The Other Reality

Social Reaction to Photography

Posted in Annotation, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 6, 2008

A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum, pages 14-279, (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997)

Photography has a recorded beginning, a fact that sets it apart from other forms of traditional art.  Naomi Rosenblum’s history of its invention are concisely explained in her opening chapters of A World History of Photography; using principles from the existing camera obscura, Niepce obtained an image in 1826, after his death Daguerre improved the technology to a salable point, and in 1839 it was presented to the French public.  At the same time, Henry Fox Talbot was working on a photographic negative-positive process that would allow for “easy” reproduction (becoming the foundation of our current film technology).  The technology continued to improve, with faster chemical reactions, better optics and cameras.  In 1851 Fredrick Archer Scott developed the wet plate process, which became the preferred method of photo production until Richard Maddox developed the dry plate method in the late 1870s.  By 1880 George Eastman had perfected it allowing photography to become a viable recreation for anyone who could afford it.

As with technology in all fields, photography is continually evolving—but discussing its technical beginnings does little to describe its affect on society.  Rosenblum states that society was ready for photography when it arrived in 1839, due to the pressing need for more accurate forms of representation, which would aid scientific and technological pursuits during the industrial revolution (Rosenblum 1997, 15).  The growing middle class was also a factor in photography’s immediate success, as it provided a way for making less costly portraits and its imagery did not require the viewer to have an extensive knowledge about art history to be appreciated.

Despite its acceptance by the public, those involved with the arts had mixed feelings about it.  Praising its invention Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “[It] must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science” (Poe 1980, 37).  A little less enthusiastic, writer and critic Lady Elizabeth Eastlake saw the photograph as useful, but could not conceive of it as art because of its mechanical process.

Possibly the most ardently opposed to the photograph was Baudelaire who was disgusted by how enamored the public had become with it, “From that moment onwards, our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate.  A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism took hold of these new sun-worshippers” (Baudelaire 1980, 86-87).  His biggest fear and source of bitterness was that photography was being accepted as art and “if photography is allowed to deputize for art in some of art’s activities, it will not be long before it has supplanted or corrupted art altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the masses, its natural ally” (Baudelaire 1980, 88).  He saw it as completely utilitarian; its proper place was as the “humble handmaid” to the sciences and arts.

Poe’s prediction that “the result of the invention cannot, even remotely be seen” (Poe 1980, 38) strongly resonates with my view of those early years of photography.  Everybody was so focused on specific aspects of photography—its effect on science or art—that trying to define its influence on society and the individual was impossible.  Today our society is saturated with photographic images and even though we have grown accustomed to their presence they still exert an influence on us.  In photography’s early stages it would have been unimaginable to expect photographic images to play such a pivotal role in our highly visual culture.  From camera obscura to the digital fervor happening now, photography has evolved from a small sub-science to an integral part of our lives, an unforeseeable reality to those who first discovered the light sensitive chemistry.

Works cited

Baudelaire, Charles. “The Daguerreotype.” Edited by Alan Trachtenberg.  Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Daguerreotype.” Edited by Alan Trachtenberg.  Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997

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2 Responses

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  1. jruggles said, on October 6, 2008 at 10:46 am

    I have read all of the posts you wrote. I loved reading them and can’t wait to read more. You are an excellent writer! I look forward to seeing more of your thoughts on photography.

  2. J victor said, on October 6, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    One could add up the space photos take in old news papers and compare and contrast how the space is used now…percentage new…percentage add…etc. The printing of photos in news papers has changed radicaly and the cost has dropped. Has the photo replaced a thousand word, in the news paper?


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