The History of Photography in Five Animated Minutes: From Camera Obscura to Camera Phone

We find our­selves, still ear­ly in the 21st cen­tu­ry, in an unprece­dent­ed era in the his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy. The con­sumers of the devel­oped world have, of course, had access to cam­eras of their own for decades and decades, but now almost each and every one of us walks around with a cam­era in our pock­et. When a par­tic­u­lar land­scape, build­ing, ani­mal, human being, or oth­er sight strikes our fan­cy, we cap­ture it with­out a momen­t’s hes­i­ta­tion — and, often, with­out hav­ing giv­en a momen­t’s thought to the tech­no­log­i­cal and artis­tic his­to­ry of the dis­ci­pline we are, if for lit­tle more than an instant, prac­tic­ing.

Most of us, know­ing our­selves to be no Ansel Adams, Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son, or Diane Arbus, would hes­i­tate to describe the snaps with which we doc­u­ment and share our dai­ly lives as “pho­tog­ra­phy.” But in tak­ing any pic­ture, no mat­ter how mun­dane or even sil­ly, we place our­selves in the stream of a tra­di­tion. But we can gain an under­stand­ing of that tra­di­tion, at least in broad strokes, from “The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Min­utes,” the Coop­er­a­tive of Pho­tog­ra­phy video above which, in the words of its nar­ra­tor, offers an insight into — brace your­self for this and oth­er puns —  “how pho­tog­ra­phy has devel­oped.”

Begin­ning with the cam­era obscu­ra, the reflec­tion and trac­ing devices that date back to antiq­ui­ty (lat­er described and used by Leonar­do da Vin­ci), the video moves swift­ly from mile­stone to pho­to­graph­ic mile­stone, includ­ing the first pho­to­graph, a “heli­o­graph” tak­en in 1826; Louis Daguer­re’s inven­tion of “the first prac­ti­cal pho­to­graph­ic process” in 1833; the first self­ie, tak­en in 1839; the emer­gence of mobile pho­to stu­dios in the 1850s; Ead­weard Muy­bridge’s motion-pho­tog­ra­phy stud­ies of the 1870s; Kodak’s pro­duc­tion of the first roll-film con­sumer cam­era in 1888; the game-chang­ing Leica I hit­ting the mar­ket in 1925; the first sin­gle-lens reflex in 1949; the first dig­i­tal cam­era in 1975; and, open­ing our own era, the first cam­era phone in 2000.

And now our smart­phones and their “insane­ly pow­er­ful cam­eras” onboard have turned pho­tog­ra­phy into a “glob­al pas­sion” that “has tru­ly brought the world clos­er togeth­er.” The pro­lif­er­a­tion of hasti­ly tak­en, essen­tial­ly uncom­posed shots of our pur­chas­es, our food, and our­selves have giv­en old-school pho­tog­ra­phy enthu­si­asts plen­ty to com­plain about, but the era of acces­si­ble pho­tog­ra­phy has only just begun. Most of us are still, in some sense, tak­ing heli­ographs and daguerreo­types; just imag­ine how the next fif­teen years will, er, expose our true pho­to­graph­ic capa­bil­i­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ansel Adams Reveals His Cre­ative Process in 1958 Doc­u­men­tary

How to Take Pho­tographs Like Ansel Adams: The Mas­ter Explains The Art of “Visu­al­iza­tion”

Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son and the Deci­sive Moment

Alfred Stieglitz: The Elo­quent Eye, a Reveal­ing Look at “The Father of Mod­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy”

1972 Diane Arbus Doc­u­men­tary Inter­views Those Who Knew the Amer­i­can Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Best

Get­ty Images Makes 35 Mil­lion Pho­tos Free to Use Online

Hunter S. Thompson’s Advice for Aspir­ing Pho­tog­ra­phers: Skip the Fan­cy Equip­ment & Just Shoot

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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  • janis aimee says:

    This was a real­ly fun infor­ma­tive his­to­ry piece. I want­ed to show it to my 13 year old grand­son who cur­rent­ly is attempt­ing to emu­late his pro-pho­to uncle. BUT, alas, the naked women pic’s have caused me to not show him this video. Kind of a loss — and as con­tent, not that impor­tant.

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