The History of Photography

The earliest known permanent photograph can be dated to the 1820s, in France. The timeline below lists the principal advancements in photographic processes since then. A star (*) marks the processes you will see in this exhibition.  

  • Daguerreotype: Invented 1839, popular 1840‒60; The first commercially viable photographic process; the exposure time ranged from a few seconds to 30 minutes.
  • Salted paper: Discovered 1834‒35, popular 1840‒55; Salted paper prints were easier to make than daguerreotypes, requiring less specialized equipment and fewer chemicals. 
  • Ambrotype: Introduced 1840s‒50s, popular 1854‒65; Known as the “poor man’s daguerreotype,” Ambrotypes (also known as collodion positives) cost significantly less than other processes. They were created in studios as well as by itinerant photographers.*
  • Tintype: Patented 1856, popular 1856‒1920; Tintypes were relatively easy and fast to make, allowing itinerant photographers to set up “pop-up” studios in public spaces. Tintypes were also fairly rugged due to the tinned sheet iron supports. They could be mailed without fear of damage.
  • Albumen: Introduced 1850, popular 1860‒95; Albumen prints are named after the egg whites used in the “binder” in this process. Albumen prints came in many sizes; most are attached to card mounts.*
  • Silver gelatin: Introduced 1880s, popular 1890‒2000; Silver gelatin was the dominant photo process of the 20th century. While the photo papers for this process were mainly purchased by photographers, businesses like Kodak offered chemicals and tools that allowed anyone with a darkroom to develop their own prints.* 
  • Color print/Chromogenic: Introduced 1930s, popular 1942 onward; Chromogenic prints are made possible by “dye coupling” emulsion layers that are sensitive to red, green, and blue light. Most color photos in your family albums are made with this process!
  • Digital: Introduced 1938, popular 1960 onward; Digital photography encompasses a few processes: electrophotography (like copies made in a copier), inkjet, and thermal. Many of us use these imaging processes every day at home or work.*