The Language Of Photography
The Etymology of Photographic Words
by Rosamund Moon

Source - Issue 22 - Spring - 2000 - Click for Contents

Issue 22 Spring 2000
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The history of photography could as well be demonstrated by the history of its terminology as by the pictures themselves or the devices used to produce them. Core terms - photography itself, camera and film - were established as words in English within a matter of weeks of the first public announcements of the invention in 1839: the annus mirabilis in both the history of photography and in the history of its words. Pioneering techniques and processes produced the early coinages. As technology stabilized, interest in aesthetic aspects led to specialist descriptive and qualitative vocabulary: meanwhile, popularization led to less formal words. In this way, linguistic developments paralleled the developing visual vocabulary and grammar of photography, as well as its mechanics.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary [Oxford University Press, 1st edition 1884-1928; 2nd edition 1989], the first recorded uses of photography , photograph and photographic are by Herschel, in a paper that he read to the Royal Society on March 14, 1839. Photography seems to be an adaptation of German Photographie , itself already in use. The etymology of photography (or Photographie) is clear enough: from the Greek roots, phos , phot- 'light' and graphos 'writing'. Literally, photography means 'light recording'. The element -graph- occurs frequently in other technical terms and terms for technical processes which involve some notion of describing, recording, or reproduction, in words or images: hence geography, biography, cinematography (Greek kinema, kinemat- 'movement'), and so on.

Slightly earlier formations are heliograph, heliography , from French heliographie (Greek helios 'sun' and graphos ). This was Niepce's term for his process of producing images by exposing chemically-treated plates to sunlight. His heliograph of (apparently) 1826, showing the view of rooftops from an attic window of his house at Gras, is usually identified as the first 'photograph', in the sense of a permanent image produced through a chemical reaction to light - in this case, after eight hours' exposure. Heliograph and heliography were occasionally used in English to mean 'photograph' and 'photography' in the mid-nineteenth century, though the terms really survived little longer than Niepce's initial process.View from the Window at Le Gras - Joseph Nicéphore Niépce 
View from the Window at Le Gras - Joseph Nicéphore Niépce 

While photograph and photography became established as the dominant terms, a slightly earlier one was Talbot's photogenic drawing , first recorded in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, January 31, 1839. The root -gen- in technical or scientific terms comes via French -gene , with the meaning 'producing', but ultimately from Greek gennan 'beget, produce' and related genos 'kin': photogenic literally means 'light-produced'. Photogenic drawing was sometimes used narrowly, to refer specifically to an image produced by putting translucent objects next to light-sensitive substances or films. Photogenic itself was also used more generally to mean 'photographic' in the mid-nineteenth century, though only infrequently. As with heliograph and heliographic , it was an archaism characteristic of a period when terminology was still evolving. The current English meaning of photogenic , 'being a suitable or pleasing subject for photography', apparently developed only in the early twentieth century, in the United States. The process by which so different a meaning developed is unclear. It could be the influence of the parallel French word photogenique ; it could be that photogenic is a recombination of etymological elements, so that this photogenic means 'photograph-producing', rather than 'light-produced'.

Niepce began formally collaborating with Daguerre in 1829, after an uneasy period of mutual suspicion and nervousness. Scharf [Pioneers of Photography, 1975] describes how Niepce's notebooks of 1832 record experimentation with new terms, constructed from Greek roots, to describe the process that he and Daguerre were working on. Amongst these were physautographie (literally, 'painting by nature herself'), physautotype ('copy by nature herself'), and phusalethotype ('true copy from nature'). Niepce died in 1833: when Daguerre finally cracked the problem, he himself, immodestly, used daguerrotype . The root -type , from Greek tupos , occurs in English as a suffix with something of the meaning 'struck, moulded, patterned', as in archetype and prototype , or later in terms that denote processes to do with printing and reproduction - or indeed 'photography'. Talbot used calotype for the method of producing and fixing images that he patented in 1841. This was formed from Greek kalos 'beautiful', kallos 'beauty': the same stem occurs in calligraphy . His later term, Talbotype , was used interchangeably with calotype . Terms for many other early processes were formed on the same model, often incorporating the names of key substances. These included collotype (Greek kolla 'glue'); cyanotype (Greek kuanos , a dark blue mineral); ferrotype (Latin ferrum 'iron'); platinotype (from platinum and tintype . Others such as woodburytype , like daguerrotype and talbotype , incorporated the name of the inventor. The origin of ambrotype is uncertain: it could be from Greek ambrotos 'immortal, everlasting', or from amber .

Many of the terms for actual photographic equipment were adopted from early optics, and derive more from Latin than Greek. Camera itself is a simple reduction of camera obscura , Latin for 'dark chamber': it was first described in Italy in the 16th century. The first recorded use of camera as a device for taking photographs, according to the Oxford English Dictionary , is 1840. Lens , aperture , and focus all originated in English in the 17th century, in the study of optics. Lens is from Latin, literally 'lentil', because of the similarity in shape: the relationship between the words can be seen in the rare-ish adjective lenticular , 'relating to or resembling a lens'. Aperture is from Latin apertura 'opening', related to aperire 'to open'. Focus is also Latin, literally 'hearth'. The earliest recorded use of focus in English is in 1604, by Kepler, as a technical term in geometry, but the Oxford English Dictionary conjectures that the optics sense predates the mathematical one, arguing that the notion of a 'burning point' at which light rays converge can more easily be derived from the notion of 'hearth', and the geometry sense developing out of that, than the other way around.

Film is from an Old English word ( filmen , 'skin' or 'membrane'), which later developed meanings to do with thin layers. Its first photographic uses related to the thin coatings of emulsions - gelatin, collodion, and so on - applied to plates. Concepts of positive and negative were crucial in the early evolution of processing: the earliest recorded uses of the words in photography are by Herschel in 1840. Both words were borrowed into English from French in the 13th century, and ultimately derive from Latin. Negative relates to the Latin verb negare and its past participle form negatum 'to deny or nullify'. Positive relates to Latin ponere , positum 'to lay down, establish': it later developed meanings in English to do with formality, confidence, certainty, definiteness, and actuality. Develop , with reference to a photographic process, was first recorded in 1847, and is a specialization of an earlier scientific use, 'to emerge or produce from a latent condition'.

While science - and technical formations from Greek and Latin - gave rise to many photographic words, so too did art. The camera obscura developed as a drawing aid as well as an object of scientific research (and the camera lucida 'light room' was specifically intended for drawing). Daguerre himself was a painter of stage scenery, and at least some of the impetus driving photography forward came from the desire to make more accurate drawings, to make it easier to make accurate drawings, to make pictures automatically, and to stabilize the evanescent early images produced semi-automatically or by exposure of light-sensitive surfaces. Fix (from Latin figere , fixum 'to fasten') was first used in the 17th century with respect to the making permanent of colours or pigments: its photographic use followed naturally. Plate and print were both taken over from the crafts of engraving and printing.

Predictably, art contributed vocabulary for aesthetic aspects of photography too. Composition , from Latin componere , compositum 'to put together, to arrange', has been used generally for artistic media since the 17th century. Definition , from Latin definire , definitum 'to finish fully, to limit or bound' was used specifically of photography from the later 19th century, but had earlier, more general, uses in art in adjectival defined , well-defined , and so on. The phrases depth ( of field , of focus ) also came into specialist use in the late 19th century, but the actual concept of 'depth' in art was earlier. While photograph itself and print remain the most general words for the actual picture produced through photography, more specific words such as portrait, landscape, and study are of course direct transfers from art. Other aesthetic vocabulary grew out of photographic technology itself. Expose (originally, 'to disclose, lay open', from French, ultimately from Latin exponere , expositum 'to put out, lay') and exposure were used from 1839 onwards: underexpose(d) and overexpose(d) from the 1860s. Fogged , too, dates from this time, whereas sharp and grainy are both later, from the early 20th century.

One feature of English is that it often uses verb+noun combinations in preference to simple verbs. So it has pairs such as to have breakfast and to breakfast ; to heave/give a sigh and to sigh ; to make a choice and to choose ; to have/take a look and to look ; and to lay/put the blame on and to blame . There are subtle differences between the pair members: crudely, the phrasal combination is typically more informal and focuses a little more on the action and its completion, effect, or quality. To photograph exists alongside to take a photograph , to take a picture , and so on. This is an extension of a broad meaning of take 'to obtain or set down', as in taking notes or statements , 'to set down or get in writing'; more directly, it is an extension of a use recorded from the 17th century onwards in structures such as taking pictures , likenesses , or portraits 'to obtain or get a picture'. The specific photographic use seems to have driven out uses in relation to pictorial art - nowadays, we paint, draw, or produce portraits, and make or do drawings - so that taking a picture can only refer to photography.

The sourcing of photographic vocabulary in art and science is straightforward. More intriguing is the fact that a significant group of words seem to have been adopted from the domain of weaponry. That is, words originally used with respect to firearms and other weapons have come to be applied to photography. Shoot and shot are obvious examples of this. A snapshot was a shot fired quickly, and without careful aim. Cameras have triggers or firing mechanisms , though button and shutter (release) are less antiquated and less militaristic terms. People load cameras with cartridges or magazines of film; they cock shutters, and they fire off films. Gun-shy (of animals, nervous of gunfire or frightened by guns) predates camera-shy by some 40 years, and may have provided the model for its formation. It would be dangerous to take such analogies and connections too far, but the parallelism or deep metaphor can be extended a little, and seen in images of someone pointing his or her camera at someone else and aiming it, or of someone being the target of paparazzi, or of cameras being wielded , carried or slung over one's shoulder, like weapons.

Photograph became shortened to photo by the 1860s, with the growing popularity of photography: snapshot (dating from the 1880s) was soon shortened to snap or shot . Curiously, snap retains the casual connotations of snapshot , while shot has lost them and now suggests something more serious, worthwhile, and artistic. Like shoot , shot has been incorporated into the vocabulary of cinematography - which in turn has donated frame and still for single images. Amongst other words for photographs, carte-de-visite is a straight loan from French 'visiting card', while a panorama (or pan shot) is from Greek pan 'all' and horama 'view'. Polaroid is from the trademarked proprietary name, interesting in linguistic terms because of its connotations; if you read in a novel that someone has a box of old polaroids or has posed for a polaroid, you might well assume the photographs were somewhat indelicate or frank.

And so it goes on. Current developments in digital photography provide new terms ( JPEG , GIF ), continuing the tradition of innovation driving the technology and being mirrored in the language. In most cases, looking at the origins of the words sheds light on how the word was formed, or why it came to develop that meaning. But ultimately, much is arbitrary, particularly why one possible formation became established in preference to another. Amongst the tens of thousands of idiosyncratic coinages in Joyce's Finnegans Wake are photoist (a photographer), snapograph and photure (photographs), and photoflashing - not to mention the character Oscur Camerad . We can appreciate these now, as reconstructions, as humorous recombinations of elements: but it is perhaps just a matter of chance that other words and not these became standardized as the terms in use today.

Other articles mentioning Louis Daguerre:

Other articles mentioning Henry Fox Talbot:

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