World Photography Day: From the albums

Today, the camera has become a gadget for both the professional elite and the common man.Here are some momentous snapshots from photography’s history

Margaret Bourke White Gandhi Spinning Wheel

The year 1839 set a landmark in the history of photography with Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787 – 1851) in France and Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877) in England announcing competing photographic discoveries. Since they worked independently and developed different processes, both claimed to be original inventors of the photogenic images while presenting their assertions to the French Academy of Sciences and Royal Society of London, respectively.

Daguerre’s process involved exposing an image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper. Talbot’s process, on the other hand, created a negative from which multiple positive images could be printed. Daguerre’s process was freely available to the public; the French government, recognising the importance of invention, placed it under public domain and provided the inventor a lifetime pension of 6000 francs a year in exchange for the rights to his process. Talbot, on the contrary, patented his invention and charged fees to license its use. Most importantly, Daguerre’s ‘daguerreotype’ was superior in quality when compared to Talbot’s photogenic drawing or ‘talbotype/calotype’ in which the results were not as clear or detailed.  

Historians have recorded how the daguerreotype, having conquered the collective imagination, enjoyed unbridled official recognition, political support and scientific backing of its time. A carefully orchestrated campaign ensured that all other processes were thrown out into the background. The daguerreotype caught the attention of art critics and journalists, and spread its wings across borders. It became the dominant form of photography of the time, embraced by scientists, explorers, artists and archaeologists, as well as common people. In 1840, influential American writer Edgar Allan Poe declared that the daguerreotype was “the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary, triumph of modern science.”

Interestingly, 1839 was also the year of the first ‘selfie’! It was taken not in France or England, but in the United States! Considered by many to be the oldest known intentional photographic portrait/self-portrait of a human, it showed Robert Cornelius, a young photography enthusiast and amateur chemist from Philadelphia sitting at the back of his family lamp and chandelier store. He had set up a box fitted with a lens from an opera glass, and allowed a long exposure time to capture his head-and-shoulders self-portrait with crossed arms and tousled hair. On the back of the daguerreotype he inscribed: “The first light picture ever taken.”

Daguerreotype had a steady run till the mid-1850s before people began seeing the advantages of Talbot’s process in which multiple and even larger prints could be made from a single negative. Slowly, the lure of the daguerreotype began fading and by 1860, it had all but gone out of fashion.

Dawn of a new era

The rivalry between the daguerreotype and calotype notwithstanding, one thing became certain: the era of photography had truly dawned in the middle of the 19th century! With its immense powers and possibilities, the new medium began spreading like a wildfire.

“Within a mere 30 years of its invention as a gadget for an elite,” wrote eminent art critic John Berger (1926 -2017), in his essay titled ‘Uses of Photography’ (New Society/1978), “photography was being used for police filing, war reporting, military reconnaissance, pornography, encyclopaedic documentation, family albums, postcards, anthropological records (often, as with the Indians in the United States, accompanied by genocide), sentimental moralising, inquisitive probing (the wrongly named ‘candid camera’), aesthetic effects, news reporting and formal portraiture.”

There were many landmarks in 19th- century photography. Prominent among them was the sequential-motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge (1830 – 1904). The English-born former bookseller’s most enduring work was done in the United States, when he recorded varied forms of movement in a wide range of animals. He set up a row of cameras and employed a unique rapid photography technique to capture the successive positions of a figure on a single plate. He went a step further and began documenting human subjects and their movements like walking, running and descending staircases.

The late 19th century also marked an era of innovations in the production of cameras, which helped photography reach the hands of common people. The first cheap popular camera was put on the market in 1888 by George Eastman. ‘You press the button, we do the rest’ was the popular slogan of the first series of Kodak box cameras loaded with a film for 100 exposures; each camera came with a price tag of $25. Eight years later, the Folding Pocket Kodak camera was introduced at a price of $10 apiece. The famous Kodak “Brownie” camera made its debut at the turn of the 20th century and sold over a lakh pieces in the debut year itself.

In the new century, photography made steady inroads and became an integral part of modern living. In many ways, it changed the way life was seen, experienced, cherished and asserted. Almost every single aspect of human activity and endeavour seemed to involve application of photography in one way or another.

The century saw swift and radical advancement in both technical and aesthetic aspects of photography. Extraordinary pictures were taken across the globe, often in very trying conditions, by pioneering photo-activists and talented practitioners. Over time, transmission of images also began to be less time-consuming and less burdensome. Different genres of photography came to be acknowledged and propagated: documentary, fine art, travel, nature, medical, fashion, design, architectural, war, adventure, action, sports… all these areas began developing specialists.

“The 20th century was the age of photography,” according to Mattie Boom, a specialist in international photography from the 19th and 20th centuries. “More than painting or sculpture, it was the century’s most influential art form by far. When the first Kodak camera was launched in 1888, it sold around 5,000 units. By the 1960s, Kodak was selling 70 million Instamatic cameras. So photography in the 20th century was huge. And today we are drowning in an ocean of images.”

For long, photography was seen more as a technical novelty and mechanical recording medium not in the same league of other conventional art forms like painting. It was considered to be too literal in its representation and deficient in artistic imagination. The debate whether photography was really an art form or not began losing steam in the second half of the 20th century. “What some pioneering photographers recognised straight away was that photographs, like paintings, are artificially constructed portrayals: they too had to be carefully composed, lit and produced,” observed art historian and critic Michael Prodger (Photography: Is it art?/The Guardian/October 10, 2012). “If early photographers had no option but to negotiate their own engagement with painting, their modern descendants can call on nearly two centuries of photographic history.”

Warning signs

Photography exploded in the 20th century and continues to do so in the current one. We live in a highly image-saturated world as never before. With digital photography almost completely replacing the analogue, the earlier elaborate processes of picture-making have virtually vanished. In some sense, we have entered a more democratic time and space in which even a common man with a simple camera or an iPhone can not only take evocative pictures, but also transmit them real time to any part of the world. Purists, though, are not amused. They are more than concerned with the proliferation of images and the damaging impact it has on the visual culture. They are also horrified to see that the seriousness of photographic art and aesthetics has been replaced by a casualness, and even carelessness.  

As for the moral and ethical bearings of photography, the warning signs were laid out quite expansively some 40 years ago by American writer and philosopher Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004). Her book, On Photography, published in 1977, raised serious and even disturbing questions about the role of photography and the manner it was being practiced. Almost instantly hailed as a seminal and ground-breaking work on the subject, it won Sontag the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Criticism. It was also placed among the top 20 books of 1977 by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.

Among the many arguments made, Sontag said that “a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image)… but is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” She felt that it was in the nature of a photograph that it could never entirely transcend its subject, as a painting could.

Going further, she contended that like a car, a camera was being sold as a predatory weapon. “Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge… It’s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger.”

She also asserted that photography had turned people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. “Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing — which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool of power.” Whether one agreed with Sontag’s captivating, if disquieting, arguments or not, photography as a form of art and visual representation is here to stay. It would continue to attract artists, connoisseurs as well as the common man in equal measure. It would, however, be interesting to see how technology, intelligence (artificial or otherwise), as well as the sheer politics and economics of image-making would shape up in the coming years and decades. The challenge would also most certainly be in separating the truest grains from an overpowering mass of worthless chaff that seems to overwhelm our visual universe and vocabulary.

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World Photography Day: From the albums

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