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.
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