Art is the communication of a message through symbols. Drawing, painting and sculpting are some of the most historically prominent forms of Artwork being a part of society for thousands of years. Over the past two centuries though, photography has quickly worked its way into the mainstream of what we consider to be ‘art’. I think of the old adage of “A picture is worth a thousand words” which is entirely true in most aspects. What is more fascinating than the technological advancement of the camera is the social impact that photography has had since it introduction in the middle part of the 19th Century, the camera has been resulted in social-cultural change, tantalization of emotions, and new standards of communication through symbols.
In this article we are going to overview the development of the camera as an art form during the 1800’s and its social impacts and effects that it had during the last millennium. Next we will review what is happening today with the digital camera technology and how it has continued its impact on society. To conclude we will look at where photography is headed in the future and how it will continue to impact our society.
Louis Daguerre’s Mistake
So what started the photography revolution? Was it like other inventions and kind of happen by mistake? Well…yea, kind of. There are many people who contributed to developing the photographic process but Louis Daguerre is widely regarded as the first photographer. About.com reports
“According to writer Robert Leggat,’Louis Daguerre made an important discovery by accident. In 1835, he put an exposed plate in his chemical cupboard, and some days later found, to his surprise, that the latent image had developed. Daguerre eventually concluded that this was due to the presence of mercury vapour from a broken thermometer. This important discovery that a latent image could be developed made it possible to reduce the exposure time from some eight hours to thirty minutes.'” (Mary Bellis, Daguerreotype)
Louis Daguerre had the first lasting photographic image which was a picture of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris and was published in 1839. While this image itself, is very simple, the resulting public reaction is what we know of today because “By 1853 an estimated three million daguerreotypes were being produced in the United States alone.”(Photography, London p. 369) Society was enthralled with this technology. The realism that the prints had would have people raving; and with a middle class of these western developed countries, that during the mid 19th century had money to spend, the popularity exploded. The main impact on society was the this new way of capturing a scene. Before photography, it would require paint, or some type of drawing to recreate a scene but now that had been reduced. The book Photography 8th Ed. explains the fascination with
“People wanted portraits. Even when exposure times were long and having one’s portrait taken meant sitting in bright sunlight for several minutes with eyes watering, trying not to blink or move, people flocked to portrait studios to have their likenesses drawn by ‘the sacred radiance of the Sun.’ Images of almost every famous person who had not died before 1839 have come down to us in portraits.” (Photography, London p. 374)
Not just the famed though, families also wanted to capture their heritage to pass down to their lineage.
Source of Truth
Society quickly moved past the fascination of simple image capture and were then able to pay attention to how photography can impact society and the roots for the saying a picture is worth a thousand words would be developed here. Most of what we know about photography today comes from this time period I will label ‘modern’, or basically anything happening after WWI. The most important form of this photography was the development of Documentary Photography, or as Wikipedia describes it: “photography used to chronicle significant and historical events” This was important because now photographers and viewers of photography we understanding the artistic value and social significance that photography had and could potentially have. The Metropolitan Museum of Art described this time of change;
“By the beginning of the twentieth century, photography was well on its way to becoming the visual language it is today, the pervasive agent of democratic communication. Photographers used its growing influence to expose society’s evils, which the prosperous, self-indulgent Belle Époque chose to ignore: the degrading conditions of workers in big-city slums, the barbarism of child labor, the terrorism of lynching, the devastation of war.”(Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Famous images from World War 2, John F. Kennedy;s Assassination, The Apollo Missions, The Falling of the Berlin Wall, and so on were all spawned from this generation of documentary photography. This was also the time in which photography became the standard for what we considered to be ‘true’. If a picture of it existed, then it must be true was kind of the mentality during this time. Society felt comfortable believing the sanctity of the photograph, society trusted the photograph. The development of the Digital Camera put documentary photography on the fast track because now most people could afford the luxury of photography and with the easy use and functionality of digital cameras, the practice only grew in popularity.
Photography Looking Ahead
This aspect of digital camera technology is whats driving photography in the future. Camera technology has already woven itself into our everyday existence. We are now accustomed to photography. This blog for example; would you be reading this right now if there were not eye-catching photographs that instantly spark your interest? This combination of digital cameras and documentary photography have really reshaped how we are as a society. It is an easy topic to use, but think of September 11th and how many people had cameras that were able to either take a picture or capture some video. Before the News stations had started covering, but those picture just before the first plane hit the WTC.
The pictures of the towers are obviously horrible in content, but those pictures just before the incident are the most haunting images from that tragedy. There are other ways that photography is reshaping how we function; Red light cameras are now being installed in many cities that capture a cars license plate number if it runs a red light. Is this good or bad? Is it helping stop accidents or actually causing more?
There is no question that other forms of art have been significant, painting and literature being focal points, but photography served as the first time a scene could be captured instead of being created. Photography has served as a truth factor for decades and decades. Images of war, triumph, debauchery and atrocity has made things real. Meaning that if a picture of it existed, then it must have happened. With advancements in technology today, this isn’t exactly true but for generations photography has been the standard for validity. In an article by Gretchen Garner the impact of photography is summed up by saying
“To imagine a social world before photography, we would have to think of a world without picture IDs; without portraits of ordinary people; one without pictures as souvenirs of travel; one without celebrity pictures; one without advertising photographs; one without X-rays or views of outer space; a world without views of foreign and exotic peoples; one without pictures of sports, wars, and disasters; and one in which the great masses of people had no way to visually document the important events of their lives.” (Garner, Photography and Society in the 20th Century)
This is the world of photography and cameras today; they are so integrated with our lives that we can’t imagine them not being there. To think of the photography as a form of art and the generations of technology advancement and social impact that photography has had on the human race, it is without question that a picture is thousand words. I hope that you found this article to be insightful for the next time you are looking at photos or are about take a snapshot.