What is photography?

the art or process of producing images on a sensitized surface by the action of radiant energy and especially visible light.

In its simplest form, photography is ‘light writing’ – ‘photo’ means light and ‘graphy’ means writing. It is the record of a moment captured in some permanent (or semi-permanent) form. For photography, no camera, or film, is required; just some sort of light sensitive receptor (in modern terms, some sort of photo-sensitive paper) and light to expose it.

The simplest form of modern photography is also very similar to the first photograph: the photogram. This is the direct exposure of light onto light-sensitive paper. Most people who make photograms place objects if varying transparency directly onto the paper- the places where the object blocks the light from falling onto the paper stay white (assuming white paper, of course), places that receive full light become black, and areas of differing opacity become greys.

In the capturing a record of light onto paper, the originator was William Henry Fox Talbot, an English scientist with a well-rounded university background. His “photogenic drawings” were among the first-ever photographs; he placed plant specimens directly onto his sensitized paper, exposed it to light, creating a permanent record of the shadow of the plant. This is the basis of the chemical photographic process we still have today.

We usually think of photography as involving a camera, but cameras (called camera obscura) predated photography by hundreds of years. We also think of photography as involving a negative and positive (final) of some sort, but this too is not required in the strictest definition of photography. When light exposed photo-sensitive paper, places that are blocked by an object stay white; you can see the end result is a reversal of the subject, and a negative is left behind.

It is probably apparent that a positive image (reversing the reversal of the subject, in this case) can be made by sandwiching the paper negative with another piece of photo-sensitive paper; now the negative-paper serves the place of the object; white areas don”t block light from passing through the paper to the paper beneath. Those areas become black on the ”positive” sheet. Black areas on the negative block the light from passing through to the positive sheet, so those areas stay white. A positive images is made.

Photography doesn’t strictly involve lenses either. This clarification is the most commonly understood one – pinhole cameras with their tiny light-admitting orifice, are often demonstrated to photography classes on day one. Pinhole cameras are basically the same device as camera obscura, albeit smaller. Because pinhole cameras are constructed by the photographer, they lend themselves to a very personal photographic experience.

Photography, then, is just the record of light. With this fundamental understanding, anything else that photography becomes to you is your choice. It can be very complex with loads of technical concerns, or very simply, it can be your way of writing with light.

Originally published on Startphoto on May 17, 2007.