The aim of this lecture was to have a quick look at the history of photography since its invention until nowadays and the way we currently use this medium. We specially pointed out the ‘portraits’ to see this evolution throughout the years more emphasised.
The lecture started with a painting from the painter Johannes Vermeer, (1632-1675), ‘View on Delf’. Paintings like this were for a very long time the only way to represent the reality until it changed with the appearance of the photography in the 1826 with “View from the Window at Le Gras”, the first photograph ever, taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce with a camera obscura. He was a inventor and scientist that created with the help of the artists Louise Daguerre the first successful photographic process.
Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), View on Delft, c.1660–1661.
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshaus.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce ( 1826) “View from the Window at Le Gras” .
Since then, the debate was opened and artists, philosophers, writers, and the upper-class began to wonder which method was better to represent the reality: paintings or photographies.
About this the French modernist writer Marcel Proust (1871–1922) wrote in his novel ‘In search of the Lost’ that people can only recall experiences throughout their involuntary memories. In order to illustrate this, the main character of the novel only remembers his childhood when he tastes a madeline that unexpectedly brings him to very specific memories of that period. This theory is supported by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He used for the first time the term ‘aura’ in his book “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) to refer to the originality and uniqueness of the art. Therefore, any other mechanical process such as photography, will not achieve this ‘aura’ of paintings.
Nevertheless, with the time and some enhancements such as the contributions from the British William Fox Talbot (1800-1877) who came up with the positive and negative process in order to make easy copies from the same picture, photography reach a good reputation and was even considered another tool more for painters. This is how ‘Pictorialism’ arrived around 1860 until the 20th century. It was a trend that consisted emphasising the beauty, tonality and composition of the subject matter rather than just represent the reality.
Furthermore, we had a look to Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who was one of the first women to experiment with photography and became widely know for her portraits of important figures of that time such as Charles Darwin. Other sort of portraits that were very relevant in the history of photography are the deceased babies portraits from the Victorian period which are inevitably romantic and disturbing at the same time and absolutely unacceptable in our today’s society. We also talked about the long times in front of the camera that the subjects needed to stay statics to get a good photography and the tools they used for it. We even tried on our feet by staying statics for 1 minute before our partner will take us a picture and see how our facial expression look antinatural and forced.
And from portrait to portrait, we jumped to the ‘selfie’ trend and its difference to “self-portraits”. Roughly, all of us agreed that the selfie is a bad quality photography which its main purpose is to show an ideal and pretentious side of ourselves with favourable angles and strange aesthetic poses.
On the other hand, the American photographer, Susan Sontag talked, in a rather pessimistic tone, about pictures of ourselves taken by others and how these photographers contribute to the “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” of the subject photographed. I specially found this point really interesting and not widely considered although it is the truth.
Barthes, R. (1981). Camera lucida. New York: Hill and Wang.
Benjamin, W. (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Homer, N & Ingham, M (2016) ‘Photography and Fiction: Pose!” [Lecture to GMD1] T303: Contextual and Theoretical Studies. UAL
Proust, M (1913) In searhc of the Lost. Éditions Grasset, Éditions Gallimard
Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.