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Founding Fathers

This weekend, we celebrate the founding of the United States and watch fireworks go off. I've written about photographing fireworks before, so it seemed a good time to talk about our founding fathers. No, not John Hancock and Paul Revere, but the people and events I'm grateful to that paved the way for me to be a photographer.

Most people who consider themselves photographers in any serious way know the word "photography" came from the Greek for "painting with light," but how about the word "camera?" Even before photography became photography, an 11th century Arab named Ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen, developed a light-tight box with a pinhole projected images on the opposite wall. Alhazen dubbed the Camera Obscura from the Latin for "dark room." When you get right down to it, cameras even today are basically just darkened boxes with a hole in one side.

The rest, as they say, is history, but long before Alhazen, Aristotle and other ancient Greeks were familiar with the concept behind the Camera Obscura. There's really no way to know who first noticed this phenomenon, but the Chinese were writing about it several centuries before the birth of Christ. Leonardo da Vinci and other 15th century artists discovered that the device could be used to project a scene in accurate perspective to improve the realism of paintings. Around the same time, the brightness and clarity of the projected image were improved when the newly developed telescope lens replaced the pinhole. 17th century Dutch painter Johannes made extensive use of the Camera Obscura technique in the creation of images that even today are remarkable for their uncanny realism.

But without any form of film or other recording medium, the uses for the Camera Obscura were limited. The first steps in this area had to wait for the 18th and 19th centuries. Around 1720, Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that certain compounds darkened due to exposure to light rather than heat as had been previously theorized. By 1820's, French inventor NicÉphore NiÉpce had combined a photosensitive material based on Schulze's work with the Camera Obscura to create the first device that would qualify as a camera by today's standards.

Over the subsequent years there were numerous iterations that improved up this basic design to create daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, ferrotypes and so on. By the 1860's, James Clerk-Maxwell in Scotland developed a means of combining three black and white images taken through red, green and blue filters to produce the first color photographs.

Around the same time, one of the first historically noteworthy uses of photography came when photographers working with Mathew Brady extensively covered the American Civil War. After the war, the US Congress dispatched photographers out to record the American West. Photographs from each of these projects are quite famous to this day. William Henry Jackson and other photographers who produced such iconic images of Yellowstone directly led to the creation of the first National Park in the United States. The Territories of Montana and Wyoming weren't even states yet. Additional parks were named in the years following, including Olympic and Mt. Rainier National Parks in my neck of the woods. President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into law in 1916 as an umbrella organization to manage the parks.

There's a longstanding debate as to what degree the designation of these areas as National Parks is responsible for preserving them in the form we know them today, but the early history of Yosemite Valley implies that we would see a lot more commercial activity without the added protection. I think it worked out well this way.

The patent for the first digital camera would have to wait until 1975 because, well, "digital" had to be developed first. But in that year, an engineer at Eastman Kodak named Steven Sasson put an early Fairchild CCD semiconductor chip together with a color filter array developed by Bryce Bayer. Bayer filters are still employed in virtually every digital camera to this day.

Early digital cameras were either horribly expensive, or simply horrible. Or both. Just as the early days of film photography progressed through a number of advances and false starts that often couldn't be neatly separated into distinct categories until long after the fact, so too with the early years of digital.

When I first got interested in photography, there was no public Internet per se. There was no Amazon. Few good books were available in local bookstores, but of those I could find, two names stand out: Galen Rowell and John Shaw. Yes, there were books by Ansel Adam too of course, but he shot with medium and large format cameras and I didn't. While I greatly admired the images Adams shot, I think I learned more from Rowell and Shaw. I devoured each new book that John Shaw put out. These days, there are hundreds and hundreds of books on photography. There may even be that many published every year.

The chain of events that led to my being able to take pictures is indeed long and complicated, with the involvement of many, many "founding fathers." There's really no way to cover them all here, but I'm thankful for them all.

And yes, one of those "founding fathers" would have to be my own father. Growing up, he was the family photographer, taking pictures at key holidays and family milestones. I didn't always enjoy standing where I was told to have my picture taken, but I did develop an appreciation for the power of photography to capture memories. John Shaw may have taught me to use a camera creatively, but it was my dad that introduced me to photography in the first place. He's now enjoying his retirement years and I know I now take more pictures than he does, but I am indeed indebted to him for showing me that was photography could be pursued by more than those few skilled enough to publish books on the subject. And to repeat what I said above, the rest is history.

The weather here has been cloudy the past couple of days. Here's to hoping for clear skies for the fireworks tomorrow night.

Date posted: July 3, 2016


Copyright © 2016 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Galen's Light Will Shine On
Photographing Fireworks

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