From the Camera Obscura to Cinema
imagen 1

Roger Bacon was an English monk who lived in the XIII century. For the crime of studying nature and of objecting to the philosophical doctrines of his time, which he considered to be retrograde and out of date, he was condemned to life imprisonment accused of being a sorcerer.

The discovery of glasses and the first reference to the camera obscura are attributed to Bacon. In a manuscript that is ascribed to him, the following is written:

"To observe an eclipse of the sun without damaging your sight, a hole should be made, through which the discoid image of the sun will penetrate which will then be projected somewhere else, and which shifts according to the changes in the phenomenon."

In the second half of the XV century, Leonardo da Vinci discovered the same principle which he records in his Codex Atlanticus. Leonardo also suggested the possibility of putting this phenomenon to practical use.

Old daguerreotype

XVIII century camera obscura for copying images

It was Giovanni Battista Della Porta who, years later, made the first camera obscura to have lenses and which sure enough by then had the function that Da Vinci had predicted. Della Porta says that it is useful ...." so that anyone who is ignorant of painting can draw any object with a pen ...."
Della Porta's camera was by now a photographic camera in the making, as it had precision lenses and mirrors to reinvert the image. Nevertheless, for many centuries it would only be used to look at and copy images, despite the fact that around the same time, the alchemist Fabricius observed that: ..." The images which a lens projects on silver metals are engraved in black, according to the strength of the light...."

From the XVI century onwards the camera obscura almost reached a standstill and research in photochemistry started. At the beginning of the XVIII century, the chemist Schultze worked to no effect trying to achieve the permanence of images projected on silver salts.

In 1780, an eccentric Frenchman, professor Charles, an aerostats builder and a lecturer in physics at the Sorbonne, had already made elementary photographs on paper impregnated with silver chloride, by casting through sunlight the silhouette of a man.

In this way, the image of the silhouette was engraved in white on the paper, but after a few moments the light started to have an effect on it again until it made it disappear.

Researchers from the principle European countries embarked on a mission to see who would be the first to come up with a solution to the problem. James Watt in Scotland, the inventor of the steam engine, was one of them.

But the weak images on silver solutions that he obtains with the camera obscura, disappear very quickly. Wedgwood, and later Humphry Davy, persevered further, but still had no success. On these experiments Humphry Davy wrote:

"What is needed is to somehow prevent the light parts of the drawing being affected by daylight. If this were achieved, the process would be as useful as it is straightforward. Up until now you have to keep the copy of the drawing in a dark place. This drawing can only be viewed in the dark and for a short time. I have tried in vain all possible means to prevent the colorless parts from going black with light.

"As for the images produced by the camera obscura, undoubtedly they did not get enough light for me to obtain a clear drawing with the silver nitrate. Nonetheless this is where the research interest lies. But all attempts have been useless."
It did not occur to Davy that the silver nitrate emulsion was not sufficiently sensitive to record the images that were being produced inside the camera.

In 1805, in Ciudad Real, now known as San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico–which was then part of Guatemala–Don Enrique Martínez, a chemistry and festive firework enthusiast, experimented with the camera obscura and a silver chloride solution applied to a metal plate.
The local historian, Don Prudencio Esponda, describes Martínez's experiments in the following way:
"With his mysterious dark box, the learned professor Martínez has managed to retain a replica, similar to a very beautiful drawing of the front of the temple of Santo Domingo, on a metal plate impregnated with chemical products which he invented. When he removed the above-mentioned replica from the dark, from the aforementioned box, he rubbed it with a compound of lime juice and other vegetable juices. In this way, the image lasted for some days during which the most important residents of the town could admire it."
Don Enrique Martínez could not continue his interesting experiments, as in January 1806 he died in a terrible explosion accidentally set off in his firework factory. Nevertheless it was unlikely that even if he had continued to live, despite having made remarkable discoveries, that these should have become known, given that the distant province in which he lived was totally isolated from the important cultural centers.

In 1822, Necèphore Niepce, a French chemist, succeeded in making the first permanent image employing silver iodide. Using a camera obscura bought from a manufacturer called Chevalier he achieved, after an eight-hour outside exposure, the image that from then on is known as the Set Table.

Niepce later teamed up with Daguerre, a painter and stage designer, to continue doing experiments together with the aim of improving the process. Once Niepce was dead, Daguerre continued his quest and he discovered the "daguerreotype", a procedure that consists of making images on metallic plates impregnated with mercury fumes. Niepce and Daguerre's images were obtained directly in positives, therefore could not be reproduced.

Henry Fox Talbot in England discovered the negative and, consequently, the system that allowed photography its unlimited reproduction

Nicèphore Niepce

The first daguerreotype

During the years that followed, the camera obscura and photochemistry developed impressively. With the daguerreotype, photography–as Talbot christened it–became popular, and professional photographers emerged.

Nadar must be mentioned as being one of the most important. The metallic plate was replaced by glass and, later, by celluloid, a more flexible material. The chemical emulsions became extremely sensitive and permitted "instantaneous" shots of moving images.

In 1887, in the United States, Aníbal Goodwin invented the photographic reel, the same one that Eastman/Kodak would industrialize immediately, thus creating one of the bases on which consumer society would be built.

Eastman made photographic cameras at popular prices, the film was loaded in the factory and the cameras then had to be sent to a laboratory to take the film out and develop it. In 1897 Eastman Kodak launched the following slogan: "You press the button, we do the rest." With the arrival of supersensitive film and, consequently, of instant film, men started to concern themselves with the representation of continuous movement.

Photochronography, that is to say the capture of movement in successive stages, began before the photographic roll film and preceded cinematography. But before referring to it, let's talk a little about an instrument which later allowed images taken by the camera to be viewed: The projector.

The projector began with the camera obscura. It occurred to the German priest Kircher (1602-1680) to invert its process. If the camera is able to take an image from the outside to the inside, then why can't this image be projected from the inside to the outside as well? Putting his theory into practice, Kircher made the first projector in history, which he suggestively named the "Magic Lantern".

The device consisted of a camera obscura supplied with a set of lenses and a sliding plate holder–similar to that of contemporary projectors–where transparencies painted on glass plates were placed.

The first negative

To expel the fumes produced by the oil lamp that was used as a source of light, the Magic Lantern was adorned with a large and impressive chimney.

The magic lantern made the Italian, Cagliostro, the forerunner of pornographic cinema. In pre-revolutionary Paris, Cagliostro used it to present shows where he projected transparencies–made by him–of images which, according to versions from the period, "illustrate the practice of horrible habits of sexual deviancy".

However, Cagliostro did not stop at this, but added improved mechanisms to his magic lantern, adapting a set of wheels to it that allowed him to increase or diminish the size of the images at will.

Portrait of Daguerre by Nadar

The magic lantern was received with great enthusiasm and, from then on, it started to be used for various functions. Nollet and Charles introduced it to the Sorbonne to visually illustrate their teachings, and Mesmer used it in his hypnotism sessions and in his lectures on the theory of animal magnetism.

Professor Charcot used it to cure, through projections, certain cases of epilepsy and hysteria.

The use of the magic lantern in recreational projections

As time went on the magic lantern was perfected. When electricity was discovered, and consequently the voltaic arc, it was adopted by the Magic Lantern, thus noticeably improving the projections.

With the arrival of photography, the primitive transparencies painted on glass were substituted by slides and the Magic Lantern also became a photographic enlarger. Just a few more steps had to be taken for the magic lantern to become the cinematographic projector.

The first photographics cameras


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