A history of photography at Clinton County History Center

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: A studio camera on display at the Clinton County History Center; photo: Clinton County Historical Society

Photography: a word that literally means “writing with light.” Since the invention of modern photography in 1839, photographs have been a way for people to share their stories. Through pictures, we can recall memories, show our artistic side and acknowledge the world and relationships around us.

The Clinton County History Center is exploring photography’s history and all the tools that have gone with it in their latest exhibit Photography: Our History Exposed. The project started when Collections Manager Deborah Edgington noticed the center’s collection included a large number of photography-related items, such as glass negatives, old prints and antique camera accessories. She started pulling together bits and pieces to make a cohesive and educational display for the public.

“It took a year and a half to build, develop, collect and study the cultural history [of photography],” Edgington said. “It was definitely a labor of love.”

The exhibit is broken up into seven sections, or vignettes, for attendees to peruse.


The invention of photography

Modern photography spawned from a meeting between the French theatrical set designer Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre and inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce, according to the Library of Congress. In the early 1830s, Niepce showed Daguerre his invention, the heliograph, or sunprint. He placed an engraving on a metal plate coated in bitumen, a type of tar, and then exposed it to light. When Niepce placed that metal plate in a solvent, a chemical reaction caused an image to appear.

Daguerre took this idea and expanded on it, developing a process that made a lasting image. He took a sheet of silver-plated copper and coated it in iodine to make the surface light-sensitive. He put the plate in a camera and exposed it to light for a few minutes. Then Daguerre bathed the plate in silver chloride, fixing the image on the sheet. These plate images were called Daguerrotypes.

“They are amazing,” Edgington said. “Depending on the angle you hold it, it can look like a mirror.”

Another innovator in the field in the late 1830s was William Henry Fox Talbot, an English botanist and mathematician. He worked with paper, using a silver salt solution to make it light-sensitive. Talbot would place an object like a leaf onto the paper and expose it to sunlight. The background became black, and the subject was rendered in shades of grey. This was the first “negative.”

The word “photography” came from scientist and astronomer Sir John F.W. Herschel in 1839. He also worked with negative images, using a sodium thiosulfite solution to bathe the negative. Once immersed, the negative would no longer react with light and became a permanent picture. Herschel called the process “photography,” or “writing with light.”


The darkroom and the camera

Printing on glass became much easier in 1871 when English physician Dr. Richard Maddox invented a dry plate, which used glass coated in a gelatin emulsion instead of a silver solution. The difference was the developing process could happen after the emulsion was dry. By the end of that decade, the dry plate process had superseded the wet plate entirely, and within ten more years, the emulsion would be coated on celluloid roll film – which was used all the way up until digital photography.

The History Center has a display of what was used in the darkroom to process and print these images, taken from the studio of Wilmington photographer Clarke Nagley.

According to Edgington, Nagley was born near London, Ohio, in 1887. He established a photography business in Cedarville, and in 1916 moved his studio to Wilmington.

The equipment came from an estate sale after his passing in 1972, and the negatives from his collection were donated by his daughter.

Some of Nagley’s cameras are on display in the “Studio Camera” vignette of the photography exhibit. Additional equipment, accessories and early photographs taken by other Clinton County photographers round out the “Studio Camera” section.


Bringing photography to the masses

Another section celebrates George Eastman and Kodak. Kodak was actually the name of a camera invented by New York dry plate manufacturer George Eastman in 1888. These were the first “disposable” cameras. For $22, you could purchase a camera with film for 100 shots. You used the camera, sent it back to the company and were sent back the pictures.

The History Center’s exhibit includes information about Eastman, advertisements for Kodak from Clinton County newspapers, and several early Kodak cameras.

In 1944, American scientist Edwin Land developed a one-step photographic system that led to the invention of the first “instant” camera in 1948, known as the Polaroid Land. Examples of Polaroid cameras, and later Kodak cameras, are in the “Modern Film Cameras” section.

The first 3-D images came from use of a stereoscope, which was used to look at a card with two “views,” one for the left eye and one for the right eye. When viewed together, the image appeared three-dimensional.

A stereoscope and a selection of views can be found in the section “Travel through Photography.” The final vignette of the History Center’s photography exhibit is dedicated to the images themselves – photographs from the Clinton County Historical Society’s vast collection.

All of the images and almost all of the items in the seven sections are part of the History Center’s permanent collection. Some of the cameras on display are borrowed from individual members of the Historical Society. Viewers can browse the exhibit on their own, or take a guided tour.

“We can spend five to 10 minutes, or up to one hour in a room, depending on the level of interest,” Edgington, who guides the tours herself, said.

Photography: Our History Explosed is on display at the Clinton County History Center, 149 E. Locust St. in Wilmington. Admission is $5 for non-members and free for members. The musuem and library is open Wednesday through Friday from 1-4 p.m. For more information, please call 937.382.4684 or visit


Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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