Photography, an Art born of Philosophy and Science

Photography, an Art Born out of Philosophy and Science. Some Interesting Things in Photography’s Early History.

Photography is an art that is born out of philosophy and science. From Mo-Tzu, DaVinci and the Camera Obscura. A love of history is impossible to suppress. And in art, history is ever more vibrant and fascinating because it bears its fruits in some of the most beautiful things that human beings can create. Masterpieces in art tells history through incredible beauty.

Yet the history of Photography is different somewhat in tone to that of the classical masters that hang in the Louvre. Different from other forms of traditional art perhaps due to its fusion to technology and function. Its birth was not from artistic explorations. It was scientific.

We identify photography with a photograph, an image that is recorded. It makes sense we look at the first image that is recorded to be the first photograph as we know it.

The Worlds Oldest Surviving Photograph

Was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) circa 1826-1827. It is an image that was taken from his window and titled as such.

Image ref: Musee Nicéphore Niépce

It was made using a method that he invented, Heliography, and plays an important role in the development of modern photography. Niepce used a camera obscura to render this image. The first image that was successful ‘in recording reality’. The name ‘heliography’ comes from two words. Helios, in Greek which means sun and ‘graphic’ meaning writing’. Simply translates as writing with the sun.

1826 Niepce Daguerre
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras(enhanced version by Helmut Gershein), c. 1826-7. Oil-treated bitumen. 20 × 25 cm. Image from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Niepce’s Method, Heliography

The mixture used by Niepce uses a highly polished metal place with light sensitive chemicals. He treated a heated pewter plate with bitumen of Judea, or Syrian asphalt (this is actually a naturally occurring asphalt with light sensitive properties). He then placed this pewter plate inside a camera obscure, other wise known as a pinhole camera. This camera was placed facing outside of his open window. They supposed he kept this camera open for a minimum of 8 hours and maybe as long as two days.

The bitumen would harden where the light touched it the strongest. You wouldn’t be able to see the image until the bitumen that wasn’t so hardened by the sun was scraped off. Even though this is a successful reproduction of an image that was first recorded, it was not able to be reproduced. It created one single image.

There is great online exhibition by the Nicephore Niepce Museum that goes into this in beautiful detail.

Camera Obscura

Images fascinates the world. Images perhaps shapes the world too. Yet what makes this possible is the tool that allows us to do this. And the history of how the present day camera evolved reveals an older and fascinating story. A camera obscura existed long before there was ever a record of the first photograph.

The ‘camera obscura’ as it later became known, is Latin and translates to ‘dark chamber’. Because it quite simply means a dark room with a hole in one wall. When its light outside, the light comes through the small hole in the wall and projects an image of the outside world onto the opposite wall inside. This image appears upside down.

Camera Obscura

The first historical record about the concept of ‘camera obscura’ is from Mo-Tzu or Mozi circa 400BC. A Chinese philosopher who founded Mohism. He was also known as ‘Master Mo.’

Niepce Mozi Da Vinci Photaphy History

Mo Tzu, Philosophy and Photography

Mo-tzu’s writings describe ‘light from an illuminated object that passed through a pinhole into a dark room created an inverted image of the original object.’ Mo-Tzu referred to the camera obscura as a ‘collecting plate’ or a ‘locked treasure room’.

Mo-Tzu is a prolific thinker and philosopher with books of his teachings that are considered a rival to Confucious. A main principle that he taught is an impartial love for all without distinction ‘jianai’. Encouraging self reflection, introspection and authenticity in ones self cultivation.

“The task of the benevolent is surely to diligently seek to promote the benefit of the world and eliminate harm to the world and to take this as a model throughout the world. Does it benefit people? Then do it. Does it not benefit people? Then stop.” (Mòzǐ 32: 1, C. Fraser transl.)

(Mòzǐ 32: 1, C. Fraser transl.)

Mohist teachings reminded thinkers that for any proposition, you should analyse its basis, its verifiability and its applicability. The philosophy of our Ancient forefathers are treasures in themselves. Its a deviation from camera theory but a wonderful connection in our history. It is poetic that the first mention of the camera obscura, which is an invention that aids our vision of the world, was first mentioned by such a wise mind whose teachings was for the betterment of society.

Aristotle and an Eclipse

In 300BC Aristotle knew about the camera obscura. He observed and recorded that a partial eclipse could be viewed by looking at the ground beneath a tree. The crescent shape of the partially eclipsed sun projected onto the ground through the holes in a sieve and through the gaps between the leaves allowing him to view it safely.

There are several other accounts in history where scientists experimented with the idea of light through a small hole but it was in the 11th century that a screen was used to see the inverted image. That would make this the historical version of what would be ‘sensors’in our digital cameras today.

Alhazen Camera Obscura

Ibn al-Haytham and his studies in optics that changed the course of science.

Amidst all the early accounts of the camera obscura, historian have attributed the invention finally to a mathematician named Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen).

Image ref Link by independent

His research in optics is groundbreaking. The Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics, which illustrates the eyes and optic nerves is the oldest drawing of the nervous system that we know of. His work researching sight and vision led him to his invention of the first camera obscura.

Photography Born out of Brilliant, Curious Minds

The journey of photography’ development continued throughout history. Always appearing amidst philosophers, mathematicians and physicists. Four centuries later Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) suggested that the human eye is like a camera obscura. He went on to publish a clear description of the camera obscura in Codex Atlanticus in 1502.

Soon after the design of the camera obscura was improved by another Italian scholar named Giambattista della Porta (1535 – 1615) who came along and added a concave lens near to where light enters the pinhole.

Bringing us to Johannes Kepler. Kepler used the term “camera obscura” for the first time in 1604. Because his work is in astronomy, Kepler created a portable version of the camera obscura. One that he could carry around with him as a tent. He would take this with him on trips for surveying in upper Austria.

History part of Identity

As individuals, we have memories and biological and experiential histories. It contributes to shaping who we are whether by choice or not. Often there are times we go in search of our history, as a way of finding out more about ourselves. When revisiting some points in the cameras’ and photographys’ history, I imagine that photography as an art born out of science benefit also from knowing its roots and history.

As one of the fastest changing disciplines you can say that amongst the fine art disciplines photography is a radical child. Photography was born out of questioning minds. The passion to seek out knowledge. Curiosity and intellectual appetites. Photography grew up on the outskirts of convention right from the beginning. It is no wonder that at least technologically, it continues to challenge itself and surpass its limits.

But we should remember the intellectual spirit of the philosopher in which photography today was born. ‘A treasure locked room’. The spirit of the thinker that heralded the beginning of an art that was born out of mind and science. Whereby it is not only an art of observation but of critical analysis and pioneering discoveries. The camera is a culmination of both the explorer and the observer. This rich duality in the nature of photography is artistic and beautiful.

D.D Reich

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