Art of the Week

American, Anonymous, 19th century
Basilica di San Marco, Venice, 1850-95
Albumen, 39 x 52 cm.

Early in the 1800’s, the first experiments took place attempting to make images on paper surfaces that had been coated with light sensitive material. The process worked, but a lot of logistical problems needed to be solved. The first major problem was making the captured image on the chemical coated surface permanent. This problem was finally solved with the Daguerrotype image and made a huge impact on the world when it was announced in 1839. However other difficulties remained to be solved. When this process was perfected enough for common use, for the first time ever, portrait studios popped up all over the place. For a very small cost, people could get their portrait made. Finally, we begin to see photographs of poor and working class people who could now afford a family portrait once in a while.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the rapid development and increasing recognition of the art of photography, along with a growing fascination with other countries and cultures, marked the beginning of the formation of a “global visual culture.” In the decades following the invention of photography in 1839, professional photographic firms appeared in the major cities of Western Europe, as well as in more remote travel destinations such as Greece, Egypt, India, Asia, and the Middle East. The earliest travel photographers produced images primarily for publications which functioned as surrogates for travel, spurring curiosity and inspiring Grand Tour travelers who, by the 1870s and ’80s, were flocking to exotic sites to visit the monuments of the ancient and medieval past.

Catering to this influx of European and American tourists, a growing number of travel photographers documented historical monuments and archeological sites, as well as scenes of daily life. Technological developments enabled these photographers to produce relatively large numbers of images that were chiefly intended to satisfy the burgeoning tourism trade and the thirst for images of the Orient, the term traditionally used in the nineteenth century to refer to the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. As the techniques of photography became less cumbersome, transporting equipment became more practical. Photographers began to sell their pictures on-site to tourists who collected them as souvenirs during their travels.

These unique photographs have artefactual value for the history of photography, as well as documentary value for the study of the architectural and social history of the regions in which they were produced. Since the nineteenth century, many of the monuments recorded in these images have been altered through architectural restoration, damaged, or, in some cases, completely destroyed. Images on glass plates and paper are often the only surviving records of these monuments and of certain aspects of nineteenth-century daily life in both urban and rural areas. The nineteenth-century travel photograph also provides a singular historical record, documenting cultures and landscapes that have been radically altered by development and modernization.

Mace, O. Henry. Collector’s guide to early photographs / Radnor, Pa. : Wallace-Homestead Book Co., c1990. TR15 .M24 1990

  • Lindquist-Cock, Elizabeth. The influence of photography on American landscape painting, 1839-1880 / New York : Garland Pub., 1977. ND1351.5.L56 1977
  • Photography : the whole story / Munich : New York ; Prestel Publishing, 2012. TR15 .P479 2012

American century of photography 1840-1940. Camera (english Edition)., June 1978, Vol. 57, p3-41, 39p
Photography and American history. Camera (english Edition)., December 1976, Vol. 55, p3
Photography in America. By: Jay, Bill. British Journal of Photography, July 11 1980, Vol. 127, p660-663, 4p
The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype/A Familiar Strangeness: American Fication and the Language of Photography, 1839-1945. By: Saltz, Laura. CAA Reviews, 1/10/2013, p1-4, 4p; DOI: 10.3202/


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