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section heading icon     photography

This page looks at photography as a communication revolution.

It covers -

Censorship of photography is discussed here.

subsection heading icon     introduction

In the preceding page of this note we suggested that some of McLuhan's wilder assertions were persuasively challenged in works such as James Elkins' The Domain of Images (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 1999), Picturing the Past: Media, History & Photography (Urbana: Uni of Illinois Press 1999) edited by Bonnie Brennen & Hanno Hardt, Ariella Azoulay's The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books 2008) and Mary Marien's Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1997) or Photography: A Cultural History (London: Lawrence King 2006).

As with prints, one starting point for considering authenticity, truth and mass distribution of images remains 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Walter Benjamin's 1936 classic. It is available in Illuminations (New York: Schocken 1985) translated by Harry Zohn. It also available in the MIT Press edition of his collected works.

For a study of the role of the media in the formation of a public sphere see John Hartley's The Politics of Pictures: The Creation of the Public in the Age of Popular Media (New York: Routledge 1992), particularly the role of images in newspapers, John Raeburn's A Staggering Revolution: A Cultural History of Thirties Photography (Urbana: Uni of Illinois Press 2006), Patricia Vettel-Becker's Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America (Minneapolis: Uni of Minnesota Press 2005), Rolf Sachsse's Die Erziehung zum Wegsehen: Fotografie im NS-Staat (Dresden: Philo 2003), The Soviet Photograph 1924-1937 (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1996) by Margarita Tupitsyn, Abigail Solomon-Godeau's Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices (Minneapolis: Uni of Minnesota Press 1991), Elspeth Brown's The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884-1929 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press 2005), Julie Brown's Making Culture Visible: The Public Display of Photography at Fairs, Expositions & Exhibitions in the United States, 1847-1900 (New York: Routledge 2001), Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2007) by Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards & Erina Duganne and No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2007) by Robert Hariman & John Lucaites

Felice Frankel's Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image (Cambridge: MIT Press 2002) and The Meaning of Photography (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2008) by Robin Kelsey & Blake Stimson are also recommended.

subsection heading icon     photography

Ivins comments that the invention of photography changed the world -

never in the history of men has there been a more complete revolution than that which has taken place since the middle of the nineteenth century in seeing and visual recording. Photographs give us visual evidence about things that no man has ever seen or ever will see directly. A photograph is today accepted as proof of the existence of things and shapes that never would have been believed on the evidence of a hand-made picture ... Photography brought a catastrophic revolution, the extent of which is not even today fully recognized.

Robert Legatt quotes coverage in the Leipzig City Advertiser of the invention of the daguerrotype -

The wish to capture evanescent reflections is not only impossible... but the mere desire alone, the will to do so, is blasphemy. God created man in His own image, and no man- made machine may fix the image of God. Is it possible that God should have abandoned His eternal principles, and allowed a Frenchman ... to give to the world an invention of the Devil?

The photographic revolution, catastrophic or otherwise, is examined in Estelle Jussim's Visual Communication & the Graphic Arts: Photographic Technologies in the Nineteenth Century (London: Bowker 1974), Sarah Greenough's The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978 (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 2007) and Richard Rudisill's Mirror Image: The Influence of the Daguerrotype on American Society (Albuquerque: Uni of New Mexico Press 1971).

There is a more general exploration in Susan Sontag's On Photography (London: Allen Lane 1977) and in Photography & Society (London: Gordon Fraser 1980) by master photographer Gisela Freund. For historical overviews see Helmut Gernsheim's The Concise History of Photography (London: Thames & Hudson 1986), Naomi Rosenblum's A World History of Photography (New York: Abbeville 1997), Robert Hirsch's Seizing the Light: A History of Photography (New York: McGraw-Hill 2000) or Michael Langford's crisp The Story of Photography (London: Focal Press 1980). Beaumont Newhall's The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (London: Secker & Warburg 1986) offers the perspective of a leading US curator.

James Ryan's Picturing Empire: Photography & the Visualisation of the British Empire (London: Reaktion 1997) and Scoop, scandal and strife: a study of photography in newspapers (London: Lund Humphries 1971) edited by Ken Baynes are suggestive. For the interaction of photography and painting see in particular The Painter & the Photographer, From Delacroix to Warhol (Alberquerque: Uni of New Mexico Press 1972) by Van Deren Coke and Marina Vaizey's The Artist as Photographer (London: Sidgwick & Jackson 1982).

Martin Lister edited The Photographic Image in Digital Culture (London: Routledge 1995), one of the more interesting explorations of photography in contemporary culture.

For censorship of photographs see the discussion here and in the complementary note on unauthorised photography. Microfilming is discussed here.

subsection heading icon     image archives

For perspectives on rights licensing and image libraries see the separate profiles of Getty Images and Corbis.

section marker     imagination

Illustrations, photographs and maps have been ports for launching a thousand dreams and for new conceptualisations of the world. They have also been variously denounced as catering to emotions rather reason, cutting man off from nature or merely from individual creativity. Baudelaire thus fretted in 1859 about the impoverishment off artistic genius

A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. Our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal.

That echoed Feuerbach's lament in The Essence of Christianity that his age "prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being" and Oliver Wendell Holmes' characterisation of photography as the "mirror with a memory". Holmes predicted that the "image would become more important than the object itself and would in fact make the object disposable".

That is a traditional lament. Roland Barthes worried that "the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image". Neil Postman's more romantic The Disappearance of Childhood complained that the "electronic and graphic revolutions" involved an "uncoordinated but powerful assault on language and literacy, a recasting of the world of ideas into speed-of-light icons and images" that "ask us to feel, not to think".

Paul Virilio recycled fin de siecle anxiety about the cinema in announcing a "great threat to the word" through the "evocative power of the screen"

once the image is live, there is a conflict between deferred time and real time, and in this there is a serious threat to writing and to the author.

Uh huh. From there it is a small step to announcing that the Iraq War did not occur.

section marker     law

Legal frameworks for still images have followed the trajectory of technologies, markets and social attitudes, encompassing -

  • concerns that images embody a spirit (reflected in restrictions under some Indigenous cultural regimes regarding making or displaying of photographs)
  • expectations that images embody a regime or confer legitimacy, apparent in iconoclasm and the 'airbrushing' of the historical record
  • views that images are more potent than speech, evident in some censorship legislation and practice
  • economic and moral rights protection under copyright law for the creators and owners of images, with photographs and engravings or other 'mechanical reproduction' often receiving lesser protection than 'originals
  • ambivalence about the evidential value of photographs and photocopies (eg regarding identity documentation and forgery )
  • changing stances on questions of personality rights (do celebrities and ordinary people 'own' their images) and privacy (what are appropriate restrictions on the media and on workplace surveillance or on digital phones in changerooms).

section marker     portals

Points of access to major online photographic exhibitions and collections include -

  • the Smithsonian Photography Initiative (3 million images spread across the Smithsonian Institution's 19 museums in 700 archives and special collections) | here
  • George Eastman House | here

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version of December 2008
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