In this article I’m going to discuss the history of professional photography, and the way that the role has developed over the past 170-something years.
History in the making
Announced in 1839, photography is a relatively new medium, and initially there was no such thing as “professional photography”. The very first practitioners were wealthy gentleman amateurs: the newly invented medium was not simple to use, and required an understanding of physics and chemistry, plus substantial amounts of money to buy the equipment and materials.
There were other obstacles too: initially the light-sensitive daguerreotype plates were actually so insensitive to light that it was impossible to photograph anything other than buildings or landscapes – people couldn’t keep still for the long exposure times required. Here’s an example of a daguerreotype from 1841, two years after its public announcement.
As you can see, there’s remarkable detail in the buildings but an apparent absence of people, apart from one man standing near the corner of the street. He’s only visible because he remained still (having a shoe shine) while everyone else on the busy street was moving too fast to be captured by an exposure lasting several minutes.
The industrial revolution brought with it a renewed sense of pride for Britain. With a sense of achievement almost an ever-present, the demand for portraits of inventors and revolutionaries only got stronger. The new, ‘modern day’ heroes had to be captured in all of their glory and the daguerreotype had now evolved to the point that it could fully oblige.
New innovations were revealed for the process which significantly improved performance of this type of photography. Stripping away much of the cost and time associated with oil paintings and even older versions of itself, its popularity boomed and many of the iconic figures of the industrial revolution were snapped and placed in the history books.
Despite the many challenges presented by trying to take photos on location enterprising photographers set off around the world with their cumbersome equipment, bringing home amazingly clear photos of the great wonders of the world such as the pyramids of Egypt, previously only seen in drawings. To capture these pictures they needed to transport a portable darkroom and all the chemicals necessary to develop their images on site, as seen in the illustration below. This gives a whole new meaning to the term “mobile photography”! People like Francis Frith realised that there was money to be made in selling these hard-won images to the public back home, thirsty for knowledge of the wider world. Frith went on to create a highly successful business marketing postcards of views from Britain and around the world, which is still trading to this day.
The first professional photography
Within a year of the announcement of the invention of photography portrait studios were being set up as entrepreneurs realised that there was money to be made from this new invention. This was a result of technical advances that gradually reduced the exposure time for a portrait from 5 minutes to around 25 seconds (still a really long time to remain perfectly still, and one of the reasons that Victorians always look rather stern in their photos).
These studio owners were the first professional photographers, and they were kept busy as people realised that for the first time in human history it was possible to own a life-like portrait of your loved ones. Some of these studios were very good: they produced fantastic quality portraits demonstrating an artistic approach to lighting and use of backgrounds, whereas others were more basic, taking the view that high volume sales were preferable to top quality images. Some would argue that nothing has changed.
Technical developments came along in rapid succession, making it easier to produce high quality portraits, landscapes and documents of the world around us. Glass plate negatives replaced the complicated daguerreotype process (which only produced a one-off image on a metal plate), and so it became possible to produce multiple copies of an image. This obviously presented photographers with the opportunity to sell the same photo many times over – a key to profitability.
In the mid to late 1800’s there was a craze for photographic calling cards (Cartes-de-Visite) which featured a studio portrait mounted on card with the photographer’s trademark on the back. An individual would present their card when paying a visit to a friend, and many people collected them in albums. This was a clever way of generating demand for the product, guaranteeing more visits to the photographer’s studio and also sales of prints and the albums in which to store them.
These sold in vast quantities, and Cartes featuring celebrities such as Queen Victoria were hugely popular. They were produced in such large quantities that it’s still possible to pick up examples in junk shops and markets today.
Documenting the world
Governments quickly recognised the value of photography as a means of documenting their assets – buildings, monuments, landscapes, etc. and so commissioned photographers to create archives. These collections now provide us with valuable information about how the world looked 150 years ago.
One of the first professional photographers in the UK was Roger Fenton, who photographed the Royal Family and their estates in the 1850s. He was also the official photographer for the British Museum and was then commissioned to photograph the war in the Crimea, producing many portraits of officers and men, and the famous shot of the aftermath of the charge of the Light Brigade – a valley strewn with cannonballs.
In America the discovery of the West and the Civil War were extensively documented in photographs, creating a fascinating archive of portraits, landscapes and scenes of the construction of the railroads.
The arrival of the photojournalist
Another significant development that encouraged the development of the role of professional photographer was the invention in the 1870s of half-tone printing which for the first time made it possible for newspapers to print photos. This brought about the new occupation of the professional photojournalist, employed to document and record daily events. Nowadays every magazine, newspaper and website relies to a large extent on the use of images, sourced from staff photographers or one of the many photo libraries, such as Getty Images.
What is the future for professional photography?
In essence the roles of the professional photographer were created and defined in the 19th Century, and to a large extent they remain the same to this day. There is a never-ending demand for photos of the world around us, for images of the great and good (and of “ordinary” people), landscapes, wildlife, sporting events and all of human activity. This is seen in the screenshot below of a page from Getty Images’ feed of the latest photos from around the world – part of a never-ending stream of professional photography produced to satisfy the demand from websites and publications of all types.
However, most people now have access to a digital camera and as a result it’s estimated that every day 3 billion photos are uploaded to the internet. Despite this massive explosion in picture making there is still a demand for the artistic vision and high quality that separates the professional from the amateur photographer, whether it’s for a wedding/life event, or for business. Because so many people own good quality cameras it’s becoming harder to make a living as a professional photographer, but it seems likely there will always be a demand for the added extras that a skilled professional can bring to the job.