What Is Photography ?

What is photography? You may as well ask ‘what is language’ as we learn our world visually from soon after birth & have formed a very coherent knowledge of it long before we learn language. Photography itself is a visual language and so intertwined with our lives that the majority of examples are taken for granted. Whether it be commercial, artistic or vernacular the edges of these categories are increasingly blurred especially in this internet-driven world where fashion borrows from news and commercial photography borrows from smartphone app aesthetics.

Henry Fox-Talbot hoped that the invention of photography would lead to a deeper truth and understanding of the world (at a time when the Victorians believed science would solve all the world’s ills and answer mankind’s deepest questions)  but today we realise that truth (and photographic truth in particular) is a negotiable concept. The problem with photography is our ability to read it objectively without bringing cultural, political or daytime ephemerality’s into influencing our opinions – opinions which we often try to impose upon our readings in the hope it will conform to our own truths. A lot of our cultural assumptions about photography’s abilities are left over from Victorian trends…even down to the act of ‘taking’ a photograph – it is a possessive act which enables us to keep the image & associated experience which can be collected and placed within a cabinet of curiosities to act as aide-memoires or to impress our friends or dinner guests.

In the introduction to his book Photography Changes Everything (2012), Marvin Heiferman posits that Photography changes the world in very specific ways :-

  • It re-enforces and teaches us desire; whether this is through advertising of products that we ‘must’ own or whether it is desire for another’s welfare or care
  • It’s technical capabilities allow us to physically see things beyond our own limited visual field; much as Fox-Talbot had hoped as it has allowed the fields of science to explore well beyond its former capacity
  • It teaches us how we should look and act (although this facet is more of a mill-stone than a boon) by setting up ‘idols’ to represent or re-inforce our self-image and stereotypical characteristics or being but as Susan Sontag mentions this also teaches us to fear the camera’s disapproving gaze. (“On Photography” Susan Sontag 1977)
  • “Photographic images shape how we communicate, learn, and interact”
  • It turns us into armchair explorers – giving us a fascination for places to see and experience for ourselves. Whether as tourist in our fascination for new experiences or as teachers that educate and inspire the next generation of explorers
  • And of course as aide-memoires it enables us to treasure those things that may slip through our memories. Although we must take care not are we create a culture of forgetfulness thanks to our reliance upon photographs to remember for us they also have the capacity to create and interfere with & trouble the memories we already have.

Lastly Heiferman notes that “while photography changes everything it also changes itself”.

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