Since the invention of photography in 1839, its main originators, Louis Daguerre, Henry Talbot, and Francoise Arago, predicted one of the new craft’s main possible uses—to document history. Through examining the history of photography and even looking at its contemporary practice, it’s fair to say that the photographic pioneers weren’t wrong. The first attempts at photojournalism, travel photography, and photographic documentation in science trace all the way back to the 1840s and 1850s. Based on the history of photography as well as the contemporary examples of social media, bloggers, and propaganda, it’s fair to argue that one of photography’s main functions in society has been to capture and exhibit events and experiences. The question is whether photography is a truthful, objective medium of documentation.
If one were to look for the essence of photography—the core that made it seem so magical to the society it was born into—the search would lead to memory. Photos are fascinating because they freeze an instance—one that can never be brought back—and give people a chance to view it endlessly and never forget. People are inherently social creatures and like to share their memories of others, and if you are choosing to capture a moment through a photograph, you will want to make sure that it’s a happy, enjoyable memory that other people will also find pleasant, or even enviable.
For instance, in his photo collection The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), Henry Talbot wanted to keep a record of rural life scenes and his scientific investigations, but in an aesthetically appealing way. Talbot based some of his compositional elements and subjects on Dutch paintings. As a result, The Pencil of Nature became one of the first manuals of good photographic style, while also exhibiting Talbot’s investigations and visits to the country “in good lighting.”
Fading Away (1858), Henry Robinson’s combination print, is another great example of photography’s deceiving potential, since combination printing could be described as one of Photoshop’s oldest ancestors.
In this photographic game of deception, the photographer is the key player. People behind the camera possess the power to represent what they want and how they want it in order to manipulate the innocent viewer. The subjects of the photograph have little influence in the outcome and therefore are the victims to be judged by the viewers. Examples of this power relationship are present all over history since 1839.
19th century neurologists Dr. Charcot and Dr. Diamond both photographed patients with psychiatric disorders under the excuse of medical documentation. However, the images were published and distributed, creating a stigma of what “abnormal” looks like in the 1850s.
The patients, often purposely pushed to have breakdowns, were obliged to pose for the photos, and their faces were explicitly visible on the resulting images. This practice is known as intrusive photography, since the photographer exposes the subject to the public to be mocked and laughed at.
A more recent and subtle example of the photographer’s power of persuasion is NASA’s space photo Ed White walking in space over New Mexico (1965), taken during the space race between the USA and the USSR (1955-75). The image’s aesthetic appeal is obvious, but the only practical information available on the photo is an American flag printed on the sleeve of Ed White’s spacesuit, and a small, unrecognizable portion of the Earth behind him. This suggests that NASA was concerned with promoting its own space program rather than capturing information relevant to the expedition.
Today, these unspoken aspects of photography are more present than ever. Photography has integrated itself into every aspect of human life, and with inventions like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and even Tinder, people are encouraged to take “selfies” daily, images they are continuously judged for. This attitude reinforces regressive, superficial social norms that praise the exciting, the wealthy, the fashionable, and the “pretty,” disregarding anything that falls outside this shallow scope.
The reason why today’s progressive society continues to ignore this problem is our inherited, obsessive love for photography and showcase culture. It all began back in the 1880s-90s, when a rise in the news industry caused an increased demand for photojournalism, especially for images of scandals and public figures. It extended to both, photographers intruding into the private lives of celebrities to get intimate pictures, and celebrities deliberately staging scandalous events to get the attention of the press.
However, looking at celebrity gossip and natural disasters in the paper wasn’t enough for most people, and the demand for simpler, amateur cameras grew by the minute. In 1888, No. 1 Kodak was introduced to the photographic market with huge success. The camera was small enough to carry it around your neck, had a fixed focus (you couldn’t see or adjust the focus), and was meant for casual snapshots. The invention of Kodak encouraged people to take trivial pictures of their everyday life, minimizing the need for professional photographers. From this point onwards, photography quickly infiltrated into society: the press, marketing, arts, science, education—the list goes on.
Photography has been integrated into our society since at least one hundred years ago, and today we experience the consequences of its influence more than ever. In order to enjoy the practical and romantic uses of photography, such as documentation and memory keeping, it’s important to try and question the purpose of both the images we see every day and the ones we take ourselves. Although photography captures a realistic image of the world, it only tells one truth: the one intended by the photographer.