes), lacked spoken dialogue (such that sound, if present, was limited to music and sound effects), and generally consisted of news coverage, footage of everyday events, or mimed stories. The film industry matured during the interwar period, with the development of spoken dialogue (for which The Jazz Singer was the breakthrough movie), typical modern duration (90+ minutes), and the construction of thousands of theatres across many countries (such that films became a universal experience).4

From the interwar period onward, the film industry has been dominated by a handful of enormous American studios (consisting today of the "big six": Columbia, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Universal, Warner). Nonetheless, the late twentieth century witnessed the rise of smaller studios across the world, as well as an explosion of independent film-making.3,4 The blockbuster, a film that attains exceptional commercial success (and typically features an epic storyline, balance of drama and action, and impressive special effects), is often considered to begin with the 1975 film Jaws (though there are earlier contenders).

Radio and Television

The term mass media can be defined as "forms of communication through which one can rapidly spread information to large numbers of people". This definition encompasses printing, photography, recordings (audio and video), film, radio, television, and the internet. Although the history of mass media stretches back to the fifteenth century (with Gutenberg's invention of movable-type printing), only since the nineteenth century have the words, sights, and sounds of the world been rendered widely accessible to people across the globe.

Rise of Mass Media
ca. 1800-1900 ca. 1900-present
audio and video recordings
radio broadcasts
television broadcasts

Each form of mass media embodies a massive cumulative international achievement by many brilliant innovators. Nonetheless, a "founder" can be named for each, with the exception of the internet.

Birth of Mass Media
medium founder notes
printing Gutenberg fifteenth century: invented movable-type printing
photography Niépce 1820s: invented the first camera capable of taking permanent photographs
audio recording Edison 1870s: invented the phonograph, the first device capable of playing stored audio information
video recording Muybridge 1870s: produced the first film
radio Fessenden 1900s: achieved the first radio broadcast (i.e. transmission of voice and music, as opposed to simple signals)
television Baird 1920s: invented the first television capable of displaying moving pictures (as opposed to a static image)
internet n/a the roots of the internet lie in the 1950s, when the first computer networks were developed

Since their development, photography, recordings, and film have all thrived as major forms of mass media. Radio flourished primarily during the early twentieth century, being superseded by television from the late twentieth century onward. The growth of the internet, whose history as a mass medium dates to the 1990s, is ongoing.

Each type of mass media features unique aesthetic forms. Radio, for instance, gave rise to the radio play, in which the visual aspects of drama are supplied by the listener's imagination. Television, which reached audiences more quickly and regularly then cinema (its elder cousin), enabled the serial television show.

Practical Impact

The practical implications of photography and motion picture are incalculable. Virtually every field of human endeavour benefited in some way, including journalism, education, commerce, and all branches of science. Sadly, these technologies could also be twisted to harmful purposes, as illustrated by the propaganda and rampant surveillance of totalitarian regimes.

In terms of everyday experience, photography and motion picture brought the sights and sounds of the world to much of humanity on a daily basis, impacting public awareness and opinion on a grand scale. Societal attitudes regarding war, for instance, were reshaped as photographers revealed the grisly truths of the battlefield, starting with the Crimean War (1853-56) and American Civil War (1861-65). Indeed, all social issues were exposed like never before; one prominent early example was the slum housing of New York.F94,H961-62,1,2,3,4

Crimean War
Crimean War
American Civil War
American Civil War
Slum Housing of New York
Slum Housing of New York
1 - "Photography", Encyclopedia Britannica.
2 - "Photography", Columbia Encyclopedia.
3 - "Motion picture", Encyclopedia Britannica.
4 - "Motion picture", Columbia Encyclopedia.
5 - "History of the motion picture", Encyclopedia Britannica.
6 - "Motion-picture technology", Encyclopedia Britannica.
7 - "Nicéphore Niépce", Encyclopedia Britannica.
8 - "Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre", Encyclopedia Britannica.
9 - "Broadcasting", Encyclopedia Britannica.
10 - "Radio", Encyclopedia Britannica.
11 - "Television", Encyclopedia Britannica.