How photography became ‘dominant form of recording the world’

MOST of us give up painting or sculpting when we leave the art classes of grade school, and aside from participation in church choirs or garage bands, most of us eventually leave making music to professionals. There is one art form, however, in which most Americans (and, I suspect, most humans) participate – photography.

In “A Chronology of Photography” photojournalist Paul Lowe and his contributors detail the medium’s swift progression from the purview of the scientists who invented it (noted astronomer John Herschel coined the term “photograph” in 1839, combining the Greek words for “light” and “drawing”) to its adoption by entrepreneurs who established thousands of photographic studios to meet the growing demand among members of the middle class for images of themselves, something previously available only to the wealthy.

In the decade following its invention, Lowe notes, “photography rapidly established itself as the dominant form of recording the world,” and its dominance has increased ever since, with an estimated 1.3 trillion images taken in 2017 alone.

But there were also artists who used the medium as more than a simple recording device, producing images that can only be termed fine art. Louis Daguerre had been a painter and architect before inventing the photographic process that bears his name, and a haunting still life of objects in his studio is the earliest known example of a daguerreotype.

The equipment for early non-commercial photography was generally within the means only of the well-to-do, and a surprising number of practitioners were women. The new craft was deemed as acceptable a pastime among ladies of British society as embroidery and watercolor painting had been for previous generations. Julia Cameron is the best-known female photographer of the period, but titled ladies such as Augusta Crofton Dillon and Clementina Hawarden also made photographs that won notice in exhibitions.

Edward S Curtis’s ‘Jicarilla Apache Cowboy’ (1905) (Library of Congress)

Continuing innovation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries made photography more and more a part of daily life. The invention of processes that allowed images to be reproduced in newspapers without first being engraved made illustrated journalism common.

Kodak made its first camera intended for casual use by the middle class in 1888, and its introduction of the Brownie camera in 1900 made it possible for anyone to be a photographer. The advent of 35-millimeter rolls of film and interchangeable lenses for compact cameras such as the Leica made it possible to photograph almost anywhere.

The debut of Kodachrome in 1935 set a standard for colour photography that would last until 2009 when, overtaken by digital cameras, Kodak announced that it would cease production of the film.

Any survey of a sprawling subject is by its very nature an exercise in editing, and the selection of 320 images to illustrate almost 200 years of photography involves a philosophical question: Should iconic images dominate the discussion, or do relatively unknown photographs have their place? Lowe tries to strike a balance: Famous images such as Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” and John Paul Filo’s photo of a shooting victim at Kent State University are included; Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” is not. – Photo and text by The Washington Post