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Photography: Writing in Light: History of Photography

A Few Words on Photography

"I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied."
- Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)
"It’s fair to say that black folks operate under a cloud of invisibility—this too is part of the work, is indeed central to [my photographs]... This invisibility—this erasure out of the complex history of our life and time—is the greatest source of my longing."
- Carrie Mae Weems (1953-)
"Photography develops, rather, with us, and in response to us [...] It will not end until we do.”
- Kaja Silverman (1947-)

A 5 Minute History of Photography

Want a quick run-down of the highlights in the history of photography? Check out the video below, by the Cooperative of Photography. Things aren't quite as cut-and-dry as the video might make them seem, and some of the dates and names are contested, but the video does provide a general sense of the timeline of photography.

Niepce's First Photograph


Online Resources is a comprehensive archive of primary sources related to the history of photography. 

Some of the earliest texts on photography are now available online via


The Shirley Card

Color correcting - adjusting the color of a photograph to match how our eyes see color, or to impart an artistic taste - is a crucial aspect of color photography, both analog and digital. 

In the 1950s, Kodak introduced the ‘Shirley card,’ an example photograph which lab technicians used to guide the printing of new photographs. If the reds or blues or yellows in your photograph looked like those in the Shirley card, you were good to go. However, the color balance of the Shirley card was created with fair (white) skin in mind. For many people of color, especially darker-skinned Black people, the ‘Shirley card’ was a bad guide and led to less-than-ideal results. Eventually, Kodak made updates to this process in response to complaints, not from people of color but from chocolate and furniture manufacturers whose dark brown products were also poorly depicted in Kodak’s color film.

The Shirley Card reminds us that photography - like any technology - is inseparable from society and culture. Our values, beliefs, and practices will be reflected in any new technology. The expectation that white photographers, and white subjects, should take center stage had very real impacts for how people of color experienced photography: behind and in front of the camera.

Dr. Lorna Roth discusses the history of the Shirley Card in the video below. Warning: Most of the comments on this video are from people who didn't watch it (or didn't watch it carefully).

Sonya Mwambu's experimental short film (below) re-positions the visual tropes of the Shirley Card, allowing the viewer to see photography's relationship to race differently.


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