Saturday, April 13, 2013

How Photography Changed Time: Part 1

As a photographer for the last forty years, I only just begun to appreciate the power of photography and how it changed the world.

Time is very different now than it was before photography. Before photography there were only written records, which were often subjective, along with paintings and drawings -- plus memories that were often flawed or that faded within a few year's time.

Photography freezes time. Photography can record reality, objects and details in the real world, independent of our memories. This objective ability can allow us to view the past without the mist of emotions, the rose colored glasses that often tint our recollection of the past.

Why photography is the art of time: A photographic exposure is a combination of the amount of light coming through the lens combined with the amount of time that light is allowed to hit light sensitive material. Time is at the core of photography. This works in two ways. One: the moment the photo is shot freezes an instant in time. Two: the length of the shutter speed can capture an image so that it looks normal to the human eye or capture a picture in ways that the eye cannot see. My next blog will cover that second aspect in detail.
Photographs are used routinely in court cases and other legal matters because they are believed to show an objective picture of reality. While not entirely true, the phrase, "the camera doesn't lie" echoes this idea. 

Time, in a sense, can now be grabbed, taken hold of. We can look at our past in our family photo album or an old yearbook.

100 years ago when Kodak introduced the Brownie, photography became available to every level of  society, from government, to companies, to the upper class and to the average citizen. 

The Wikipedia article on the Brownie included this fascinating comment: "In 1908, the Austrian architectural critic Joseph August Lux wrote a book called Künstlerische Kodakgeheimnisse (Artistic Secrets of the Kodak) in which he championed the use of the camera for its cultural potential. ...he argued that the accessibility the camera provided for the amateur meant that people could photograph and document their surroundings and thus produce a type of stability in the ebb and flow of the modern world."

Now, of course, there are many subjective aspects to photography in which a photographer can chose what to photograph or emphasize and what to leave out -- or even stage the shot. Yet at the moment the shutter is snapped, the photograph is a real world record of what was in front of the lens. (See footnote about Photoshop.)

Look at your family album with photos from ten or twenty years ago. A sharp shot will show the patterns on a dress, the hair cuts, the toys, the decorations in precise detail -- detail that could not have been preserved any other way.

We might call the time before photography, pre-photographic 
just as we call the time before written records, prehistoric. 

If there is truth to the idea that "a picture is worth a thousand words" then visual/photo literacy is now just as important as the written word.
The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.  Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
If you think that I am exaggerating the importance of photography, try to imagine the world without it: no television with photography (film, video, still photos), no instant replays, no YouTube videos, movies, camera-phone snap shots, no photos sent to you on your cell phone, no baby pictures, no yearbook portraits,  no photos in catalogues, online stores, newspapers, books or blogs...

These pictures demonstrate the power of photography. They affect us today not only because they document war in precise detail -- detail that historians will study for centuries -- but because we know that they recorded an actual moment of real people whose lives were wrenched apart. No other art form has this feeling of reality and brings the past alive. 

NOTE: This series of photographs shows war in all its horrible extremes from death to unbridled joy when the war was over -- and contains pictures that may be disturbing to some readers. Viewer discretion is advised.

The Union locomotive "Hero" was captured by Confederates
in the US Civil War during the fighting in Atlanta.
(Mathew Brady - 

Blowup of a portion of the above photo.
A railroad buff would be able to glean volumes about the construction
of this engine from the sharp detail in this photograph.
(Mathew Brady - 

Did you know that balloons were used in the US Civil War? 
I didn't. This photo reveals a variety of information.
(Mathew Brady - 

Ambulance during the US Civil War.
(Mathew Brady - 

Dead Confederate soldier at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia --US Civil War.
(T.C. Roche - 

The last photograph of Lincoln before he was assassinated.
(Mathew Brady - 

Damage in London by German bombers during the Blitz -- World War II.

People walking by smoldering destruction
in London during the Blitz in World War II. 


Abandoned boy in London toward the end of the war -- World War II.

German Solder during World War I. 

The famous Soviet T-34 tanks in night fighting in the winter during what the Russians called "the Great Patriotic War." (

Soviet soldiers relaxing during a lull
in the fighting during the Great Patriotic War. 


A US officer looking at a dead German 'last stand' soldier he believed had killed a number of his men in the battle for Cherbourg, France -- World War II. (

Destruction in Berlin as a result of the war -- World War II. 

Celebration in Times Square, New York City
after the surrender of the Japanese in World War II.
This photo shows the many happy faces of young men
who now knew they would not have to fight and die. 


Civilians caught in the middle of deadly fighting
during the Vietnam War
being directed by a South Vietnamese soldier. 


Wounded US soldier during the Tet offensive
in the town of Hue during the Vietnam War. 


One of many confrontations between protesters and authorities 
in the United States, during the Vietnam War. 

Footnote: Okay -- Photoshop can change what the camera saw, but that is a different question. Plus digital manipulation is usually pretty obvious  and only a tiny fraction of the billions of photos being shot now are being altered.


  1. "Dead Confederate soldier at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia". This photo is attributed in the blog to Mathew Brady. It is, in fact, by Thomas C. Roche.

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