Why Wasn't Photography Invented Earlier?

[person_by] Frank van der Stok

January 2020

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, is believed to be the earliest photograph of people (1838). Because the image required an exposure time of over ten minutes, all the people, carriages, and other moving things disappear from the scene. However, in the bottom left hand corner is a ghostly appearance - a man who was having his shoes shined. It is Interesting to speculate on the question whether this was just a lucky shot or perhaps the earliest form of a staged event?
Photography is taken to have been invented in 1839, when the commercially-produced ‘daguerreotype’ became publicly available; earlier prototypes had been developed in the 1820s by Niepce, to whom some credit for the invention may properly belong. Other processes for the reproduction of images, without the crucial element of chemical fixing, had of course long been available through the use of the simple ‘camera obscura’, and by the more complex ‘camera lucida’ patented in 1807.
Over the years, a number of theories have been suggested to explain why photography was invented when it was. As a result of Johann Schulze’s discovery way back in the 1720s that silver nitrate would darken when exposed to light, one can conclude that knowledge of the chemical and optical principles of photography had been fairly well widespread for more than 100 years before photography eventually emerged. Why then photography was not invented earlier remains a ‘mystery’!
However, this claim may be (partly) contested on psychological grounds. Many ground-breaking inventions have been retrospectively branded as ‘obvious’. But it was only after the invention had been made that it was perceived as obvious. The explanation of this phenomenon may lie simply in hindsight bias. This is the inability to prevent knowledge gained through hindsight from affecting their analysis of past events. In particular, this type of bias causes individuals, whether lay or expert, to routinely overestimate the ex ante predictability of events after they have occurred. I would like to add that in my opinion a certain groundbreaking invention is being anticipated and only revealed when the time is right and everything falls into place.

Frank van der Stok
Frank van der Stok (b. 1967) is a curator, editor, essayist and intermediary for artists and art institutions. He also works as an editor and producer of artists’ books.


Part of Studies

Thought photographTed Serios1967

Thought photograph, Ted Serios, 1967

Frank van der Stok

In this Post-Truth era, almost every photograph seems to be speculative by nature.


Explore more RR