A Hands-on History of Photography

The Smithsonian Associates offers many enriching classes, lectures and workshops.   A number of photography courses are available through its studio arts programs, including a History of Photography: A Hands-On History.  This was a four-week class, which surveyed early movements in photography, from tintype, camera obscura and daguerreotype to the pictorialists and surrealists. One of the components of the course was to produce a project representing one of the early processes in photo development, which included constructing a camera obscura, preparing cyanotypes, photograms and hand coloring an image. In addition, the instructor covered a few well-known men and women who contributed to photography’s development or who invented a number of these early forms and styles in photography.


In week one we used a cereal box or small packing box to construct a camera obscura, a process which had been used as far back as the 5th century BC, where rays of light reflect from an object and pass through a tiny hole and into a dark chamber.  We learned cameras obscura were used as an aid in drafting and used by painters such as da Vinci and Caravaggio.   Artists traced an image from the camera obscura for their painting.  When film or photographic paper is used inside a camera obscura, this is pinhole photography.  Abelardo Morell is a contemporary photographer known for creating camera obscura images.

The next week we created cyanotypes. The paper, either Fabiano 5 or other suitable paper which is acid free and of sufficient weight, is prepared with a solution of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and exposed to UV light. It was immersed in a wash, producing a cyan-blue print. Around 1842, Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype photographic process.It was originally a low-cost process employed as a photocopying technique and later to produce blueprints.All of the supplies necessary are available at www.photoformulary.com and at www.bhphotovideo.com..


Man Ray is known for his contributions to surrealism, but also for his work with photograms, also called rayographs.  They are made without a camera by placing objects on the surface of treated photographic paper then exposed to light, usually under an enlarger. We used Ilford multi-grade resin-coated paper, because it is quicker to process and dry. Other chemicals involved were developer, stop bath, and fixer, plus a safe light. A very good source for the preparation of photograms can be found at Digital Photography:  Step by Step Guide On How to Make a Photogram.

Hand coloring a photograph was our final project.  Oil or colored pencils can be used to color an image.  This works best when applied to a matte surfaced paper such as Moab Entrada Fine Art or Epson Enhanced Art.  Other suggested supplies include cotton balls, q-tips, brushes, and waxed paper.  There is a fair amount of information available for hand coloring photos.  It can be found at www.freestylephoto.biz.

Hand Colored Photo.jpg

I do not intend to supplant digital photography with 19th century processes. However, they are uncommon and interesting activities and provide an extracurricular digression from contemporary photography.  In order to prepare a couple of these projects it will be necessary to find a photographer with a darkroom and enlarger.

By Stephanie Banks