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Photography: A Critical Introduction


Photography: A Critical Introduction Thinking About Photography What is this lecture about? Debates and key writings on photography. Changing ideas about photography. – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Photography: A Critical Introduction

Photography A Critical Introduction
  • Thinking About Photography

  • What is this lecture about?
  • Debates and key writings on photography.
  • Changing ideas about photography.
  • Some history considered alongside art history,
    theory, and cultural history.
  • Divided into four sections
  • Aesthetics and Technologies
  • Contemporary Debates
  • Photography and Social History
  • Histories of Photography

Part 1 Aesthetics and Technologies
  • Photography was hailed as a great technological
  • Became the subject of debates concerning its
    aesthetic status and social uses
  • New machinery is normally presented as the agent
    of social change, not as the outcome of a desire
    for such change.

  • Particular cultures invest in and develop new
    machines and technologies in order to satisfy
    social change
  • Photography is one such example

  • Why did photography become an active field of
    research during the 1800s?
  • Expanding middle-class demand for portraiture
    outstripped available painted means

  • Once a technology exists, it may become adapted
    and introduced into social use in a variety of
    both foreseen and unforeseen ways!

  • Art or Technology?
  • The fight to certify photography as a fine art
    has been among the mediums dominant
    philosophical preoccupations since its inception.
  • Photographys legitimacy as an art form was
    challenged by artists and critics who seized upon
    the mechanical and chemical aspects of the
    photographic process as proof that photography
    was, at best, a craft.
  • Often called a handmaiden to the arts.

  • Photographers responded in two main ways
  • Accepted that photography was something different
    from art and sought to discover what the
    intrinsic properties of the medium were.
  • Pointed out that photography was more than a
    mechanical form of image-making, that it could be
    worked on and contrived so as to produced
    pictures which in some ways resembled paintings.

  • To prove that photography was indeed an art,
    photographers at first imitated the paintings of
    the time.
  • Blurring of images to achieve a painterly
    softness of line for example.

Julia Margaret Cameron
  • Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 79) is recognized
    as a pioneer of photography and one of the great
    portrait photographers of all time.
  • Cameron's sophisticated use of lighting,
    selective focus and literary allusion resulted in
    a powerful portrayal of Victorian womanhood.

  • In the other camp, photographers were interested
    in photographys ability to provide apparently
    accurate records of the visual world.
  • Referred to as straight photography.

Paul Strand
  • Straight photography refers to photography that
    attempts to depict a scene as realistically and
    objectively as permitted by the medium, forsaking
    the use of manipulation both pre-exposure (e.g.,
    filters, lens coatings, soft focus) and
    post-exposure (e.g., unusual developing and
    printing methods).

  • The power of the photograph was demonstrated in
    1872 with what was referred to as documentary

  • Born in Keeseville, New York, on April 4, 1843,
    William Henry Jackson was a self-taught artist
    who, at the age of 15, was working as a retoucher
    in a photographer's studio.
  • He was successful in this pursuit and later
    moved to a more prosperous studio in Rutland,
    Vermont. He honed his artist's skills with the
    retouching work, but also learned a great deal
    about the young art of photography, a skill that
    would stand him in good stead later in life.

  • During the summer of 1869, Jackson began
    photographing the construction along the new
    Union Pacific Railroad.
  • His work came to the attention of Ferdinand
    Hayden who was organizing a geologic survey to
    explore the mysterious lands known as
    Yellowstone, and he was asked to accompany the
  • As a result, William Henry Jackson became the
    first photographer to successfully capture the
    wonders of Yellowstone on film.
  • Jackson's photographs were an important factor in
    convincing Congress to establish Yellowstone as
    the first national park in the U.S. in 1872.

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  • Photography and the Modern
  • Photography was a major carrier and shaper of
  • Modernism is a cultural movement that generally
    includes the progressive art and architecture,
    music, literature, and design which emerged in
    the decades before 1914.
  • It was a movement of artists and designers who
    rebelled against late 19th century academic and
    historicist traditions, and embraced the new
    economic, social and political aspects of the
    emerging modern world.

  • Photography included access to visual information
    about the past and detail over and above that
    normally noted by the human eye.
  • During the 1920s and 1930s, the putative
    political power of photography and its status as
    the most important modern form of communication
    were at their height.

  • The Postmodern
  • It is an important, and much contested
    philosophical term, which emerged in the mid
  • New forms of social organization emerged.
  • In the early 1980s, the role of the photograph
    underwent a fundamental change. Although the Pop
    Art and Conceptual Art of the 1960s and 1970s had
    begun to make use of photograph in artistic
    expression, it was in the 1980s that it was
    moulded into a postmodernist tool thus breaking
    new ground for visual artists.

  • The objectivity of the photograph and its weight
    as evidence were no longer regarded as a fact.
    The meaning of a work and its interpretation was
    increasingly often bound up with the context in
    which it was shown and how it was displayed.
  • Young visual artists in particular were
    fascinated by the way the photograph destroyed
    the traditional status of art and artist
    associated with modernism a photograph could be
    copied endlessly, and its size and presentation
    could be altered.

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  • Photography has always been caught up in new
    technologies and played a central part in the
    making of the modern world
  • People have a loss of confidence in the medium
    because of the ease with which images are altered
    and presented as accurate records

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Part 2 Contemporary Debates
  • All discussions of photographs rest upon some
    notion of the nature of the photograph and how it
    acquires meaning.
  • Two strands of theoretical discussion have
    featured in recent debates about photography
  • Theoretical approaches premised on the
    relationship of the image to reality.
  • The importance of the interpretation of the image
    by focusing upon the reading, rather than the
    taking, of photographic representations.

  • Modern Western philosophy, from the eighteenth
    century onwards has been a positivist approach to
    research in the sciences and the social sciences
    and photography has been centrally implicated as
    a recording tool.

  • Photography Theory
  • Difficulty in establishing photographic theory
  • Lies at the cusp of the scientific, the social
    scientific, and the humanities
  • As such, contemporary debates are divergent
  • Up until 1980s, photographic theory within
    education had been taken to refer to technologies
    and techniques such as optics, colour
    temperature, optimum developer heat, etc.
  • In essence, theory related to the craft of

  • Victor Burgin (1982)
  • Argued that photography theory must be
  • Only photography criticism existed.
  • Warns against confusing photographic theory with
    a general theory of culture.

  • Critical Reflections on Realism
  • A number of critics have focused on the realist
    properties of the image.
  • Susan Sontag wrote a book called On
  • Discussed photographs as traces of reality and
    interrogated photography in terms of the extent
    to which the image reproduces reality.
  • A series of interconnected essays.
  • Emphasized the idea of the photograph as a means
    of freezing a moment in time.

  • Her book is an attempt at a sweeping critique of
    everything photographic.
  • Her interests range widely from detailed analyses
    of individual photographers to why people fear
    having their photographs taken from historical
    development in photographic equipment to why
    people take pictures of any and everything
    tourist to scientist, artist to technician,
    surveillance photography to medical examinations.
  • The debate about whether photography is an art or
    a tool weaves its way in and out of the various

  • Sontags discussion veers between the reasons for
    taking photographs and the uses to which they are
  • To collect photographs is to collect the world.
  • Sontag sees that photography, leveling
    everything, also beautifies. Let the subject be
    what it will - pollution, death, war
    photography will tend to make it look
    aesthetically pleasing.
  • The image is fundamental to the cultural impact
    of the camera.

  • Mary Price (1994)
  • In her book, The Photograph A Strange, Confined
    Space, argues that the meaning of the
    photographic image is primarily determined
    through associated verbal description and the
    context in which the photograph is used.
  • No single meaning of a photograph.

  • Theory, Criticism, Practice
  • What has all this got to do with making
  • 19th century desire for empirical evidence
  • Criteria for what makes a good photograph
  • Key point is that theoretical assumptions founded
    in varying academic fields, from the scientific
    to the philosophic and the aesthetic intersect to
    inform both the making and the interpretation of
    visual imagery

  • Photography criticism similar to other fields of
    the arts, evaluating work in relation to
    established traditions and practices
  • At worst, criticism masks personal opinion with
    the overall aim of impressing readers

Case Study The Migrant Mother
  • 1936
  • Working for Farm Security Administration
  • Stopped on road to investigate group of people
    employed to pick peas
  • This photo, one of many, became the most
    reproduced image in the history of photography.

  • A number of differing approaches may be used to
    analyze photographs, each model reflects its own
    particular concerns and priorities
  • Viewed primarily as social or historical evidence
  • Investigated in relation to the intentions of the
    photographer and the particular context of its
  • Related to politics and ideology
  • Assessed through reference to process and
  • Considered in terms of aesthetics and traditions
    of representation in art
  • Discussed in relation to class, race, and gender
  • Analyzed through reference to psychoanalysis
  • Decoded as a semiotic text

  • The Photograph as Testament
  • Why is it this image which has become so famous?
  • Compelling presence of the woman
  • Central position of the mother
  • Absence of the father
  • Direction of the look
  • Direction of the children
  • All add to emotional and sentimental register
  • Woman viewed as a symbol

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  • The Photographers Account
  • Was not interested in name or history
  • Took a series of shoots
  • Implied that the pictures might help her so she
    helped the photographer
  • 50 years later said she did not receive a single

  • Genre and Usage
  • FSA was documentary but released photos for other
  • Lange had no control over usage of photo and not
    control over if it was retouched
  • One principle of documentary aesthetic was that
    no photograph should be retouched

  • Image in Context
  • FSA project a response to economic crisis of 1929
    and depression of the 1930s
  • Aimed to document and record the position of the
  • Photographers favoured works that stressed the
    depiction of human destitution and distress and
    were clearly political

  • Image-Text
  • Titled Migrant Mother
  • Title and organization of photo are key elements
    of its appeal
  • Same picture captioned in 1965 read Seasonal Farm
    Labourers Family, not as powerful

  • Aesthetics and Art History
  • Concerned with composition, subject-matter, and
    organization of pictorial elements and
  • Many of Langes prints were poor
  • Many art historians commented that image is
    related to many paintings of the Madonna and
    Child in Western Art

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  • As Gendered Image
  • Number of feminist photohistorians have looked at
    the FSA in terms of participation of women
    photographers and the gendering of the image

  • Reading the Photograph
  • In 1960s and 1970s, images were read as cultural,
    psychoanalytic and ideological signs
  • Centers on the female body, the body that is
    socially constructed through the gaze
  • Children turned heads (shame or shyness?)
  • Arm up to indicated tentative thought

  • Image as Icon
  • Image entered Western consciousness
  • Part of iconic power is from multiple appearances
    over the years and in other forms

Part 3 Photography and Social History
  • Popular photography is increasingly used as
    social-historical evidence.
  • Visual anthropology.
  • Photographs are commonly used as evidence and
    used to investigate the past.
  • Photography was used throughout the 19th century
    in the service of political and industrial change.

  • Landscape photography used for civil and military
    mapping purposes.
  • Many ways in which photographs can be read and
    understood and we often rarely see photographs in
    their original state
  • Advertising for example
  • Context influences our perception
  • Artistic nude versus one in questionable magazine

Part 4 The History of Photography The Early
Years Beginnings - 1841
  • Architecture and Still Life
  • Architecture is built into early photography and
    helps frame a discussion of how this
    revolutionary image-making system was invented
  • Still lifes stood still for the long exposures
    required by photography in its infancy
  • Nature morte photographs are far from dead

  • It may seem strange but cameras existed long
    before photography. It had been observed as far
    back as the 5th Century BC that an image of the
    outside scene was formed by sunlight shining
    through a small hole into a darkened room.
  • Mo-Ti (5th Century philosopher) called this room
    a collecting place.
  • Camera Obscura means darkened room

  • Greek Philosophers (Aristotle) described the
    basic principles of optics and the camera obscura
    during his life (384-322 BC).
  • 10th century Arabian scholar Alhazen described
    the effect in detail and told how to view an
    eclipse of the sun in a camera obscura (dark
  • Camera means room in latin

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  • In 1490 Leonardo Da Vinci gave two clear
    descriptions of the camera obscura in his
  • By the time of the Renaissance (15th Century), a
    lens had been fitted into the hole to improve the
  • Many of the first camera obscuras were large
    rooms like that illustrated by the Dutch
    scientist Reinerus Gemma-Frisius in 1544 for use
    in observing a solar eclipse.

  • In 1666, Isaac Newton demonstrated that light is
    the source of colour. He used a prism to split
    sunlight into its constituent colours and another
    to recombine them to make white light.

  • The term "camera obscura" was first used by the
    German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the early
    17th century. He used it for astronomical
    applications and had a portable tent camera for
    surveying in Upper Austria.
  • The development of the camera obscura took two
    tracks. One of these led to the portable box
    device that was a drawing tool.

  • The other track became the camera obscura room, a
    combination of education and entertainment.
  • In the 19th century, with improved lenses that
    could cast larger and sharper images, the camera
    obscura flourished at the seaside and in areas of
    scenic beauty.

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  • Device also was size of a small box by this time
  • It had become a drawing aid used by artists
  • What remained was a way to fix the camera obscura
    image permanently

  • In 1802, Wedgwood, an amateur scientist,
    presented a Paper on his experiments in
    photography to the Royal Institution.
  • He hoped to be able to mass-produce photographic
    images on porcelain for his business. 

  • He sponged nitrate of silver onto paper, wood and
    leather, which he exposed to light through an
    image of a painting on glass. 
  • He was able to produce an images, with particular
    success on leather, though he did not know why
    the leather worked so well.  In fact it was
    because the leather contained tannic acid, which
    had properties similar to gallic acid, used in
    later years in photography.

  • However  Wedgewood was unable to fix his images
    to make them permanent.
  • He concluded that  there was no future in

  • Joseph Niépce began his photographic experiments
    in 1816, and became the first person to produce a
    permanent photograph in 1826. 
  • It was produced using his camera obscura.

  • Joseph Niépce experimented with silver chloride
    which he knew darkened on exposure to light but
    then turned to a kind of asphalt that hardened
    when exposed to light
  • Placed sheet in camera obscura and exposed image
    for eight hours and got permanent print
    (heliography or sun drawing)

View from the Window at Le Gras (Gernsheim
Collection, University of Texas at Austin). By
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1827. This is the first
known photograph.
  • Louis Daguerre wrote to Niépce and became his
  • Daguerre perfected his process in 1839 and called
    it the daguerreotype (under 30 minutes to expose)
  • The Daguerreotype photograph, discovered by
    Daguerre was a delicate single image produced on
  • Daguerre eventually discovered a more permanent
    and clear method of exposing images, and his
    procedure was given as a gift to the world by the
    French government in 1839.
  • Daguerrotypes took Europe and the United States
    by storm, preserving memories for thousands
    around the world.

Photography took over what previously had been
one of the main functions of art the recording
of factual visual information
  • At the same time Daguerre published his process,
    an Englishman named William Henry Fox Talbot was
    perfecting his own procedure of photography, the
    first direct predecessor of today's method.
  • Talbot created the basic negative/positive
    process, which today enables multiple prints to
    be created from a single negative.
  • His process, called the calotype, eventually
    gained predominance over the daguerrotype.
  • This became the basis for photography over the
    next 150 years and beyond.
  • Patented his Calotype process in 1841

Reduced exposure to 5 minutes.
  • 1840 - Wolcott was an American Daguerreotype
    photographer and instrument maker. He is
    particularly remembered for having invented a
    camera which, instead of a lens, had inside it a
    large concave mirror which reflected intense
    light on to the plate, thus greatly lessening the
    required exposure time.
  • It also had another advantage for Daguerreotype
    photographers in that the image was no longer
    laterally reversed. The disadvantage was that the
    size of the pictures were limited to 2 square