August 19th was World Photography Day - it even has its own website (http://worldphotoday.com/) - in recognition that on this date in 1839 the French government bought the patent for the Daguerreotype. While various other methods of capturing what we could see had existed, the Daguerrotype was the first truly practical method for taking what we call photographs. Mind you, how practical was a process that initially required the sitter to be held still in a frame to prevent movement? The first cameras required the shutter to be open for so long that a blurred image was a certainty unless the sitter was fixed in place. Take a look at the first images of nineteenth century city streets and you will see that the streets were much quieter back then. Actually they are deserted. This is because the shutter would be open for so long - minutes - in order to capture the picture, that people would have moved through the image and gone.
Louis Daguerre’s 1838 image Boulevard du Temple - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Daguerre#/media/File:Boulevard_du_Temple_by_Daguerre.jpg - is the world’s first candid street shot but the Parisian street scene it shows is free of people. Of course, Paris wasn’t emptied for the picture. The people who would have filled the street didn’t register in the picture because they did not remain in the image long enough. The only two people who did were a man and a shoe shine boy. These two anonymous characters are the first two people to have been captured permanently in a photograph.
Today, an unprecedented number of photographs will be taken. Walk about in any town or city and it won't take long before you come across hordes of people firing off selfies to upload, share, distort, tag and pout in. Cameras are everywhere. It’s estimated that more photographs will be taken this year than in the whole history of photography.
So why do we want take so many pictures? Surely, part of it must be a human instinctive desire to see ourselves as others see us. Witness the inexorable rise of the selfie. Only now can most people capture a likeness of themselves. In the past, owning a mirror, let alone being able to afford to commission a portrait artist to do you in oil, would have been far beyond the reach of most people’s pockets.
A glance around a gallery or a stroll around your local stately home quickly reveals that the great paintings of the past show the squire (and his family) and the vast estates that he owned. In other words, this was graphic art to show off. As people began to venture further afield so did the subjects of the paintings - fine art holiday snaps if you will. A way of saying “look how much money we have - we can afford to go to these incredible places - not to mention have them captured on canvas.”
The invention of the camera was initially something that only the super-rich could afford. However, the march of technology and the possibility of cheap cameras from the likes of Kodak meant that the twentieth century saw the democratisation of the public's images. Suddenly our parents and grandparents could all go to Torremolinos and come back and show off their holiday snaps. Of course, this is a simplistic view of photography but it is probably true of a lot of the photographs that have appeared in family albums and online media pages over the years.
An image also has huge power to impact. Countless photographs through time have brought news of war, famine, disaster, and fired home an important message for change. Think Capa’s D-Day photos, the brave soul before the tanks on Tiananmen Square, the current images of Syrian refugees - these are images that should and have made a difference. Photographers have taken us to places few of us would ever have imagined - outer space, the deepest oceans and inside the body of man and beast.
Personally, I have always been fascinated by how people used to live their lives. Photographs of the world before I came along to clutter it up captivate me. The clothes, the cars, the familiar places seen through a time filter so often look amazing (or just laughable - did they really wear that?). And I think that this hints at another reason to take photographs; the ability to capture a moment for posterity, for you, personally, to look back on and remember. It’s hard not to like those Facebook reminders which pop up to show you (and only you) what you were doing on this day six years ago.
Looking at the work of great photographers of the past, as well as appreciating the light, contrast, composition, lines and those oh so decisive moments, there is a certain something else which is brought to bear on the quality of these images. And that is the passage of time.
A classically composed shot is improved by the rose tinted goggles that help us to see the past. Take, for example, Eisenstaedt’s image (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V-J_Day_in_Times_Square) of the sailor spontaneously celebrating Victory on VJ Day 1945 by embracing and kissing a white dressed girl/woman in Times Square is without doubt a classic shot. It is beautifully composed with leading lines which lead the eyes into the couple framed in the middle, the juxtaposition of our white and black clad heroine and hero, not to mention the historic moment being celebrated. Surely the image also gains from the fact that it is now seventy years old and everything just looks so good. So classy.
How will the photographs we take today be viewed in seventy years time? What amazing technologies will have advanced photography by then?
Next time I’d like to share my thoughts about why I take photographs and what led me to picking up a camera with real intent after years of just footling around. If you’d like to share your thoughts about this blog or why you take pictures please drop me a line.