Mapping the camera's influence from the first permanent photograph to today

How the technical evolution of the camera has changed the way we see the world — from documenting historical harms to finding community in times of grief.

'Now, if something happens, and you don't have immediate imagery of it, it's like it never happened'

A young man sits at a picnic table in a park, smiling broadly while taking a selfie with his phone.
From selfies to satellites, most of the technology we use and spaces we inhabit rely on cameras. (shutterpix/Shutterstock)

In less than 200 years, photography has gone from an expensive, complex process to an ordinary part of everyday life. From selfies to satellites, most of the technology we use and spaces we inhabit rely on cameras. 

"Now, if something happens, and you don't have immediate imagery of it, it's like it never happened," said Todd Gustavson, technology curator at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, where he manages one of the world's largest collections of photographic and cinematic equipment.

A graphic of a purple butterfly with various cameras inside of it, against a white background.
This story is part of The Butterfly Effect, a special Spark series about small inventions that have gone on to change the world. (CBC)

The evolution and rapid spread of cameras can seem inevitable. But for thousands of years, people were making images with no way to capture them. 

The camera obscura, Latin for dark chamber, was a phenomenon that allowed an observer to enter a darkened space where a pinhole of light on one wall would project an image of the outside scene on an opposing wall. Later, lenses were added to the holes and entire chambers condensed into portable boxes. 

When the camera obscura was combined with chemistry, these impermanent projections could finally be turned into the earliest photographs. 

The French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce is thought to have captured the first permanent photograph around the year 1826. 

"He was using asphalt on a metal brass printing plate and they were basically processing it with kind of like the modern equivalent of gasoline," explained Gustavson.

Years later, another inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, built on Niépce's findings using new chemical combinations. This led to the creation of the daguerreotype process, which produced more enhanced images. 

"His process basically was that you'd expose this copper printing plate that was coated with silver on one side for about a half hour or so, and then you could process it with mercury vapour," explained Gustavson. 

A man in a blue collared shirt gives a slight smile to the camera in front of a black backdrop.
Todd Gustavson manages one of the world's largest collections of photographic and cinematic equipment. (Submitted by Todd Gustavson)

The French government released the daguerreotype process to the public on August 19, 1839, the date that would become World Photography Day. 

From there, Gustavson says, it was a matter of improving the light sensitivity of the plates and upgrading to faster lenses until "eventually, by 1841, you could actually make portraits."

A smiling young woman is standing in a field in a sepia-toned early photograph. She is holding a scarf around her head with one hand and holding a clay jug in her other.
A portrait from page 120 of the 1869 book "Pictorial Effect in Photography: being hints on composition and chiaroscuro for photographers. To which is added a chapter on combination painting" (Public Domain, from the British Library's collections, 2013)

Victorian portraits to vacation prints 

We can thank this early camera technology for those characteristically stiff Victorian-era portraits, according to Aimée Morrison, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo.

A drawing of a male photographer in a long black jacket with a large camera on a tripod, pointed at a small family dressed in their finest and seated for a portrait.
Digitized image of an 1867 advertisement, from page 682 of "Sheppard's Shippers' Guide to the South and West, embracing twenty-three states, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, etc" (Public Domain, from the British Library's collections)

Those rigid postures and unsmiling faces came down to the camera's slow exposure time which could last up to a minute, Morrison says. This also meant that candid shots were nearly impossible.

With the advent of new camera technology near the end of the 19th century, the style of photography shifted to more casual shots. 

In 1888, George Eastman introduced the Kodak, "a much smaller handheld camera for the newly emerging amateur market," said Gustavson. The camera came preloaded with enough film for 100 photos and toted the advertising slogan "You press the button, we do the rest." 

"When the roll was done, the camera was designed to be shipped back … [where] they'd process it and send it back to you reloaded," said Gustavson. 

While the process was simplified, the price of the camera, $25 new and $10 each time it was sent back for processing and reloading, made it inaccessible for most households. 

Twelve years later, Eastman introduced the $1 Brownie camera. Originally intended for children, the camera was "a sort of cardboard box with a lens at the front of it," said Morrison. 

A woman with short blonde hair is taking a selfie in front of a bookshelf. She's wearing a patterned black and white top with a yellow cardigan and red lipstick.
Aimée Morrison, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, studies selfies for her research on how people represent themselves online. (Submitted by Aimée Morrison)

Early 20th century advertisements for Kodak products served as a manual for new camera owners, Morrison says, through scenes of families snapping photos during casual events like a day at the beach, a birthday party, or in front of a Christmas tree. 

"What they're doing … is telling you what you should do with this camera," said Morrison. 

As cameras were quickly becoming a household fixture, they were also shaping society — and space. 

Capturing history 

The George Eastman Museum hosts one of the Kodak-built Lunar Orbiter Camera Payload Satellites that NASA deployed to map the surface of the moon before the successful Apollo 11 landing, says Gustavson. 

"If we didn't have cameras, we wouldn't have made it to the moon because we would not have known where to land," he said. 

Curator and writer Marvin Heiferman has thought a lot about how cameras have shaped various industries. In partnership with The Smithsonian, Heiferman's book Photography Changes Everything, asked people from different fields — elementary school students to experts — to share how photography changed their discipline. 

"I talked to a World War II historian … about how, before the Normandy invasion, the Allies flew surveillance planes over the ocean to find out where German mines were buried underneath, and it changed the whole battle plan," said Heiferman. 

"Or I talked to the curator of spiders at The Smithsonian, who had set up a worldwide group of people to scan and share images of spiders so they could create an atlas that represented them perfectly in 3D when none existed before."

A man wearing a maroon collared shirt and tortoise-shell rimmed glasses smiles at the camera in front of a blurred, beige backdrop.
Marvin Heiferman, a long-time photography and visual culture curator and writer, turned to photography to cope with the loss of his late husband. (Sara Macel)

While photographic documentation can aid in shaping history, it can also be a window into the horrors of the past. 

Morrison says academics are rethinking how to show images of important, but traumatic cultural practices. 

Lynching postcards are one example of this kind of contested imagery. "That's something important about North American culture that is important to remember and to understand, but that doesn't mean that people have to look at that entire image," said Morrison. 

"There's one scholar, at least, who blurs out the the central figure — blurs out the body of the person who has been lynched — and leaves visible the faces of the spectators."

Studying historical photographs has provoked another significant question: can a photo ever represent reality?

Distortion versus reality 

"Photography, for all of its claims to objectivity, has always been something that can be manipulated," said Heiferman. "There was always photo retouching going back to the early 19th century."

With the technology itself limiting what can be captured in a single frame, cameras can both reveal and conceal elements of a story or event. 

"It's always just one person's perspective on a moment," said Morrison, "And, in fact, cameras don't even really capture reality. It's not a human eyeball. It distorts."

This distortion can become harder to identify as camera processing improves. 

"You get better and better at photography with every new phone that you get, not necessarily because your skill is improving, but because the algorithms that autocorrect the distortions between what we see and what the camera perceives are different," she said. 

"So we might say that today's photos are much more realistic and true to life. But paradoxically, that is because they are the most algorithmically processed."

As debates on how to navigate manipulation and distortion in photography continue, cameras still play a vital role in how we make sense of the world — even in personal ways. 

Finding community through photography

After a long career in the photography and visual culture space, Heiferman finally adopted the title of photographer after the life-changing and sudden loss of his husband, Maurice Berger, in the early days of the pandemic. 

Heiferman found himself isolated and grieving. 

"I didn't know how to deal with it and words were failing me," he said. 

On a walk, Heiferman took a picture of a twisted American flag hanging from a tree. "I thought that's really messed up, I'm feeling messed up, that matches what I feel," he said. He posted the picture to Instagram and turned the practice into a daily ritual. 

"It became this chronicle of grief, the pandemic and my experience."

Heiferman says he was surprised by the community that rallied around his photos and reached out to share their own experiences. 

"I'm amazed … that social media makes something like that possible, and that images make it possible. That people looked at images and understood intuitively how I was feeling, and connected to it."


McKenna Hadley-Burke is an associate producer for CBC Radio. She previously worked as a reporter for Cabin Radio in Yellowknife, NT.