Photography in the Nineteenth Century – A Catalyst For Change

Photography appeared on the cultural scene only a few decades prior to the Industrial Revolution, a time in history during which many traditional ways of seeing and living were being displaced by new technology and increasingly rapid and disembodied modes of thought. With this modern world came an increasing public acceptance of mediated environments and mediated forms of perception.

While oil paintings had been around for centuries, they were, due to their expensive and labor-intensive nature, largely confined to the upper classes. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century and the appearance of daguerrotypes and calotypes, most people had little access to manufactured images in their daily lives.

Photography, Primitivism, Modernism

As photography and other forms of industrialisation spread throughout society, symbolic and mythological modes of thought began to be transformed into world views which placed primary importance on “truth” and accuracy. M.A. Root, in The Camera and the Pencil, makes reference to the “absolute truth” which was being sought through the use of photographic technology.

Seen from this literalist perspective, the interior, highly symbolic thought ways of traditional peoples came to be seen as backward, superstitious, and “primitive” by modern society. In comparison to these convoluted and historically based ways, photography was fast, exact, uncompromising, and uncomplicated, and thus held great appeal to a population intent on escaping the shackles of the past.

Little thought was given to the new shackles which would be introduced by a world view simultaneously dedicated to speed and novelty and to holding on to things which formerly were accepted as momentary and impermanent. What is photography if not the embodiment of the mind-set which wishes to hold on forever, to stop time? Today, this reality is so embedded in our consciousness that, when seeing a beautiful scene sans ubiquitous apparatus, a modern will often, rather than submerging themselves in the momentary pleasure, be heard to cry “Oh, I wish I had a camera!”

Photography and Cultural Change

Photography appeared at that moment in history when the human mind was uprooting itself from its embedded place in an eternal past/present and turning towards a future with hope and even longing, seeing for itself a godlike status within the hierarchy of the natural order. Within the photograph, in the words of Graham Clarke in What is a Photograph?, “history is sealed, so to speak, in a continuous present.”

A “primitive” mind, given its lack of self consciousness and acceptance of what lay before it moment to moment, would not have had any use for photography, or for the society of the spectacle. We have become a world of scopophiliacs, commodifying the three dimensional reality which surrounds us and transforming it into a controllable substance, one which is more compatible with our economic system than is wild nature.

As is the case with most successful technologies, photography has come to affect the society which created it and to re-form the reality within which it exists. Thus the world we live in is different from the world into which photography was introduced, in the sense that, just as a tree will grow around a spike or fence which has been attached to it, so our world has reformed around and been transformed by the introduction of this technology.