Even so, many of the photos we remember so well, the ones that symbolized a time and a place in our world, often were moments captured by still photography. When I began my career in journalism as a photojournalist, black and white was still the standard, and newspapers and many magazines were still publishing many photo-pages with minimal copy, stories told through photographs.
Photographs standing alone, with bare cutlines, carrying the story themselves often have been dropped in favor of more artistic solutions to story-telling: using photography as part of an overall design, along with drawings, headlines, graphics, other tools. It seems photography has fallen often into the realm of just another design tool. Photography is driven by technology, always has been.
Because, more than any other visual art, photography is built around machines and, at least until recently, chemistry. By the s photojournalists were already shooting mostly color, and seldom making actual prints, but use computer technology to scan film directly into the design. And by the beginning of the new millennium, photojournalists were no longer using film: digital photography had become universal, both faster and cheaper in an industry preoccupied with both speed and profit.
Color became the standard for "legacy media," newspapers and magazines, as well as for web news sites. Because color printing technology requires a higher quality image, photojournalists have had to adapt their methods to accept fewer available light images. Too, most publications are looking for eye-grabbing color, not necessary in black and white, and color demands correction to avoid greenish or orangeish casts from artificial light. All of this has meant photojournalists, even with the most sophisticated new cameras, are sometimes returning to the methods of their ancestors, carefully setting up lights, posing their subjects.
You will often find, if you compare published photography today to that to 25 years ago, many fewer candid photos, less spontaneity, fewer feature photos of people grabbed at work or doing something outside. In fact, more and more, the subject is award of the camera, just as they were before the s, the beginning of the age of the quest for naturalism in photojournalism. You'll also find that the quality of the image has gone up, better lighting, sharper focus, and lush color, especially primary colors. Is photojournalism better today than it was in the black and white days?
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I think not, but it depends on what you like. Perhaps still photojournalism is not as important to society today, does not have the general impact of television, and its sometimes gritty "you are there" images bounced off satellite. Still, even with all our space-age technology, if I ask you to remember an image that for you defined a certain event, chances are you'd remember a still photograph.
For instance, think Tiananmen Square in China, and you'd possibly recall the man facing down tanks. Think Gulf War, and you may recall the wounded soldier crying over a comrade. Think Vietnam War, and the execution of a Vietcong, or girl napalm victim. The single image still holds some defining power in our society. The invention of photography was received in Europe by a frenzy of enthusiasm, even a surprising amount.
Perhaps because it was an idea that people were primed and ready for. We have in photography a combination of science and art to produce a perfect, as they thought then, a perfect rendition of a scene or person. We can understand why people of the age were so taken with the with this idea when we reflect that in the s the machine age was already in full swing.
Science was leading to new and better inventions, and the machine was thought to be the great answer to all the world's problems. Western people worshipped science, and photography was a product of scientific experiment or, if you will, chemical and optical experiment. In the world of art, at this time too, the great goal of most artists was realism. That is, artists were trying their best to paint pictures as close in detail to reality as they could. The mechanism of the camera for photography, however, was actually very old. A device called a camera obscura latin for dark room widely employed by artists and amateur drawers alike.
In fact, such a devices are still used today. They rely on a lens or, in the case of a large box, a pinhole, to transmit a view of the scene in front of it.
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This view is reflected off a mirror onto a white surface or ground glass. Artists may place a piece of tracing paper on the surface, and rough out the drawing in two-dimensional format. By this method they only have to spend a little time in the field or with a live subject to get the general proportions. Then they can return to the studio to finish. For early nineteenth century travelers, who wanted to draw things they saw, as was the fashion, a camera obscure could be particularly useful, for those who could not draw very well from nature.
The machine was able to get the three-dimensional perspective right, because it reduced reality to contours that could be traced. If you've tried to draw from nature, you know how hard it really is to reduce a three-dimensional shape to a two-dimensional line. The first people who contemplated possibilities of photography, then, were artists. Then it could be returned to the study and consulted for copying. The key was, how to make the image stay? Since the s chemists were aware of various substances which turned black or dark when light hit them. Curious, but no one thought it was worth much.
Of course, the darkness would fade or be gone with the shaking of the solution. His idea was to record an image on a metal plate, and then etch it for printing. In , he took a camera obscura, pointed it at a courtyard, and managed to make a permanent exposure of it. It took eight hours.
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He called it a heliograph, the first recorded picture using light-sensitive materials. He wrote a cautious letter to Daguerre, wanting to know about the process, and finally, they decided to form a partnership in He used vapor of mercury and salt. After eleven more years of experimenting, Daguerre perfected his process: a sheet of copper was coated with a thin layer of silver. The silver was made sensitive to light with iodine vapor.
It was exposed in a camera, then vapor of mercury was used to bring out an image. Finally that image was fixed with a salt solution, common table salt. The process was radically different from the chemically based photo process used until digital techniques began in the late s, its chemicals highly toxic and dangerous. But it worked, and worked very well, offering exquisite detail matching the best of what we can produce even a century and a half later. In early Daguerre tried to attract investors to his process, but could find few.
Daguerre, however, had to promise not to patent the process in France, and he eventually did. In Arago and Daguerre announced the process to the world. Arago's public relations efforts and Daguerre's energetic promotion helped the daguerreotype, as it was called, to take the world by storm. Everyone was talking about it within days. Exposures, at first nearly 20 minutes, were in reduced to 30 seconds with the use of bromide, and faster lenses, able to gather more light.
Those first 20 minute exposures were so long that subjects might get sunburned--direct sunlight only was bright enough to expose the plates. And sitting perfectly still that long was a terrible ordeal, sometimes requiring head braces.
But it was okay to blink--exposure was so slow that it didn't register. And people didn't mind sitting through it--after all, a photograph was like a kind of immortality! And, for the first time, people could really record how they looked at a certain age, giving society a new appreciation for the unsettling differences between our visage at 20 and Daguerreotypes immediately became the rage in Paris.
Everyone wanted their photo taken.
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But some people wore worried, too--artists. At first, when photography was announced, artists were somewhat optimistic. Finally they had a way to fix an image of the camera obscure to bring it back to the study for painting. Daguerre himself had been an artist, and most of the original inventors of photography had intended it as an artists' tool--not as an artistic medium in its own right.
However, as photography caught on, artists began to realize that it was going to prove to be a real menace to their livelihood as portrait painters. Particularly painters of miniatures, a business that dropped to zero almost overnight as daguerreotypists were able to hand-color their photographs. More unsettling, artists had lost the centuries-old battle for more and more detail, more and more realism.
And lost it to a machine that could produce detail far beyond any artist. Artists realized that photography was not going to stay in the role that they had hoped, merely a copying aid. Everyone who was anyone wanted his portrait on a daguerreotype, and the little plate was much cheaper than a painting.
Artists, nevertheless, used photographs as aids to their own painting, often photographing a scene or a face to save time, and returned to the studio to paint it. No one would call photography an "art," however. Many artists declared that the upstart was vulgar and mechanical, and some would not admit to using it at all.
Photographers, on the other hand, more and more argued that photography was an art. That debate raged well into the twentieth century and indeed still sometimes greets photographers today.
The History of Photography
More than once, when I was more actively entering photographs in juried art shows, the rules would state "no photography. Nevertheless, in the next 30 years, painters either consciously or unconsciously were strongly influenced in their use of lighting, in composition, in depiction of movement, by photography.
Photography brought the philosophy of art to crisis, which ended with artists turning away from the centuries-old quest for realism--which photographers had won--toward a new goal, to paint feelings, interpretations, abstractions, and not necessarily what was there. Photography motivated the beginnings of the twentieth century's non-representational and abstract art. After Daguerre and Arago announced the new process, a man in England became worried.
His name, William Henry Fox Talbot , a wealthy gent with much time for experimenting and, like Daguerre, an accomplished artist. The Photographic Archive is one of the treasures of Morrab Library. Run by a team of volunteers, it is open to the general public, at no charge, every Thursday morning.
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