As magic lantern shows became increasingly popular and prevalent in the 1820s and 1830s, the first photographic images were being created in Europe. In 1826 Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce (1765–1833), a French physicist, began his experimental processes of recording images by a chemical reaction initiated by sunlight hitting a sensitized surface. Though revolutionary in and of themselves, Niepce's images required eight hours of exposure time, were temporary, and lacked detail. Some of these problems were solved by his partner Daguerre, who in 1839 recorded images on a silvered copper plate with an exposure time of half an hour. Popularly known as daguerreotypes, these early photographic images were extremely fragile and had to be contained in decorative cases to protect them from damage. Each daguerreotype was a positive and could not be reproduced except by photographing the original. William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), an English physicist, established the foundation of modern photography by creating a paper negative (using a sodium chloride emulsion) that could be used for the production of unlimited positive copies. Despite this development, entertainers and magic lanternists were unable to project photographic images until the perfection of the albumen process (patented by John A. Whipple and William B. Jones) and the collodion process (perfected by Frederick Scott Archer) in the late 1840s. These developments allowed the image to be captured on a transparent glass surface, whereas previous processes used opaque paper or copper plates.
In 1851 the brothers William and Frederick Langenheim, noted Philadelphia photographers, projected their photographic slides, initially called hyalotypes, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. Their exhibition featured hand-colored images of notable landmarks and locations from around the United States. In the 1860s projected photographic or steropticon slides enjoyed particular commercial and critical success in New York City. As with earlier demonstrations, the slides featured photographs of landscapes, architecture, land-marks, and works of art from all over the world. Other steropticon shows featured images from the Civil War, including photographs of battlefields and military personnel from the Army of the Potomac. Reviewers marveled at the realism and detail of these images; the reality effect of painted magic lantern slides paled in comparison. Indeed, the introduction of photographic slides endowed the projected image with such unprecedented
Whereas the steropticon displayed life-size images before large audiences, a peephole device called the stereoscope provided photographic views to an individual spectator. The optical research into binary vision carried out by the British physicist Charles Wheatstone and the Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster in the 1820s and 1830s led to its invention. The stereoscope featured two pictures of an object or scene that had been photographed twice from slightly different perspectives. When the spectator looked through the peephole, he or she saw a single image in depth. The illusion of three dimensionality was created by the reconciliation of two nonidentical images into a single image, which gave the impression that the pictured views were arranged around receding perspectival planes. The stereoscope became a popular form of parlor entertainment as slides featuring celebrated personalities, landmarks in famous cities, natural wonders, and works of art were produced for home consumption.
By focusing on photographic images of geographically and chronologically distant places and events, the steropticon and the stereoscope, like other advances in modern technology, provided audiences with visual access to far-flung locations that might otherwise take days or weeks to reach by travel. In this respect, these pre-cinematic inventions altered the way audiences experienced time and space. The early cinema would later have even greater power to satisfy—and further instill—the viewer's desire to see astonishingly realistic images that brought the distant near: films displayed images of natural wonders and "exotic" locations unlikely to be visited in person by those who could not afford to travel, sites of recent disasters (such as floods and earthquakes), city street scenes, and important personalities.
The photograph's infinite reproducibility was of signal importance. Hand-painted magic lantern slides were produced individually by skilled painters; each was unique, could not be copied, and took time and money to produce. This limited the number and variety of the slides in each exhibitor's repertoire, causing the demand for new slides to outstrip the supply. The relative ease with which a photographic slide was made and reproduced vastly expanded the number and variety of photographs an exhibitor might display in various thematically oriented "programs," tailored to appeal to a range of audiences and contexts. As would be the case with the first moving picture shows, variety, realism, and the power to alter perceptions of space and time were paramount to the pleasures and profitability of nineteenth-century visual culture. Hence, as Charles Musser has shown, photography brought efficiency, standardization, and profitability to the production and projection of slides, which became a business in its own right and helped create a broader audience for commercialized screen entertainment.