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First ShotsFirst Shots

Since the mid-19th century, war photographers have captured many iconic, dramatic and shocking images. They have also done much to record the events and experiences of modern warfare, from the heroic and humdrum to the ghastly and terrifying.

Using some of the earliest photographs from the collections of the National Army Museum, First Shots documents the early history of war photography. It explores the subject through the works of four pioneers: John McCosh, Roger Fenton, James Robertson and Felice Beato, and provides an insight into the origins of what has become a powerful journalistic medium.

The Birth of Photography

Photography emerged in the first half of the 19th century from a fusion of the technology of the centuries-old camera obscura and experimentation with light sensitive chemicals such as silver nitrate. Although the French inventor, Joseph Niépce, took the first permanent photograph, the chief technical breakthroughs were made by Louis Daguerre (1839) and Henry Fox Talbot (1840). Their rival methods of the daguerrotype and calotype competed with each other during the 1840s.

Both of these methods were superseded by Frederick Scott-Archer’s wet-plate or wet-collodian method of 1851. This method combined the virtues of image quality and reproducibility and so allowed the practice of photography to flourish. However, wet-plate photography still had the major drawback of requiring the photographer to take their darkroom with them wherever they went.

Throughout this period cameras remained bulky and cumbersome. Photographs also required lengthy exposure times preventing the production of any action shots. All of these factors hindered the practice of outdoor photography and so were major constraints upon work of the early war photographers.

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