Viewfinder: The History of the Image

The camcorder is a relatively new invention (if you can call it that). Like most technological developments, one person did not invent it on a particular date. Rather, it was a slow progression of advances in technology. Most of us know that the camcorder evolved from the portable VTR (video tape recorder) tethered by a fat cable to a camera. In 1975, I first used a Sony Port-a-Pak, which did not record in color.

Before video tape, there was film. Consumer 8mm and Super 8 movie cameras were, by comparison to the VTR, very small and light. In the 1970s, at the height of the last consumer movie-camera era, most cameras could not record sound. In order to capture the audio along with the images, you needed a separate audio tape recorder. As we work our way back in the historical lineage of the camcorder, this is where the technology branches into two separate paths.

Valdemar Poulsen patented the first magnetic audio recorder in 1898. Called the “telegraphone,” the device was developed in Denmark and used steel wire to record sound. For the vast majority of the history of audio, sound was not recorded magnetically. Vinyl records (that are still available) record vibrations in a physical media. Thomas Edison made the first recording of a human voice (“Mary Had a Little Lamb”) on the first tinfoil cylinder phonograph in 1877.

Thomas Edison also played a key role in the development of the motion picture camera. The initial experiments on Edison’s Kinetograph arose from his success with the phonograph cylinder. He attached tiny photographic images in sequence to a cylinder, with the idea that when the cylinder rotated, the illusion of motion would be reproduced. The Frenchman Louis Lumiere invented the first portable motion picture camera called the Cinematographe in 1895, while several others had made similar inventions around the same time. William Lincoln patented the first machine in the United States in 1867. Sequential drawings or photographs were watched through a small slit in his zoopraxiscope, which is not quite what we experience in a theater today.

Motion picture cameras are just an extension of still image photography. The basic idea of capturing motion in photography began with San Francisco photographer Eadweard Muybridge. He tried several motion-sequence still photographic experiments and is called the “Father of the motion picture” even though he didn’t make real films.

In 1837, Louis Daguerre created images on silver-plated copper, coated with silver iodide and perilously developed with warmed mercury. He named his technique the Daguerreotype Process. William Henry Fox Talbot created negative images using paper soaked in silver chloride and fixed with a salt solution in 1835. He then created positive images by contact printing onto another sheet of paper. This is the basis of film photography still in use today.

To steal a phrase from Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants. From the faint shadows of a drawing tool to megapixel CCDs, the technology may advance, but the art remains the same.

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