Using a broad range of critical, satirical, and photographic texts, assess the cultural reception of photography in the mid nineteenth century.
To answer this question fully, there must be a clear knowledge of the culture/society which birthed photography. The mid nineteenth century was a time of great technological advancement (most prominently industrial technologies) that bought with it significant cultural and social change. It is well known that photography was both embraced, but also regarded with some scepticism as to its overall purpose and usefulness in the early Victorian era. Julia F Munro (2009 pg.167) states
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It is now widely accepted that photography wasn’t truly ‘discovered’ until 1839, as it was then that Daguerre and Fox Talbot made their discoveries of early photographic processes, the ‘daguerreotype’ and ‘calotype’ respectively, and shared them with the world. Goldberg (1991) agrees that it was much earlier when people began to realise a need and take interest in using light as a way of taking pictures, preserving a moment accurately and mechanically. Goldberg (1991 pg.10) goes on to state that “desire was abroad to catch nature in a net”. Indeed as early as the late eighteenth century, devices such as the camera obscura (optical device used mainly to aid drawing) and ‘camera lucida’ (a piece of technology which allowed artists the ability to precisely record contours of landscape) were rife, and captured the eye of professional and amateur artists alike. Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), sometimes referred to as ‘the Grandfather of Photography’, was one of many people searching for an answer to the void that existed before the conception of photography, and was most interested in its ability to ‘record nature’ accurately, and pursued his development of the ‘calotype’ photographic process mainly as a result of his poor ability as an artist. Talbot states is his manual ‘The Pencil of Nature’ (1844) that his photography should be thought of as ‘photogenic drawing’. Talbots earliest photograph, ‘Latticed Window’ although very poor quality and taken during his early experiments utilising an adapted the camera obscura, highlights his intentions as a keen scientist and mathematician to take ‘mechanically’ accurate pictures. It is merely an accurate recording, a latticed window on a bright day, it serves very little artistic purpose, and is mainly a triumph of technical accuracy. Photography came to serve a much needed purpose, one that had been recognised much earlier that its first conception.
Although Daguerre/Fox Talbots Victorian audience were generally a receptive and willing one, indeed ready to embrace a new and exciting technology, but they also engaged in much critical debate regarding the cultural, ethical and social impact regarding the emergence of photography. Wells (2004 p.12) states that ‘hailed as a great technological invention, photography immediately became the subject of debates concerning it’s aesthetic status and social uses ‘, Henisch (1994 pg.2) agrees stating “intense controversies raged concerning its status and role”. The debates related to art or technology is one still fought today, and ones which roots can obviously be found in the very early years of photography. The famous quote by Paul Delaroche (1797-1859) upon first seeing a daguerreotype photograph, “from this day painting is dead”, whilst an overt exaggeration, highlights a genuine fear felt by artists (especially portrait) during infantile years of photography. The daguerreotype
Although accepted for its ability to record mechanically accurate images that are ‘free of discrimination’, photography’s status as an art form was much less certain, and fiercely contested. Can photography be considered artistic? Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), a French Poet & artist, was a well known and very vocal critic of early photography:
“If photography is allowed to deputize for art, it will not be long before it has supplanted or corrupted art altogether” (Baudelaire 1859 pg.297)
Baudelaire suggest photography simply should not and could not supplant more traditional artistic methods. It’s ability as
To answer this question fully, there must be a clear knowledge of the culture/society which birthed photography. The mid nineteenth century was a time of great technological advancement (most prominently industrial technologies) that bought with it significant cultural and social change. Whilst these advancements were the cause of change, Well (2004) states a society will also invest and put time into developing new technologies in order to help satisfy previously unseen social needs. Wells (2004 pg. 12) summarises, photography was a “consequence, and not a cause of culture”. It was not a cause of change, but an answer to an unforeseen social need brought about by the fast evolving, and ever changing modern metropolitan lifestyle.
- WELLZ, L. 2004. Photography: A critical introduction. Oxford: Routledge.
- CLARKE, G. 1997. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- BAUDELAIRE, C. 1859. The Salon of 1859. Unknown.
- BRIGGS, A. 1998. A Victorian Portrait. London: Cassell Publishers Limited.
- GOLDBERG, V. 1991. The Power of Photography: How photographs changed our lives. New York: Abbeville Publishing Group.
- GREEN-LEWIS, J. 1996. Framing the Victorians. New York: Cornell University Press.
- HEINZ, K. 1994. The Photographic Experience 1839-1914. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.
- MARIEN, M. 1997. Photography and its Critics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- MUNRO, J. F. July 2009 The Optical Stranger: Photographic anxieties in British periodical literature of the 1840’s and 1850’s. Journal of early popular visual culture 7(2) pp167-183.
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