How Has Product Photography Evolved?

The way in which products are presented to potential customers has become more important than ever before as people use mail-order, online shopping and click-and-collect systems to order products before they can physically touch them.

As a result, both deep etching and in-situ photographs of products using photo backdrops are essential for giving customers the greatest possible impression of a product before they choose to make an order.

However, the history of product photography goes back longer than you may think, to the early days of reliable photography and the height of a craze in mail-order catalogues.

 

Parallel Histories

In 1826, a rather mundane window view near Chalon-sur-Saone in France would be the start of a revolution in how we capture our lives and showcase our wares.

The View from the Window at Le Gras was in 1826 the subject of the world’s first photograph, but it would take until the end of the century for its impact to truly be seen when the daguerreotype was replaced by the celluloid picture and the rise of the Kodak camera.

By the time this happened, a revolution in how we buy products was nearly four hundred years in the making.

At the end of the 15th Century, the scholar-printer Aldus Manuzio produced the first-ever catalogue of rare classic books, canonical texts and humanist writers, making books available that had been lost for centuries to a growing group of like-minded scholars in the Venice area.

Whilst his legacy as a Renaissance Man is important in many academic circles, arguably his biggest legacy was creating the first-ever mail-order catalogue. However, as with most catalogues until the 19th century, it was exclusively made up of text or etchings.

This was the case even for one of the first catalogues in history: Tiffany’s Blue Book of 1845, which contained no illustrations and a simple product list, designed to entice people to visit the prestigious jewellery store.

The first attempts at product photography were in two very different industries. The first was the weapons manufacturer Hotchkiss, who would commission a French photographer to take pictures of their entire machine gun line, creating a detailed, complete product catalogue.

The other was Munsingwear, an American textiles and clothing company that took pictures of over 70 items of clothing and made a promise that the goods that customers bought would look exactly as the pictures suggest.

However, until 1911, these companies were the outliers and most catalogues that had any pictures at all used professional illustrations that looked very nice but did not give an impression of how the product they would actually buy would look or its size.

This was a problem, as catalogues often sold large and very expensive items that even included kit houses and early vehicles.

This changed in 1911 with the publication of the first-ever modern fashion photographs in the magazine Art et Décoration, produced by pioneering photographer Edward Steichen.

The concept took off almost immediately, and Mr Steichen became chief photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue, turning them into institutions of the fashion world that take an artistic approach to marketing clothes and are still influential to this day.

The world of product photography has only evolved since then with the development of colour photography techniques and later image manipulation allowing for more versatile pictures than ever before.

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