Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

24 OCTOBER, 2012

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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23 OCTOBER, 2012

Faking It: A Visual History of 150 Years of Image Manipulation Before Photoshop

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Two-headed daguerreotypes, Dadaist photomontages, and how the subversion of optical reality got its start.

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” Susan Sontag famously asserted in On Photography. But in the quarter century since, the rise of digital photography and image manipulation software has increasingly transmogrified the photographer into a constructor of reality, a reality in which believing is seeing. Still, image manipulation dates much further back — in fact, to the dawn of photography itself. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (public library), the companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of the same title, traces the evolution of image manipulation from the 1840s to the 1990s, when computer software first began to revolutionize the alteration of photographs.

Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dirigible Docked on Empire State Building, New York (Unidentified American artist, 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Powerful Collision (Unidentified German artist, 1914)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

These images — artful, subversive, unapologetic in their unreality — serve sometimes to amuse and entertain, sometimes to deliberately deceive, sometimes to comment on social and political issues, and always to give pause with how they tease and taunt our assumptions of optical reality and visual representation.

Met curator Mia Fineman writes in the introduction:

Over the past twenty years, photography has undergone a dramatic transformation. Mechanical cameras and silver-based film have been replaced by electronic image sensors and microchips; instead of shuffling through piles of glossy prints, we stare at the glowing screens of laptops, tablets, and mobile phones; negative enlargers and chemical darkrooms have given way to personal computers and image-processing software. Digital cameras and applications such as Photoshop have create, look at, and think about photographs. Among the most profound cultural effects of these new technologies has been a heightened awareness of the malleability of the photographic image and a corresponding loss of faith in photography as an accurate, trustworthy means of representing the visual world. As viewers, we have become increasingly savvy, even habitually skeptical, about photography’s claims to truth.

The Vision (Orpheus Scene) (F. Holland Day, 1907)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Aberdeen Portraits No. 1 (George Washington Wilson, 1857)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fading Away (Henry Peach Robinson, 1858)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922 (Unidentified Russian artist, 1949)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as Artist and Model (Maurice Guibert, ca. 1900)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Man Juggling His Own Head (Unidentified French artist, Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. ca. 1880)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two-Headed Man (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Room with Eye (Maurice Tabard, 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hearst Over the People (Barbara Morgan, 1939)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar / Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home (Grete Stern, 1948)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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28 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Ways of Seeing: John Berger’s Classic 1972 BBC Critique of Consumer Culture

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Gender roles, the elusive promises of advertising, and what oil painting has to do with the publicity machine.

Forty years ago this year, BBC premiered a series of four 30-minute films written and anchored by art critic and author John Berger. Soon adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing (public library) went on to become a landmark postmodernist critique of Western cultural aesthetics, exploring not only how visual culture came to dominate society but also how ideologies are created and transmitted via images — a subject of pressing timeliness in that golden age of photography.

In the third episode of the series, Berger looks at oil painting and its formative role in the creation of consumer culture, showing that paintings are, before anything else, objects to be bought and sold, and admonishing that “we should be somewhat wary of a love of art”:

Berger writes in the book:

Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself. There are several reasons why these images use the language of oil painting.

Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.

The final installment in the series explores the world of advertising and its perpetual promise of an even-elusive alternative way of life, depicted through a language of words and images that never cease to seduce us.

This series began by considering the tradition of the European oil painting. It has ended by us looking at publicity images today. Because I believe that, in many respects, these images continue that tradition. I’ve been critical of many things in that tradition, of our culture, of some of the values which it celebrates, and I’ve illustrated my arguments by using the modern means of reproduction. But, finally, what I’ve show and what I’ve said, like everything else that is shown or said through these means of reproduction, must be judged against your own experience.

But one of Berger’s most memorable and lasting contributions is the discussion of how media culture shapes gender politics and woman as object. Though the series was produced four decades ago — shortly after the Good Girls Revolt, a time of tectonic shifts for women’s rights — and much has changed since, it remains a priceless piece of cultural anthropology, as well as a stark reminder of how deep-seated some of our cultural conditioning is, and how much more is still to change if we are to transcend those burdensome bequests:

To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Ways of Seeing is part The Century of the Self, part Christ to Coke: How Image Became Icon, and wholly recommended in its entirety.

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