But for me photography is essentially not about art, society, or representation; I find seeing is essentially solitary, and photography is one of the emblems of that solitude
James Elkins, What Photography Is, 2011
The photograph is as complex a thing as the gesture of photography (as I’ve defined them in the previous two parts). The photograph, as Ansel Adams stated, is the performance, from the culmination of the preparation, practice, seeing, and imagination of the photographer. It is also the product of the use of the mechanical device of the camera recording the quality, quantity, and color of light reflected from, transmitted through, emanating from, and wrapped around the elements that lie before them. A photograph is a means of expression, artistically or otherwise, a way to communicate a concept, emotion, instruction, evidence, in a form and detail other types of communication lack. A photograph can be fact or entirely false or lie somewhere in between, can deceive, persuade, or inspire, but almost always serves as a prompt to memory, whether the memory is directly related to the content of the photograph or not. Photographs are part of our legacy, what we leave behind as our footprint marking our passage, A way for our descendants to know something about us when we can’t speak to them directly.
A photograph is both an image and a thing. As a thing, the photograph is part of the material culture of photography, something physical we hold in our hands, put in books and albums, burn, tear up, write on, send to loved ones, put in frames and hang on walls. When asked what possessions they would rescue from a burning home, one of the most frequent answers is photographs. We grieve when they are lost, as if part of our memory, our past, or our accomplishments has been taken. Most of the photographs made during the 19th Century have not survived to the present. Those that do still exist have acquired a value well beyond their original intent. Many of those surviving photographs have no more information to them than the image, no place, time, or name. Who are these orphaned people? What is their legacy?
In 2014, more photographs were made than in the 100 years of the 19th Century. In 2022, it’s estimated that 54,400 photographs were made worldwide EVERY SECOND, 196 million every hour, 172 TRILLION photographs in that year alone. These numbers are increasing. In 2014, the number of photographs made was a little over 1 trillion. It’s likely many of those photographs made in 2022 did not survive the year, and most will likely not survive another 20 years, never venturing beyond taking up space on a memory card or hard drive, lost during a power outage, hardware failure, or accidental hard drive formatting. The digital photograph is much more fragile than the analog photograph and film of history.
The photograph as image is the content representing the context in which the photograph was made, interpreted by the photographer and current culture, whether that is today or decades from now. The photographic image can be used differently than the physical print, especially in these days of electronic images. A physical print has a front where the image is and a back where information about the image can be placed. An electronic image may have meta data embedded into the file or in a separate location. If those parts, the image file and the associated sidecar .xml data file or other data file, for example, are separated, knowledge about that image is lost. I would argue that most digital photographs made today do not have embedded meta data, even information about who the photographer is. But it’s easy, and almost habit, to write something on the back of a printed photograph. An ongoing philosophy is a photograph is not a photograph until it has physical form as a print, which then begs to be shown and displayed. Though a physical print in a drawer is the same as a digital file on a hard drive. But a physical print also begs some other questions, such as how large should it be, what type of surface and display (mat, frame, paper, canvas, glass, metal, wood, fabric), where should it be displayed (wall, wallet, photo album/book, magazine) and the location (home, gallery, coffeeshop, pop-up, art show)? What is the appropriate way to showcase your photograph once you’ve created it?
The use of photographic images is also quite varied, from family memories to advertising, education to forensics, photojournalism to art. These days the distinctions are becoming more arbitrary, with the exception of forensic photography, perhaps. Though given enough time separation from their creation and use, even some forensic photographs could be used for commercial applications or art.
The use and meaning of a photograph changes with time as it moves from place to place and hand to hand. A family snapshot today is history tomorrow, or art. The camera in the hands of the photographer creates what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “a sort of visual chronicle.” Roland Barthes called the camera “clocks for seeing.”
The first (surviving) photograph is by Joseph Nicephore Niepce of rooftops seen from his upstairs window in France, in 1826 or 1827, although there is evidence others made photographs as early as 1800 (Thomas Wegdewood) or earlier, but they did not survive. Niepce’s photograph, as it is, must be kept in a light-tight box to keep it from turning black from exposure. Once photography reached the public, around 1839, it took off. Everything was fair game for the camera. A list of “firsts.”
1826-27 first surviving photograph, Joseph Nicephore Niepce
1839 first portrait, a selfie
1840 first hoax photo, Hippolyte Bayard photographed himself as a drowned man, reportedly in protest against the French Academy for failing to recognize his contribution to photography in preference to Daguerre. So, perhaps also the first protest photograph.
1840 first photo of the moon
1840 first nude portrait
1843 first photo of a US president (John Quincy Adams, after being in office). The first sitting president to be photographed was James Polk, 1848)
1843 first photo book, Anna Atkins cyanotypes of algae
1844 first commercially printed book illustrated with photographs, The Pencil of Nature, Henry Fox Talbot, calotypes
1845 first photo of the sun
1847 first war photograph, Mexican-American War, photographer unk
1848 first news photograph and first photo printed in a newspaper (not the same photos)
1860 first aerial photo
1878-1886 Edweard Muybridge pioneered the photographic study of animal and human locomotion and high speed photography (chronophotography)
1879 Edweard Muybridge invents the zoopraxiscope, precursor to the movie projector
1882 first photograph of lightning
1931 electronic flash invented by Harold Edgerton
1946 first photograph from space, camera aboard a V-2 rocket from 65 miles up
1957 first digital photo
1976 first photograph from Mars
1985 first personal video camera
1988 first digitally-manipulated photograph, by Thomas Knoll (inventor of Photoshop)
1995 digital videotape
1997 first camera phone photo
2000 Apple’s iMovie
Imagine, today, a world without photographs. It’s almost impossible. Photographs have become an integral part of human culture, although such a photo-less world existed for hundreds of thousands of years of human culture before the invention of the camera. Our current world is stuffed full with photographic images of all sorts and the convergence of audio-visual technology and the ability to nearly instantly transmit digital images around the planet to billions of people in the 20th Century fundamentally changed the importance and prevalence of photographs and how people record, interpret, and interact with the world. There are many important, inspirational, and influential photographs. Creating a list of them is a subjective exercise like Top Songs of History. Everyone has their favorites. Here is a list of 25 I’ve compiled, not necessarily in order of importance, or complete:
1. View from a Window, 1826/27 Joseph Nicephore Niepce
2. Earthrise, 1968, Astronaut William Anders, Apollo 8
3. Blue Marble, 1972, Astronaut Jack Schmitt, Apollo 17
4. Falling Man, 2001, Richard Drew
5. Man Jumping Puddle, 1930, Henri Cartier-Bresson
6. Clearing Winter Storm, 1937, Ansel Adams
7. Mushroom Cloud over Nagasaki, 1945, Lt. Charles Levy, Bombardier
8. Tank Man, Tiananmen Square, 1989, Jeff Widener
9. Pillars of Creation, 1995, NASA Hubble Telescope
10. Deep Field, 2022, James Webb Space Telescope
11. The Terror of War, 1972, Nick Ut
12. Pale Blue Dot, 1990, NASA Voyager 1
13. Woman & Child Falling from Fire Escape, 1975, Stanley Foreman
14. Child Coal Miners, 1908, Lewis Hine
15. Tutokanula Pass, Yosemite, ~1880, Carleton Watkins
16. Men on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong, in reflection), 1969
17. Little Rock Central High School, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford
18. Nelson Mandela Becomes President of South Africa, 1994, Walter Dhladhla
19. Starving Child and Vulture, 1993, Kevin Carter
20. Shell & Rock Arrangement 15S, 1931, Edward Weston
21. Horse in Motion, 1878, Edweard Muybridge
22. Bullet Through Apple, 1964, Harold Edgerton
23. Atomic Bomb Explosion, 1952, Harold Edgerton
24. Cotton Mill Girl, 1908, Lewis Hine
25. Migrant Mother, 1936, Dorothea Lange
26. Bonus – Black Hole, M87, 2019, Event Horizon Telescope collaboration
When photography was first introduced, photographs were perceived as a perfect documentary medium because the detail recorded by the mechanical camera left no question about the “truth” of the subject depicted in the photograph. “No one”, writes philosopher Susan Sontag, “takes an easel painting to be in any sense co-substantial with its subject; it only represents or refers. But a photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject, it is part of, an expansion of, that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it. Photographs do more than redefine the stuff of ordinary experience (people, things, events, whatever we see – albeit differently, often inattentively – with natural vision) and add vast amounts of material that we never see at all.” From the beginning, though, the perception that the camera doesn’t lie has been exploited by charlatans, propagandists, advertisers, and others to persuade and influence. In 1861, a jeweler named William H. Mumler, accidentally made a portrait photograph on a previously-exposed negative plate. The result was a ghostly, superimposed image of a previous client. The resulting photograph was passed around as a gag, but eventually found its way into the hands of someone at The Herald of Progress, a spiritualist journal, who printed the photograph in the journal, and “spirit photography” was born. Mumler latched onto the opportunity, perfected his double exposure technique, and embellished his marketing with spiritualist rhetoric. For nearly two years, Mumler was a very successful spirit photographer, making portraits of clients and capturing the “spirits” of lost loved ones looking over the living. Spiritualists caught up in the phenomenon claimed the photos were scientific evidence of their belief in the afterlife. Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, was a client of Mumler’s.
In 1863, a doctor (perhaps someone who should have known better, but representative of the popularity of the fad) sat for a Mumler portrait. However, when he received his photo he recognized the “spirit” as someone who was still quite alive. The doctor led a campaign to discredit Mumler. Mumler was also sued but was acquitted. By then his reputation was ruined. Other spirit photographers popped up all over the country, capitalizing on the belief by consumers the photographs were real.
Photographs today are much more easily manipulated than 140 years ago, yet photographs are still widely believed to be factual records, or disbelieved based on the perception they have been altered, regardless to what degree. The interpretation of the photograph, its subject, content, meaning, is almost entirely the responsibility of the viewer. Interpretation is formed by the viewer’s own knowledge, understanding, experience, prejudice, with the subject and content, just as it is in the creation of the photograph by the photographer. A portrait can be disbelieved by the sitter if they perceive, or wish themselves perceived, differently than the camera reveals, just as a photograph of a landscape or event (UFO sighting) can be disbelieved – or believed to be true – based on the expectations of the viewer.
Once a photograph is “released into the wild”, control by the photographer, how the photographer intended the photograph to be received and interpreted, is lost. The job of the photographer is to include in the photograph enough clues and information to solidify the intended meaning or message, whether it be factual or fanciful. Revealing the methodology used to make the photograph, especially in the fields of photojournalism and science/engineering/forensics, allows for “peer review” and assessment of the validity of the photography. Such a statement is also useful for differentiating the photograph as a type of art. Even manipulated artworks would benefit from a simple statement regarding the type of manipulation, such as sky replacement, composite, or element removal for clarity.
Obvious manipulations probably don’t need any such declaration, though there will always be someone who points out the manipulation or who thinks it’s real. Though what constitutes manipulation has also been debated since the beginning. Henri Cartier-Bresson went so far as to oppose the use of flash for a photograph, “if only out of respect for the actual light – even when there isn’t any of it. Unless a photographer observes such conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character.” László Moholy-Nagy, in 1923, expressed the problem and benefit with photography, photographers, and photographs: “The photograph enables us to experience space in new ways through an enlargement and sublimation of our appreciation of time and space and the perception of our surroundings, and its existence, with new eyes…The camera allowed for phenomena imperceptible to the human eye to be perceived, revealing aspects of existence never before seen or contemplated.” Edward Weston, in his Daybooks, Vol II, wrote in 1932, that “The variety of options available to the photographer for self-expression beyond the exact reproduction of subject/scene by the machine of the camera, give the photographer a myriad of possibilities for personal choice – one has far greater opportunity for self-expression through material opportunity than is granted the painter. The trouble has been with photographers, not photography!…for to produce work of any value in any line of creative endeavor, one must bore into the spirit of today. Old ideals are crashing on all sides, and the precise uncompromising camera vision is, and will be made so, a world force in the revaluation of life.”
The gesture of photography and the making of photographs provide one way for the discovery of oneself at the same time of exploring the world. The two processes are separate and interconnected, with intent and meaning, knowledge and experience important, even critical, components of both. Photography can mold us through the act and by viewing and discussing photographs. Photography, as I’ve described before, can be a Way of Life, not just professionally, but personally and experientially; a gateway to exploration and personal growth. Photography is a mode of specialized and personalized communication. Ansel Adams eloquently stated “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” The photographs left behind are a record of the time, a visual chronicle of a person’s experience and existence in the world, a view of the culture and associated events, and a story of each generation for future humans to view, interpret, and learn from. There is much more about photography and photographs, a treasure trove of information waiting to be learned, explored, and discovered. Review the history, read past and current interpretations, view photographs, explore and reflect on your own part in all this, and above all, engage in photography and make photographs.