Photography did not appear all at once as we know it now. Talbot's process, the almost-universal method of photography since the 1850s, produced a negative image and the possibility of printing multiple positives from that negative. But it was Daguerre's process that dominated the first decade of photography. Daguerre had found a way to make direct positive images on polished plates. Each daguerreotype was unique, since there was no negative and no printing, and the images were small and elusive. The mirrored surface that at one angle showed the image at another showed the viewer looking at the image; it seemed phantasmagorical in a way paper prints would not. Compared to painting, early photography was astonishingly fast, but it required exposures from dozens of seconds to several minutes. Morse, who was in Paris the spring of Daguerre's announcement, wrote back to New York of the new invention, "Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except for an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot-black and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion." This man having his shoes polished and the blurry bootblack were the first human beings photographed, and it is eerie to look at them apparently alone, but really surrounded by scores who vanished into speed Photography was faster than painting, but it could only portray the slow world or the still world. People sat for their portraits with braces to hold their heads steady, and in those old portraits fidgeting children are often a blur. Landscapes were photographed on windless days when the leaves wouldn't move and the water was smooth. The bustling nineteenth century had to come to a halt for the camera, until Muybridge and his motion studies.
Even so, photography was a profound transformation of the world it entered. Before, every face, every place, every event, had been unique, seen only once and then lost forever among the changes of age, light, time. The past existed only in memory and interpretation, and the world beyond one's own experience was mostly stories. The rich could commission paintings, the less rich could buy prints, but a photograph reproduced its subject with an immediacy and accuracy art made by hand lacked, and by the 1850s it offered the possibility of mass reproductions, images for everyone. Every photograph was a moment snatched from the river of time. Every photograph was a piece of evidence from the event itself, a material witness. The youthful face of a beloved could be looked at decades after age or death or separation had removed that face, could be possessed like an object. Daguerreotypes, which were soon sold in elaborately molded cases with cut-velvet linings facing the image that sat within, were alluring objects. Soon countless were lining up to possess images of themselves, their families, their dead children, to own the past.
Rebecca Solnit: Rivers of Shadows. Eadweard Muybridge and the technological Wild West