The Cultural History of Photography

Without the ability to reproduce reality from afar, societies across the globe would be a very different place. The cultural history of photography is, therefore, a valuable and fascinating account of how the face of our world has changed as a result of the reproduced image. The impact of photography cannot be underestimated, and it is this that we will explore in this article.

Few would argue against the fact that photography has, from its very genesis, proved a revolutionary force within society. From its earliest iterations, photography has demonstrated its power to alter the very fabric of human perception, of communication, of expression, and of how we relate to the world around us. As technology has evolved, from the days of the camera obscura to virtual reality and 360 video, so the phenomenon of documenting and exploring our world, and – more recently – our universe, has transformed the collective consciousness.

The Origins of Photography

We can trace the origins of photography back to the Middle Ages, if we define these origins in terms of the discovery of reactivity between certain compounds and the invention of the camera obscura. We can even go as far back as ancient Greece, when Aristotle first described the model of the camera obscura, and the description laid out by Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan in the 10th century AD. We could talk about how the camera obscura was secretly used by Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo as an aid to the drawing process. We could even mention the arrest of Italian scholar, Giovanni Battista della Portacentury, for study and use of the camera obscura, under the charge of ‘sorcery’.

But for the purposes of this article, we will take the history of photography from the birth of practical photography in the early 19th century.

The Cultural History of Photography: View From A Window in Le Gras

View from the Window at Le Gras by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

The first photo had been taken in 1825 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, depicting the view from a room in Le Gras. But it was Sir John Herschel who was the first to coin the term ‘photography’ (which loosely translates from the Greek as ‘drawing with light’). It was he who first used glass negatives as opposed to metal, making improvements on the process which eventually led to George Eastman’s Kodak, the first commercially available camera, released in 1888 along with – for the first time- celluloid film.

Though the Kodak didn’t hit the shelves until 1888, which was an obviously catalytic moment in the cultural history of photography, the The Royal Photographic Society had been running since the 1850s, concurrent with The Great Exhibition of 1851, in which over 700 photographs were shown, along with cameras, lenses, and other photographic paraphernalia.

The Impact of Photography on Art

The public at large was both curious and excited by the invention of photography, which started to become widely known following William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 exhibition of several paper photographs he had made in 1835. The new invention soon began to overtake portraiture as the most sought-after status symbol amongst the aristocracy. This, of course, caused great fear amongst artists, who understandably wondered if their days were numbered.

It was not only the artists, however, who were concerned about this new technology. The death of art was a concern that began to make the rounds, along with the debate over whether photography was art at all, or whether it should be classified as a science. Art was considered to be the product of skill, imagination, and craft, and many people were concerned that photography was a poor substitute that would demean art, rather than enhance it.

If the purpose of photography, it was argued, was to reproduce the world verbatim, then how could photography be acceptable where photos were retouched, where the negatives were manipulated? This is a debate that continues today, most notably in images of the body, where Photoshop alterations to give the illusion of ‘perfection’ are considered to distort our perception of how the body should look.

As an antidote to the concerns about art being subsumed by photography, amateur and professional photographers began to unite to challenge the perceived dichotomy between the two mediums. Art photography was born, with low-contrast, warm-toned images exploring the ways that photography could breed creative originality.

The Cultural History of Photography | The Kodak BrownieConsumer Adoption of Photography

In spite of marginal dissent, the advent of photography was widely lauded, though few could have predicted how far it would go.

Following the release of the Kodak #1 for consumer sale, in 1900 a cheaper model, the Kodak Brownie was released. This was priced within the reach of the middle-class budget, whereas the Kodak #1 had only been financially available to the wealthiest individuals. As more people gained access to the technology, so its influence began to pervade our lives.

Photography, Art, and Change

In the early twentieth century, other technological innovations sprung up that challenged the long-ingrained status quo. Artists across a range of media, from literature and visual arts, to drama and music, began seeking new modes of expression that reflected the new developments within society. Industrialisation continued to rise, the radio, the car, and the aeroplane were invented, and – perhaps most significantly – the Great War decimated the comfort of life at home in England.

The Cultural History of Photography | August Sander - Secretary at a Radio Station, Cologne (1931)

Secretary at a Radio Station, Cologne (1931) by August Sander

Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, the avant-garde, emerged with a mindset inspired by the changing perceptions of the world. Photography, simultaneously, sought to document the world in hitherto unseen ways. The nature of photography – its capacity to reproduce subjectivity verbatim, was a transmission of both perception itself, and an open door to the world beyond one’s immediate environment.

A good example of this is the work of August Sander, whose portraits demonstrate modern types of people, such as Disabled Man (1926), depicting a disabled veteran of the Great War, and the androgynous, dull-eyed subject of Secretary at a Radio Station, Cologne (1931). These photographs, and others of their kind, served to epitomise the deconstruction of conceptions of class, race, gender, and other received notions of identity.

In a time of great change and upheaval, photography could freeze moments in time. Memory was exhumed from the internal mind, petrified and true. There was, it seemed, no forgetting what had really been, what had really occurred. One moment could be held in time forever.

The moment could also be played with; art could incorporate photography in photomontage, echoing the fragmentation of culture. The true moment could be augmented, fictionalised, and used as a vehicle to express cultural and political truths.

The History of Photography In The 20th Century

In a way, photography was a great facilitator in the move to globalisation. With the ability to document how people lived in faraway lands, the world felt smaller somehow, the foreign less alien. One can imagine the chilling sense of familiarity when gazing upon the sight of indigenous peoples from the other side of the world, and recognising your shared humanity in their facial expressions, their stance and stature, the way in which they choose to present themselves to the camera.

The Cultural History of Photography | Brylcreem Advert 1950s

Brylcreem Advert, 1950s

This method of presenting the human subject found an uneasy home in the world of advertising, which experienced a blazing boom in the post-WWII years. For the first time, photography could be used to paint a picture of the ideal reality, which – of course – required products in order to be achieved. Advertising was able to sell a design for life, one that both created and reflected the culture of the times. Photography in adverts began to dictate our sense of beauty, of success, and what it would take to fill the hole of satisfaction that our increasingly industrialised lives left inside.

With photography, we could look wistfully upon the years of our lives that had past, to mourn our youth (which promised to be purchasable back to us in products). The sense of nostalgia for times before the chasm that WWII had wrought was magnified through photography. All of these sensations could be sold to us via advertising.

And so it continued throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Simultaneously, film and television displayed the moving image, capturing the changing world and its myriad peoples and experiences, continuing to sell us reality. Both photography and the moving image were growing up together, evolving in what they depicted along with the world outside the shot.

Photography in the Digital Era

The digital era, of course, revolutionised photography once more. Celluloid gave way to pixels, and digital photography killed film for all but the art photographer. Digital photography allowed us to upload our moments to the great and powerful web for all to see. Increasingly, our reality could be displayed in any way we chose. Adobe Photoshop allowed us to manipulate the photograph – both our appearance and our surroundings in undetectable ways. The long-held belief that the camera never lies fell to ashes in our hands. Perhaps this was one of the early indicators of the post-truth age we now find ourselves in. But Photoshop was just the beginning.

Social media and photography are now inseparable bedfellows. From the birth of Facebook in 2007, we could show our lives off to everyone we knew, everyone we had ever known. And we wanted a filter on that. Since the public first got their hands on cameras, it has been true that what we photograph of our lives tend to be the happier moments, or at least appear that way.

We can look at a photograph of ourselves at fifteen, smiling and bright-eyed, and know in our minds that we were at war with our parents, or our best friend had just died. We can remember storms that were brewing on our individual horizons. But most viewers of that image will not know these memories of ours. Social media has enabled us to present ourselves as such from the word ‘go’. We show our good times, our holidays, our children. We do not show our toil at the desk, nor our divorces or our failures. The negative of other people’s lives is not on show to us.

Beyond Facebook, Instagram furthers the project of self-presentation. Metaphorical filters give way to those literally overlaid onto our moments. As this quote from an article entitled The Evolution of Photography (published on Photobox) puts it:

“The psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has pointed out that “The ‘Instagram Generation’ now experiences the present as an anticipated memory”, which is to say that we have a brand new demographic that treats the present moment as something that needs to be reflected upon later. Futurist Jason Silva has pointed out that we now, through cropping, filtering and anticipating ‘Likes’, take it upon ourselves to ‘design’ what that later moment is going to feel like.”

From Digital to Virtual

We are now undergoing a new digital revolution, one that has the visual firmly at its heart. Virtual reality, which has been in nascent form for some decades, is now maturing. 360 photography and video, once no more than a sci-fi dream, is readily available to us and embeddable directly onto Facebook. But 360 is just the beginning – the virtual world is far more immersive even than that.

Virtual and augmented reality technologies challenge the boundaries of the real and the simulated further than could ever have been anticipated. Photography has gone from documenting truth to forming that truth, and now we are going far beyond truth altogether.

We can still document truth in VR, whether that be through documentaries, training and education, or healthcare. But in the way that we consume media and products, the way we spend our leisure time, the way we represent ourselves, and how we learn about the world around us are all subject to manipulation of the truth. The still and moving image have helped to form society as we know it. Over time, photography and film have altered our perception of reality in many ways. We have learned that truth is not an objective fact, but an infinite conglomeration of separate subjectivities. As we let go of notions of reality, simulated worlds begin to swallow us whole.

Full Circle

History, now, can be exhumed and simulated through virtual reality. We now have the capacity to recreate the past, using imagery from the time along with written documentation to reform moments long lost to the passage of time.

This is beautifully illustrated in Thresholds, the exhibition by Mat Collishaw, which runs from 15th May 2017 to 11th June 2017 at Somerset House in London, and subsequently at:

  • Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery 17/06/2017- 03/09/2017
  • Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire 09/09/2017 – 29/10/2017
  • Bodleian Library, Oxford  09/03/2018 – 15/04/2018
  • National Media Museum, Bradford  09/07/2018 – 02/09/2018
The Cultural History of Photography | Mat Collishaw

Early rendering of the virtual exhibition space for Thresholds

The exhibition revisits William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 exhibition (mentioned above), which originally took place at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. The original exhibition is recreated in virtual reality, with participants donning backpacks containing a laptop hooked up to the HTC Vive VR headset. Within a whitewashed room, visitors inside the virtual world will see the exhibition as it was in 1839, complete with Charters protesting in the street outside.

The history of photography comes full circle; we become ghosts from the future stepping into a virtual room that no longer even exists in the real world. Far from destroying art, as was once a concern, the evolution of the recreated image has transformed art beyond all recognition. The virtual reality revolution promises to push the thresholds of both art and documentation even further. Who knows where even this technology will lead us next?