The most overwhelming cultural invention of the modern age.

By: Hans Koning

I N JANUARY OF 1839 Louis Daguerre published in Paris a description of his system of taking photographs, and shortly thereafter the firm of Alphonse Giroux offered Daguerre cameras, the first cameras for sale to the public. Museum curators like to commemorate centennials and sesquicentennials, and last year (1989) “one hundred and fifty years of photography” was duly celebrated with various American exhibitions. This year the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, mounted an exhibit of 275 pictures, titled “Photography Until Now” (it is currently at the Cleveland Museum of Art), and Magnum, the international cooperative of some of the best-known photojournalists, devoted a large show photojournalists, devoted a large show to its first fifty years, which can be seen now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. These and the many other shows throughout the country invite some wondering about the meaning that photography had and still has.


the first permanent image created by light reflecting from an object onto a plate, then it was taken by Joseph Niepce, from the bedroom window of his house near Dijon, around 1826 (exposure time: eight hours). In England, William Talhot printed images, of leaves and feathers, with light on sensitized paper in the late 1830s. His ultimate method, first a negative image and then a positive print, marked the road photography was to take. But in those early years Louis Daguerre was the only pioneer in the new medium whose photographs weren’t curiosities. Used mainly for portraits, daguerrotypes quickly became immensely popular, in the United States as well as in Europe. Within their limitations they set standards for formal photo portraiture that have not been surpassed. Moreover, daguerrotypes stirred the art world and led to statements such as that science had now made painting obsolete.

Photography has become increasingly important in our society; if we include under its rubric all the new processes of mechanical image-making and duplicating— television, video, et alia— it may indeed be the most over-whelming cultural invention of the modern age. But the importance of photography does not lie in its having become “art,” unless that word is meant to cover all pleasing compositions, all unusual arrangements of images. To he sure, painters and photographers have argued this point ad infinitum and ad nauseam, and such a pronouncement from a writer may appear impudent. Allow me one paragraph to state my case:

The history of painting is not the history of progress toward the creation of images of nature as it “really” looks. There is no such real look. Images of reality are created in the cooperation between the two sides, nature and the beholder. In ancient times the painter was not so much showing as he was making a frozen incarnation—of, say, a bison hunt or a god-pharaoh or God the Father looking down from the wall of a church. That was myth or religion. Art began when the painter wanted to show —show us a relational model, a construction with no more and no less accuracy than suited his or her purpose. He reached that point through trial and error, not the trial and error of looking but that of putting colors on canvas. And if the artist was a great painter, there could be translucency in the end result, a looking through as if at a new reality. That is the road of visual art, and it does not lead to photography

Photography was brought into being by a few men who, with the scientific optimism typical of their age, were intent on finding one more way of “taming nature,” just as steam and steel had tamed her. Instead of having fallible artists copying down what they saw, nature would be made to draw her own portrait with light as her pencil. That is, of course, the etymological meaning of the word photo-graphy, and that is how Dagucrre and Niepce and Talbot thought about what they were doing. Nature projected herself upon the back wall of a camera (obscura); light-sensitive chemicals made the projection lasting. The camera obscura, with its pinprick opening, and then the camera, with lens, were mirrors to nature. A dagucrrotvpc was called “the mirror with a memory.” And, like a mirror, it had to be held a certain way if one was to see the image in all its subtlety.

T HE REASON FOR THE FAST RISE OF PHOTOGRAPHY was of course economic. Only the rich could perpetuate their memories, of parents, themselves, and children, with painted portraits. Only they could go and visit the wonders of the world. Photography was not cheap in the nineteenth century, at least not until George Eastman and his Kodak appeared (1888), but its cost was in a different class from the cost of painting. The price charged for a small daguer-rotype (two by two-and-a-half inches) was about four dollars. (The minimal cost for the equipment to make daguerrotvpes would be about $50; a full professional outfit could run to $500.) Now many people could afford to have one portrait of their father and mother, one of their child or children while still babies, and one of the Pyramids at Giza.

I RECALL AN ESSAY BY SUSAN SONTAG in which she stated that time is what makes a photograph a work of art. I do not believe it. In fact, I think her thesis proves my point, for surely what isn’t art at its conception cannot be made into art by the passing of years or even centuries. Only a man or a woman can make art, not any force or element of nature.

Time does give a new interest to photographs. When we study a photograph of a tree, a field, or especially a human construct—a room, a house, a street with shoppers and carriages or cars—the idea that all that was frozen at one precise moment in the past, maybe before our birth, and that it will last beyond our death, may nearly dizzy us with emotion. And since history has moved ever faster during the past 150 years, it may now take only a decade or two for a picture to achieve this effect. But this dizziness of impersonal memory has nothing to do with aesthetics, with beauty or truth. The report cards in the attic of one’s mother or grandmother may produce a similar emotion. It is an emotion about the human condition, our changing earth, mortality, time itself.

This is why the “Photography Until Now” exhibit put together by the Museum of Modern Art seemed dull to me. I assume that John Szarkowski, the curator, did not want to appeal to any philistine interest in historical incident. (The Magnum exhibit did just that, and with much success.) He must have gone out of his way to select photographs not relating too closely to the human condition of that 150 years. It was also hard to see technical progress—and the subject was, after all, partly technique—for some of the early photographs were as finely executed as some of the most recent ones; images on a wall couldn’t show that the early ones had been very much more trouble to execute. As for development in art (I assume that Szarkowski would insist that his pictures are art), there was little to show conflict, contrast, development. If one imagines as a comparison an exhibition of 150 years of French painting, the dearth of contrast among the photographs becomes glaring. This, by the way, is why the one set of historical-incident photos stood out so very weirdly. It was a series of pictures of an American bomber over Berlin during the Second World War, being hit by a bomb from another American plane. It was totally out of place.

If Szarkowski had selected only that kind of picture, “Photography Until Now would have been facile but also more captivating. It is in news photographs that we can most easily measure the path and impact of photography.

I N THE BOOK ACCOMPANYING HIS SHOW John Szarkowski argues that the accepted wisdom that television killed the news photograph is mistaken. LIFE and LOOK magazines, he writes~,”had failed on creative grounds before television became a competitor.” I think this is an original and brilliant perception. Our commercial society treats our great inventions with a destructive nonchalance. What starts out as a blessing and a joy becomes routine, and then not much less than a curse. The kind of photo essays that LIFE ended up doing in its first incarnation appealed to rather cheap values: there wasn’t much reason left for them when television started to sell the same cheapness with much more speed and pizzazz. The photographer Irving Penn is quoted by Szarkowski to illustrate the point: Penn told his colleagues, “I’ve learned the discipline of not looking at the magazines when they come out, because they hurt so much.”

Books were the medium in which some photographers retained control of their own material and in which some of those still famous harmonies of photo and text were achieved. Cooperatives like Magnum were started with the same idea, to keep or regain control, and they blossomed to the degree that they succeeded in doing this for their members. But the best work of the men and women of Magnum and of others in the field does not compete with the TV evening news; it is not the bringer of the latest development in one of the many world crises existing on any given day. Our best photographs of actual events fulfill a different function: they stress a common human element in any situation, the drama, comedy, or tragedy of the human condition.

Ever since Steichen’s Family of Man such an approach has been labeled sentimental by those photographers who see themselves as the photographic brothers and sisters of the painters of Futurist, abstract, and other experimental art. But photography, which has to start out with a machined, unhuman image, is able to cope with a heavy dose of human feeling. If it does not slide into sentimentality, its images may show sentiment without being sentimental. Photography here shows kinship with committed literature , litterature engagee, and that is the type of thing we need more, not less, of.

I N THESE BRAVE NEW NINETIES we will be drowning in photo images. It is a reasonable guess that by the age of sixteen the average American or Japanese child of today has been photographed and filmed about as much as Charlie Chaplin. We have reached the stage of pollution. The avalanche of images is now polluting our minds.

We also get to see things we were not meant to see.

Any reader who happens to have watched that troubled motion picture The Navigator (made by the New Zcalander Vincent Ward) will remember an instance of this. A young boy who has never before seen a mechanical image is confronted with a row of television sets all showing the slow-motion descent of a hawk upon its prey. Then the sets show one eye of the hawk in closeup. This sight would of course be impossible for our unaided eyes. One could even say it is a sight not existing in nature, for within the sequence the huge eye of the bird acquires a ghastly and ghostly menace it could not have in reality. The film makes us fathom how such a sight could be literally maddening, striking with madness. Here photography has reached the flip side of sentiment: insentience, pitilessness—of the cameraman, not of the hawk, to be sure.

There is a fierce element of addiction in our thirst for images. The written word is in a corner. Today the textless world of the futuristic film Fahrenheit 451 now looks very plausible, not farfetched. There would be no need to ban or burn our books, as happened in that movie; free-market forces would see to their disappearance very nicely.

If the Third World’s first problem is hunger, maybe ours in the First World is mass boredom, a boredom so passive, often so hopeless, that books, or walks, or sports, or even love, cannot assuage it. Only images will do. The ‘funnv” belief of primitive tribes that being photographed would diminish them has been replaced by our equally ‘funny” belief that only through being photographed or filmed are we, our presence anywhere, our friends, our travels, made real.


                                                                                  The ATLANTIC Monthly

July 1990. (Pgs. 89 -91)

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