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The Impact of Early Photography

With the advent of the collodion process came mass production and dissemination of photographic prints. The inception of these visual documents of personal and public history engendered vast changes in people's perception of history, of time, and of themselves. The concept of privacy was greatly altered as cameras were used to record most areas of human life. The ubiquitous presence of photographic machinery eventually changed humankind's sense of what was suitable for observation. The photograph was considered incontestable proof of an event, experience, or state of being.

To fulfill the mounting and incessant demand for more images, photographers spread out to every corner of the world, recording all the natural and manufactured phenomena they could find. By the last quarter of the 19th cent. most households could boast respectable photographic collections. These were in three main forms: the family album, which contained cabinet portraits and the smaller cartes-de-visite and tintypes; scrapbooks containing large prints of views from various parts of the world; and boxes of stereoscope cards, which in combination with the popular stereo viewer created an effective illusion of three-dimensionality.

A number of photographers, including Timothy O'Sullivan, J. K. Hillers, and W. H. Jackson, accompanied exploratory expeditions to the new frontiers in the American West, while John Thomson returned from China and Maxime Du Camp from Egypt with records of vistas and peoples never before seen by Western eyes. Roger Fenton, who photographed the Crimean conflict, and Mathew Brady's photographic corps, who documented the American Civil War, provided graphic evidence of the hellishness of combat.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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