A Worldwide Medium
‘I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight’ Louis Daguerre in 1839.(1)
Human beings are designed to make meaning out of their experience. The brain exists to ensure the safety of the gene pool. The quicker it can create understanding of a situation the quicker it can protect itself from threats to its existence. From the first photograph produced mankind has had an insatiable appetite for more of these artefacts of captured reality. It is one answer to the question a person asks ‘what is reality and how does my own experience measure up?’
Photography spread around the globe with remarkable speed following the production of the Daguerreotype box camera in 1839. Within 20 years Daguerreo’s manual and camera had found its way in to portrait studios and the hands of explorers around the globe. A similar explosion in the growth of photography has occurred with the inventions of the internet in January 1983 (2) and the invention of the digital image with the first digital camera in 2007 (3). In 2014 it was reported in Mary Meekers internet trends report that 657 billion photographs were uploaded. (4) It is likely that by now there are over 1 trillion photographs being taken every year.
Interest in the ability to capture a piece of reality and time has not abated with time. At first being able to capture a ‘true’ likeness of an individual presented tremendous commercial opportunities for the studio professional. Photographs of the American West by pioneers such as Watkins with his Yosemite pictures lead to great interest in the possibilities of travel. The photographs of Watkins and William Henry Jackson were ”calculated to play to the expectations of their audience, to reassure and reconfirm beliefs about the American landscape and to portray it as a scene of potential habitation, acculturation, and exploitation.’ (5) The images would fire the imagination of people and go on to influence the development of policy that is still working through the political systems today.
There are no limits to what people will photograph today to show other people what they are doing, where they have been and notably how their life is better than anybody else. There appears to be a strong need to take photographs and to compare.
A global image is one that captures the imagination of everyone. A larger proportion of photographs taken in the early days became global images than is possible now. They have remained of interest to this day as historical works and for the impact they had as mankind transitioned from drawn and painted images to those captured by some technical process.
Global images today sit at the top of an exponentially growing pile of photographs. Very few make it but the ones that do trigger something in all human beings to capture their attention. Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl ‘has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci‘s painting of the Mona Lisa and has been called “the First World’s Third World Mona Lisa“‘ (6)
Is this photograph now iconic and famous because everybody says it is or does it touch something deep inside us that we can’t ignore? That is food for thought in my research work. It is a subjective question over which many views will fight for the right to say theirs is definitive.
It is interesting to show this image to someone who has never seen it and elicit a reaction. I showed it to my grandson Leo, aged 11, and asked him what he thought about it. He gave it 9 out of 10 and said it was a good photograph. I asked why? He was drawn to the eyes, then the cloak with the tear. Tell me something about the girl, I said. She is poor, has had a difficult life but is strong was his reply.
I showed this to a friend’s son, Antoni, aged 9, over dinner one evening. His reply was that it was not a good photograph and he didn’t like it. Before I could go further his father, Omiros, said in a shocked voice ‘Antoni…have you not seen daddy’s book of these photographs…they are amazing pictures.’ The moment was lost as Antoni switched track and changed his opinion to support his father. This little tale tells so much about how others can influence what we say about what we think about a picture.
There are many issues arising from the speed at which photography is moving. Images are taken of people without permission and used for a number of purposes not yet covered by laws. Photographs are being used to control the population. People are using photographs to influence the reputation of friends and enemies. Politicians and actors are regularly being caught out by photographs they have shared in intimacy that then become public. Many then have to resign or go to jail.
Ex Congressman Anthony Weiner was given a 21 month sentence in the USA for transferring obscene material to a minor. (7)
Windows on the World
In 1992, Vivian Sobchack designated the picture-frame, the window, and the mirror as the three grand metaphors of film theory. (8). They are appropriate metaphors for photography. The famous Boulevard du Temple, 1838 Paris looks like a view from a window or a picture put together to be put in a frame. It is now a global image in the Time magazine 100 most influential pictures. (9)
The mirror metaphor captures the idea that we can only ever produce something out of how we ourselves are constructed. It can be used to explore the make up of the photographer and what made him or her choose a particular subject or composition. It can be applied to the viewer and what it is about their make up that makes them see a picture in a particular way. Remember Leo and Antoni above.
For my own practice I believe that whichever photograph I take mirrors something within me. I chose the subject, the time, the location and the composition and if I explore that deeply I will discover what it is about me that made me make that choice. I am also constrained by the viewfinder of the camera to take a window approach.
This photograph of the Alhambra can be used to illustrate my point. I was seeking to improve my photography skills so wanted to take the classic shot of the Alhambra with the snow covered Sierra Nevada in the background. That is the mirror part. I went to the spot where you need to take this shot. The view through the window, or frame, looks idyllic, calm and compelling as the sun goes down. I find it fascinating that at this point I had to fight for my space and protect from hundreds of other photographers wanting to stand in the same spot at that time.
If I had to choose just one I would choose the mirror metaphor to explain what my practice is about. I would also say I am as interested as anyone else in seeking to understand what my mirror is saying to me.
Unity and Change
Do you think the power and influence of the photograph is overstated? If so, does this devalue the true extent of the role of the photography in bringing about change or is the power of photography as advocacy in fact understated? What photographs or bodies of work come to mind when you think of those that have inspired unity and change?
Photographs have the power to influence society and have done so many times throughout history. The photograph alone cannot do this work. To effect change I believe it is necessary to have a combination of relationships, a developing mood in a power network and a means of making the argument. The latter could be a Congress where subjects are discussed to create laws or in a newspaper seeking to influence different communities in society.
I will cite the work of Dorothea Lange to make the point. Dorothea Lange was a wealthy photographer who chose to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) rather than do more lucrative studio work. She took this picture on a whim on her way home. (1 – p 172) It instantly became iconic and remains so today. The photograph itself is powerful to look at but its influence came from Lange relationship with the FSA and their relationship with Congress and the mood their and in the press. It is this complex relationship between image, narrative, relationships and communication that can lead to change. It is believed this photograph played a part in changing US Government policy.
Other photographs come to mind such as Vietnam Girl or Alan Kurdi. They all feed in to a narrative, power relationships and the press.
(1) ANG, Tom. 2014. Photography the definitive visual history. Dorling Kingersly limited.
(5) MITCHELL, W.J. 1994. Landscape and Power – Territorial Photography. Univ. Chicago P.
(8) TODD JURGESS. 2011. WINDOWS AND MIRRORS: METAPHOR AND MEANING IN CINEMAS PAST AND PRESENT. A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA