Photography, Democracy and History

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Ever since its invention, the importance of photography and the place that it occupies in society has been argued over.  The first to comment on the power of photography was the painter, Paul Delaroche, who was present on 19th August 1839 when Jacques-Louis-Mandé Daguerre gave the first public demonstration of his invention.  Seeing the shiny metal plate which bore a likeness more accurate than any artist could hope to accomplish, Delaroche exclaimed, ‘From today, painting is dead!’

Well, not quite.  But since that day many people have been impressed with the power of the photographic image.  Two hundred years ago no one had seen a photograph.  Today they are ubiquitous.  It is impossible to put a figure on the number that have ever been made, but it is estimated that more than 350 billion photographs are now taken each year.  Each day around 300 million are uploaded to Facebook.  And these numbers are increasing.

People take photographs everywhere, of everything.  They take photographs of events that are significant and trivial.  They take photographs of other people and themselves, their dogs and cats, houses cars and children.  They take photographs of places they have been to, of cities and forests and beaches and valleys, and they collect photographs of places they want to visit.  They take them at the top of mountains, at the bottom of oceans, in aeroplanes and jumping out of them, in the garden, in the kitchen, in the bathroom and the bedroom.  They take photographs in situations that they would never want strangers or their friends to see them in.  But they take them all the same.  When asked, ‘What would you would save if your house was burning?’ the family photograph album is high on most people’s list.  So what is so special about this cultural object?

Before the invention of the photograph, earls, barons, countesses, queens and kings could own a likeness of their grandparents.  These formal portraits would be hung in the baronial hall, and it would be explained to the up-and-coming lord of the manor who these people were in the pictures: grandfathers and uncles, aunties and great-grandmothers, builders and defenders of the empire.  Growing up surrounded by long-dead family was, for many years, a measure of one’s family, of one’s ‘breeding’, of one’s ‘class’.  No one but the powerful and very wealthy had access to their past in this way because a painted portrait was beyond those who even had good incomes.  It required a family fortune and a family mansion, often with a title and land.

With the invention of photography, however, a visit to a portraitist was within the means of even families with a modest income.  Early daguerreotype images needed long exposure times and this precluded their effective use as a medium for making portraits.  Within a few years, however, changes to the technology had reduced exposures to a few seconds.  Portrait studios quickly developed, and became instant attractions.  Dressed in their finest clothes, husbands, wives and children could stare into the lens of a camera made of wood, brass and leather, their likeness captured in metallic silver on a glass plate.  Framed pictures began appearing in hallways and sitting rooms, on mantelpieces and pianos.

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But the real change came with the introduction of the roll-film camera.  Invented by the Eastman Company, the first ‘Brownie’ was released in 1888.  It came loaded with enough film to take 100 pictures.  The initial cost of the camera was $25.00 and it cost a further $10.00 to have the film processed, the images printed and the camera re-loaded with film.  In 1890 the average wage in the U.S. was less than $10.00 a week, so it was not cheap, but as wages went up the price of cameras came down.  By 1900 the Brownie was selling for $1.00 and it wasn’t long before most households either owned a camera themselves or knew someone who did.  The Kodak Company’s motto was ‘You push the button, we do the rest’, and a growing proportion of the world did just that.  Birthdays, Christmas celebrations, weddings and graduations were recorded.  Houses, streets, new cars, shops, buildings.   Soldiers leaving to fight had photographs taken before they left and they took cameras with them when they travelled overseas.  They brought home photographs of their comrades and the exotic places that they had visited.  Images were no longer formal portraits of an entire company and titled ‘Men of the 4th Light Infantry at Dieppe’, but ‘George and Robert on a camel’, and ‘Me and Frank on leave in Paris’.

One of the most important elements of any photograph is that, by its nature, it is imbued with a sense of the past.  What a photograph shows may be selective and may not be the ‘absolute truth’, but they cannot exist without a world-out-there.  And with this simple invention—a small, portable box containing a roll of light sensitive cellulose—came something far greater: the democratisation of history.

Text © Stuart Peel 2013