History of Photography I have heard, more than once, that a picture is worth a thousand words. Although I can’t quote who said it, I could not agree more. A photograph is a very powerful tool, capable of telling a complete story with just one picture; let’s just hope the story is true. If taking out of context, a photograph can also be misleading. In addition with all the digital advances and different software in the market, it is relatively easy to manipulate a photography and therefore, reality.
We could say that this is one of the results of the law of unintended consequences. As faithful as a photo can be to reality we still need to trust the integrity of the photographer and hope that he or she is not manipulating the picture to suit his or her needs. One of the first social accomplishments photography made in history was during the American Civil War. Many innovations lead to new uses for photography, Matthew Brady accomplished one very important; he was able to take the camera outside the studio and photographed the civil war.
Helmut Gershein mentions in his book, A Concise History of Photography: By the 1860’s and the break out of the Civil War Brady had moved out of the studio into a covered wagon where he photographed both sides of the conflict. His photographs provide valuable historic data for us today. His partner Alexander Gardner produced thousands of prints illustrating the horror of the war and the youthfulness of its victims. (164-165) For the first time and thanks to Gardner and Brady photography was changed from a portrait process to a process that was able to record history and form consciousness.
Later on with pictures by W. H. Jackson photography was used to form public opinion and thanks to that US Congress establish Yellowstone Park as the first national park, “a new process called the Reportage began”. (Gershein 185) Photography becomes a means of expression in the 1900’s as the ease of using the camera and film makes it accessible. Gone is the need of the tripod and slow exposure. The camera was able to go out to the streets and therefore to alter reality. The impact on society is enormous as public opinion can now be shaped by the much more believable photograph.
Words can be distorted, but a photo is REAL ….. at least it has the intention to be real unless the photographer thinks otherwise. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz is the champion of what was known as “straight photography” or a print that has not been altered in any way. I would like to hear what he would have to say if he could see what we can do with Digital Photography and Photoshop nowadays. Another important photographer, Lewis Hine, brought great awareness to different social problems of his time such as children working in factories, railroads and other dangerous environments.
He also took pictures of the builders of the Empire State building, the largest building in the world at the time. Hine’s documentary photos were a testimony of the courage of these underpaid workers. In this case, photography made us aware of a deep social problem. This type of photography is what we know as documentary. Many critics have questioned the artistic value of photography; it’s for them after all only a recording process, therefore unable to transfer emotions, just to record events. There is no composition involved, no skillful drawing or painting; it is only the process of pointing the camera and pressing the button.
Nothing is farther away from the reality than to believe that photography is not art. Modern Photography with Hansel Adams, Edward Weston, Diane Arbus among others, has shown us that to each of these people the photograph unites the internal vision with the external vision. Feelings are not well described with words and pictures add to the depth of expression of feelings. Photography is now used as an expression of art as well as science. Like Edward Steichen once said “The use of the term art medium is, to say the least, misleading, for it is the artist that creates a work of art not the medium.
It is the artist in photography that gives form to content by a distillation of ideas, thought, experience, insight and understanding”. The second half of the 19th century and thanks to George Eastman, founder of Kodak, introduced an efficient photo finishing system. It was fast, eliminated guesswork and added fun to photography. Eastman put a camera in the hands of the people. Ever since photography has become a means of expression for people, a way to store memories and become -more than a witness- a recorder of history.
Some photographs can also alter the way that we think about the world by showing us things that our eyes cannot see. Things such as milk splashed in a saucer, an insect that is normally invisible to the eye, and ultimately a picture of the world we live in taken from space shuttles. Photography allows us to record history, change and form opinions, expresses ourselves and ultimately has taken us to unreachable places, such as other galaxies. There are no barriers now for photography. Digital imagery and the use of the computer allow the medium to be used quickly and with great accuracy.
As the silver that formed the basis of photography becomes less plentiful the electronic world takes over. Digital future is sure to hold as many advances in the art as the old processes did over the 160 year history of photography. There is an issue that needs discussion about digital photography. You can manipulate the photos undetectably. Once people see firsthand how easy photo manipulation is in the digital era, they never look at others’ photographs the same way again. With the rapid growth of amateur digital photography, millions of people are suddenly looking at “others’ photographs” in a new light.
Will these facts take away the realistic look of photography? Will the meaning of an unaltered photograph be different than the one that has been altered? If we do not know the difference between the two, will we look at photography the same way we did in the past? Will we be able to trust photography? The law of unintended consequences will never stop to surprise us. After all these years of evolution we came up with a new technology that is suppose to make photography easier, nicer, faster, better, just to find out it took us right back to point zero, where we started more than a hundred years ago.
In conclusion, digital or film, unaltered or altered, art or no art, photography is powerful because it evokes feelings. Like Walker Evans said; “Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts”. The most powerful tool any technology can have is to be able to evoke feelings, emotions. In this case I think it would be right to say ” a picture is worth a thousand emotions” and this time I can quote who said it.