The history of black & white photography is essentially a significant part of the entire story of photography. It is the story of a relatively "new" technology that began a little over 170 years ago in Europe. However, the actual process of a projected image appearing inside a light-tight box (camera obscura), has existed much longer. The problem being that there was no means to fix the image for any length of time, until two Frenchmen collaborated in their efforts and succeeding in fixing the image so that it could be viewed by others.
The photographic process became public in Europe in 1839 when M. Daguerre and the French Government reached an agreement to announce the new fascinating process as reported in the Gazette de France. "M. Daguerre has found the way to fix the images which paint themselves within a camera obscura, so that these images are no longer transient reflections of objects, but their fixed and everlasting impress which, like a painting or engraving, can be taken away from the presence of the objects."
Daguerre called his finished product the Daguerreotype, while the term "photography" was suggested by astronomer and scientist Sir John Herschel to represent the newly discovered process. Over in England William Henry Fox Talbot came up with a similar process ushering in a new form of communication onto the world scene.
After the Daguerreotype, several other forms of making a photograph came about such as the Calotype, the tintype, to the modern day gelatin-silver prints, and digital imaging.
As photographic materials became more light sensitive, photographers expanded their repertoire to include things in motion. One of the most noted to explore motion through photography (although not the first), was Eadweard Muybridge who, in the 1870s, showed the world how a horse gallops.
As photographic technology became easier to use, more people took up the new art form as a hobby and/or business. In 1888, George Eastman of Rochester, New York introduced the public to the Kodak camera. "The original Kodak was a box camera, 3 1/4 X 3 3/4 X 6 1/2 inches with a fixed-focus lens of 27mm focal length and aperture f/9, fitted with an ingenious cylindrical, or barrel, shutter. It differed from most of its competitors because it used film in a roll long enough for 100 negatives, each with a circular image 2 1/2 inches in diameter."
Today, early photographs allow people to peer into a narrow window of the past, making photography an important way to document life around the world at any given time.
Photography easily and quickly moved from a mere curiosity to an emotional form of historic document recording events as they unfolded, in publications such as Life magazine.
During the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), Mathew Brady and his crew of camera operators moved into the theater of battle to capture scenes of war.
In the early part of the 20th century black & white photography proved its worth as a social document that had the power of influence. For example, the work of sociologist Lewis W. Hine who recorded the exploitation of children in American factories led to the passing of child labor laws.
Another American photographer: Ansel Adams was famous for his richly toned black & white photographs, which became cherished by the public, other photographers and collectors. Through his photographs, Adams conveyed the beauty of the American landscape and made a statement about pristine wilderness places for future generations to consider.
In other instances, a story is contained in a single photograph as in Sam Shere's image of the explosion of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, N.J. 1937.
Since the inception of black & white photography it has changed the way people see the world because rather than just relying upon text and imagination, they have text and images to discover the realities of life that exist in the world around them.
From the earliest inception of photography, the black & white image has endured up into the present even with the advent of digital photography. The black and white image over the decades has proven itself as a stable preservable product that digital imaging has yet to illustrate as time goes on.
The black & white legacy left by great photographic artists such as Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa, Canada and Ansel Adams of Carmel, California, and others, still inspires and encourages both amateur and professional photographers to work in black & white. In other words, black & white photography is a unique art form with a strong lineage that still permeates the heart and minds of photographers, publishers and the artistic community as a whole.
In this age of instant digital imaging, black & white traditional photography still survives albeit more modestly, but its rich historical background still serves to educate, please, inspire and move people emotionally as the contents of life and the world around us are brought before our eyes.
- "The History of Photography"; Beaumont Newhall; 5th Ed. 2006