Brain Pickings

100 Ideas That Changed Photography

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From the camera obscura to the iPhone, or why photography is an art of continuous reinvention.

Earlier this year, British publisher Laurence King brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Now comes 100 Ideas That Changed Photography (public library) — an equally concise and intelligent chronicle of the most seminal developments in the history of today’s most prevalent visual art. From technical innovations like the cyanotype (#12), the advent of color (#23), the Polaroid (#84), and moving pictures (#20) to paradigms like photojournalism (#66) and fabrication (#93) to new ways of looking at the world like aerial photography (#54), micro/macro (#55), and stopping time (#49), each of the ideas is accompanied by a short essay contextualizing its history and significance.

Syracuse University fine art professor Mary Warner Marien writes in the introduction:

Before it materialized as the camera and lens, photography was an idea. The desire to make a special kind of representation, originating in the object itself, is as old as humankind. It appears in the stencil paintings of hands in prehistoric art. In Western culture, the legend of the Corinthian woman who traced the shadow of her lover on a wall before he departed for war has evolved into an origin story for figurative art and, in the 1840s, for photography. Soon after the medium was disclosed to the world in 1839, the word ‘facsimile’ was adapted to describe the photograph’s unprecedented authenticity. Samuel F. B. Morse observed that a photograph could not be called a copy, but was a portion of nature itself. That notion, which persisted throughout the nineteenth century, found new life in the late twentieth-century language theory, in which the photograph was characterized as an imprint or transfer of the real, like a fingerprint.

Marien goes on to illuminate the history of photography alongside the parallel history of innovations in science and technology, as well as social and cultural developments across philosophy, politics, and aesthetics.

IDEA # 1: THE CAMERA OBSCURA

When Christian Gobrecht illustrated the workings of a camera obscura for Abraham Rees’s The Cyclopedia or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature (1805-22), he was careful to show how the device created an inverted image.

IDEA # 2: THE LATENT IMAGE

The latent image was coaxed from the daguerreotype plate by being exposed to mercury fumes in a so-called 'bath' like this one.

IDEA # 4: NEGATIVE/POSITIVE

The negative formed the basis of photography until the digital age. It is based on the reversal of dark and light tone.

IDEA # 9: THE LENS

Specially designed weights or impromptu inventions were attached to the shutter to create timed lens exposures.

IDEA # 12: CYANOTYPE

The cyanotype allowed builders and engineers to create durable and detailed drawings.

IDEA # 12: CYANOTYPE

Anna Atkins was one of the first scientists to use the cyanotype to record delicate specimens, as in Himanthalia lorea, from her 1843 book on algae.

IDEA # 13: COLLODION

Photographers who used the collodion process had to process their glass plates before and after exposure. They brought a portable darkroom and sometimes employed assistants to help.

IDEA # 27: CARTES DE VISITE

Disdéri’s multiple portraits of a ballet dancer is entitled Petipa (c. 1862), for the renowned French dance master and choreographer. Performers and public figures often had cartes de visite made in great numbers, which they either gave away or sold.

IDEA # 46: PROJECTION

In 1925, the French children’s magazine Le Petit Inventeur captured the wonder of projected images.

IDEA # 56: THE PEOPLE'S ART

For the cover of a 1929 issue of the German publication The Worker Photographer, Ernst Thormann chose a close-up of a Roma child.

IDEA # 56: THE PEOPLE'S ART

In this anonymous early Kodak snapshot from about 1888, the maker’s shadow is clearly visible on the lower left side.

IDEA # 77: THE SELF-PORTRAIT

In her 1896 Self-Portrait (as New Woman) successful Washington, D.C. photographer and business owner, Frances Benjamin Johnston, poses cross-legged, as a man might do, while holding a cigarette and a beer stein.

Ultimately, what emerges from 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, besides the fascinating historical perspective, is an underlying message that our present-day fears about the alleged affronts to photography are misplaced, oblivious to the perpetually evolving heart of the art of recording light. As Marien puts it:

While it may seem that a new photo technology is born every day, photography is still what we make it, not what it makes us.

Images and captions courtesy of Laurence King

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