150 years of photography

It is a curious but tidy coincidence that the two earliest surviving photographic images – the saintly relics of the medium – were both taken through a window. In 1826, the inventor Joseph-Nicephore Niepce pointed a primitive camera out of the dormer of his house at Gras, France. It took eight hours to record, on a polished pewter plate coated with asphalt and lavender oil, a crude schematic view of Niepce’s backyard. But the result is the unmistakable forerunner of the delicate, silvery daguerreotype, the invention of Niepce’s collaborator, Louis-Jacques Daguerre. Nine years after Niepce’s experiment, a patrician Englishman named William Henry Fox Talbot aimed a tiny 2.5-inch square camera at a latticed window of his family seat, Lacock Abbey, in Wiltshire. He succeeded in making a paper negative on which it was possible, with the aid of a magnifying lens, to count 200 panes of glass. There was the birth of photography as it is known today.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

For both men, the window was probably little more than a convenience, the closest source of light to a makeshift laboratory. But in a way, the inventors’ subjects proved oddly prophetic. In no time at all, photography itself came to be viewed as a kind of window, a transparent medium whose subject matter was the world itself. The first newspaper report on Daguerre’s invention seized on the fact that the photograph differed in some profound way from the work of visual artists. As La Gazette de France proclaimed in 1839, “Let not the draftsman and the painter despair: M. Daguerre’s results are something else from their work, and in many cases cannot replace it.” Quite what constitutes that “something else” is still being debated, although an astute definition was provided as early as 1857 by the Victorian writer Lady Elizabeth Eastlake. Photography, she wrote, is “that new form of communication between man and man – neither letter, message, or picture.”

The most important invention of the 19th century may have been the idea of the invention itself. Even so, there was something momentous about the introduction of photography. The Paris crowd that waited 150 years ago, on Aug. 19, 1839, outside a joint meeting of France’s Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts, where Daguerre’s process was revealed, was tense with excitement. The promise of the new medium was that for the first time in human history, visual information could be conveyed without having to rely on handmade marks. And although the Victorians could not be aware of it, photography changed man’s relationship to the fleeting and the ephemeral.Photography succeeded in freezing the present tense forever.

The perceptive Lady Eastlake was quick to understand many of the new medium’s characteristics, especially its sheer ubiquitousness. Even by 1857, photography had become, as she put it, “a household word and a household want; it is used alike by art and science, by love, business and justice, is found in the pocket of the detective, in the cell of the convict and on the cold brave breast of the battlefield.” She also understood, with great clarity, the profoundly time-bound nature of the photograph, the way it bears the impress of a particular hour or age – as well as the way it can capture a telling detail. Photographs of children, she wrote, may fail on the level of art, “yet minor things – the very shoes of one, the inseparable toy of the other – are given with a strength of identity which art does not even seek.” As for the vexing question of whether photography was an art, she found the new medium wanting – although it could relieve artists from the humbler tasks of depiction, such as the miniature portrait.

The problem of photography’s status as art – a recurring, even tiresome, question in the medium’s history – seems never to be entirely laid to rest. In the beginning, the audience was prepared to marvel at the sheer fidelity of a daguerreotype – to count window panes or chimneys – and to leave it at that. (Such a sense of open-mouthed wonder can still be observed now in those who encounter for the first time the eerie, spectral presence of a hologram, a flat but three-dimensional image.) In the 19th century, a few who worked self-consciously as artists stand out – a photographer like the Englishwoman Julia Margaret Cameron, whose monumental close-up portraits flouted the polite, standoffish conventions of the day. But in general, the century may be said to belong to photographers of a more utilitarian cast – to men who, like Carleton Watkins or William Henry Jackson, recorded the opening up of the pristine landscape of the American West, or to that talented group of camera operators who, during the American Civil War, worked under the name of their taskmaster, Mathew Brady.

In the 20th century, the achievement of art photography is less equivocal. By 1939 – the centenary of the medium –photography had a rudimentary history and the sense of a usable tradition. There were already bodies of work that were distinguished not only by a certain visual grace and intelligence, but also by the light that they cast on their own civilization. In the 1920s, the Cologne photographer August Sander embarked on a vast collective portrait of the German people that to this day remains a model of sociological shrewdness and psychological insight. His 1928 Boxers is an ironic contrast to Lewis Foote’s 1927 image of the Prince of Wales and his brother Prince George in Winnipeg’s railway station. And it is hard to think of 1930s America without recalling the lyrical, emblematic images of Walker Evans and his colleagues who worked for the federal Farm Security Administration.

There was a period – most notably in the 1940s and 1950s – when photographers who considered themselves artists had access to the great mass-circulation magazines. That era reached some sort of climax – and perhaps came to an end – with the famous 1955 Family of Man exhibition organized by Edward Steichen of New York City’s Museum ofModern Art. The show was an enormous success with a worldwide audience, although even then there were many photographers who felt that Steichen’s editorial call for a brotherhood of man colored the work included in the exhibition. Certainly a younger generation of artist/photographers today regards the humanistic pieties of The Family of Man as threadbare, if not thoroughly suspect.

Today, a certain knowing skepticism reigns in contemporary photography. Indeed, it seems at times as if the “real” world has been used up, and all that remains is a vast netherworld of images. In vanguard circles, the dominant tendency is less to make new photographs than to use appropriate existing ones in an effort to grapple with a society that appears to be terminally saturated with images. The other route for photographers who want to be noticed in an increasingly frantic art world is to see how far they can push back the borders of the acceptable.

No one better exemplified that trend than the American Robert Mapplethorpe, who died earlier this year of AIDS, and who was, without any doubt, the most visible photographer of the decade. His subject matter ranged from impeccable still lifes of flowers to scenes that, in their polymorphous perversity, seem to have been taken from the last five minutes of the Roman Empire. Photography, which most people once thought of as a neutral window on the world, now appears more like the distorting mirror of our own perceptions. It may even be a distant early-warning system, telling us that the age of innocence is finally and irrevocably over.