April 26, 2017
It’s next time again. I’ve been thinking a lot about photography lately. Most of this is from the research I’ve done for a speech I’ll be giving to the Public Relations Society of America at the end of this month in, Corning, New York, at their North East Chapter annual conference. I was stopped in my tracks the other day by a simple statement of a profound idea from Elizabeth Edwards, a British scholar, who was discussing the history of photography. She said, “Photographs always contain more than the photographer intended.” As someone who spends a great deal of my life investing meaning into photographs in the films I make I felt the hair on the back of my neck horripilate as I thought about this amazing idea.
To ponder this concept you really have to step back out of the flow of what you witness every day. It is pretty much beyond the comprehension of any normal person. Maybe some of you can make sense out of this but I know it is far beyond my ability to fathom. Today 1.3 billion images will be uploaded to the internet. What?! I don’t have any clue what this means. I can maybe understand a smaller number thanks to a remarkable exhibition a few years ago by a very smart artist, Dutch Creative Director, Eric Kessels, who decided to print out one day’s upload to the photography site Flickr. This turned out to be a staggering (but minuscule in comparison) 35,000 images and he did installations in various venues, (churches, galleries, museums) of all these pictures just strewn about in giant piles so you could actually visualize how many images this really represents.
35,000 is a number I think I can understand. 1.3 billion I cannot. Today on Instagram alone it will be 80 million images uploaded generating 3.5 billion “likes” per day. Are you kidding me? I just cannot seem to wrap my mind around these gargantuan numbers and I have even more trouble trying to figure out what this means to the way we see the world? Do you share my astonishment?
So lets turn the telescope around and see if that helps at all. It doesn’t really help but, it is fun to try to imagine. I can’t quite do it, but I try to imagine a world before photography. You maybe think, like I did, that photography was invented by Louis Daguerre in 1838. We all know his name from the haunting Daguerreotypes that illustrate our American Civil War. Daguerre is a fascinating guy and it turns out the reason we know his name is because his first step was to take his invention to the French government. He wanted a government pension and he thought the French officials should treat his scientific discovery as the earth shattering big deal that he knew it would become. His sales pitch to the French Academy of Science and the French Academy of Fine Arts worked. He got his pension and the French embraced photography through official channels long before other countries got on board.
I was talking about this with my dear friend Abe Frajndlich (who is a great photographer) and he corrected me before I could finish saying Daguerreotype. He pointed me to another French innovator, Nicéphore Niépce, who made a photograph eleven years before Daguerre. Turns out they worked together but Niépce died just a few years after this image was created and he never got to see the impact of all his innovative work. This image has the dreamy look of a cubist painting. In our photo-saturated brains this image “clicks” for very few of us. But here is the thing, photography from Niépce and Daguerre were unique, they were one of a kind. They were like individual paintings. One offs. It took the Brits to develop the negative and paper printing technologies that allowed for the mass dissemination of photography. It is one of those combination of technology stories where powerful innovations collide, obtain critical mass, blows up the world and changes life as we know it.
The British technology took one negative and made lots of copies. Combine this technology with new advances in printing and you get the explosion of imagery that transformed our worlds. Another scholar, Simon Schaefer from the University of Oxford explained that photography was like the “big data” of the 1850’s. He said that by the 1850’s photography had “penetrated into every aspect of society.” This means everything; Science, Medicine, Family, Criminal Justice, Entertainment, all of these and more, forever transformed in a period of about 15 years. What a statement! What is the equivalent for us? Probably the cell phone or the internet. Hard to imagine what we did before those showed up as ubiquitous essentials in our lives.
One of the first early uses of photography was portraiture. In the 1840’s a portrait cost £300 (about $500). This was a lot of money in 1840. By 1900, thanks to KODAK you could buy a camera and 100 pictures for twenty-five bucks. Their simple box camera reminds me of an revelation I should have had years ago. Why didn’t I realize where the word for what we call a camera comes from? I’m embarrassed to say I only just put together that the Italian word for “room” is, of course, camera.
The box (or the room) is the Camera Obscura. This is the natural phenomenon where, under the right lighting conditions, a pinhole in a wall or blacked out window will project an upside down image on the far wall. KODAK’s box is actually a very small room refining the same technique with a lens to make the image sharper. The challenge was to find a way to preserve the image through a chemical process. This was the elusive miracle engineered by the early innovators like Niépce and Daguerre. By 1900 the once astonishing had become everyday. Leave it to a brilliant photographer like Abelardo Morell (above) to revitalize the camera obscura technique with magical fine art photographs which express the wonderment all over again. He is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery of NY.
In further researching my presentation I came across the work of Eugene Richards who is a photo journalist and works for Magnum. His work is like fine art to me. He is quoted in the New York Times talking about the deluge of images we navigate every day. “I’m sure people are getting fed up. In my own head, there’s a huge over-saturation of images. For a long time I never expected myself to feel tired of seeing so much.”
So what would you trade? Would you rather have the 80 million photographs uploaded to Instagram today or one exquisite Eugene Richards photograph like his iconic image of an impoverished young girl holding the head of a doll? For collectors, they fully realize the genius of the quote above about the photograph always containing more than the photographer intended. When you live with a great photograph, like any work of art, you hopefully see and experience new revelations as the image becomes a part of your life.
Eugene Richards is articulate and enigmatic about this. He used the image of the little girl with the doll as the cover of the book he did about his work about poverty in Arkansas but has become uncomfortable about the meanings read into the photograph as it has become famous. He said, “It’s still not my favorite picture. And it embarrasses me because I never intended it to be an iconic image. I’ve come to dislike — it sounds strange — iconic images because they hide so much. Eddie Adams’s Saigon execution picture is a naturally great antiwar statement, but it wasn’t his intention.”
Until next time. . .