AN ARCHIVAL VIEW:
HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY ON THE NORTH SHORE
Photography by Style
Photography presents an opportunity for people to see, construct, and present images of the self. Portrait photography began with formal studio daguerreotypes, and has since evolved to become a genre of images that can be staged by others or ourselves, and used for a variety of purposes. From studios to school picture-day keepsakes and Instagram selfies, photographic portraits are cultural artifacts of our likeness. Portraiture allows us to preserve the memory of loved ones through images. They have become a means of seeing and knowing both ourselves and others.
Valuable as personal keepsakes, photographic portraiture can also be misleading. Photography’s association with capturing reality and presenting the likeness of a person has often obscured the bias of early portraiture and its participation in colonialism. Standardized studio settings, garments and poses visually reinforce Western European culture and power. It is important to view early photographic portraits through a critical lens.
When photography was first announced by the French Academy of Sciences in 1839, it was presented as a device for creating scientific images.The photographer was depicted as an operator of the camera, which was a mechanical tool for capturing light. The chemical process was objective and the resulting photographs were truthful reflections of the world. Since that moment, photography’s relationship to indexicality (the idea that the camera produces exactly what was in front of the lens) and the use of photographs as visual evidence has contributed to the genre of documentation.
Photographs taken of landscapes, travel and exploration images, social documentary projects, and images of events and movements can be discussed as documentary photography. An important aspect of photography to consider for all applications, but especially when used for documentary purposes, is the power the camera has to further practices of inventory and “othering” those on the receiving side of the lens. In reality, the camera is not an objective tool, but rather one that is charged by the subjective intentions of photographers.
In the 1890s photographs reproduced as halftone prints began to appear in newspapers. As the print media reproduction process improved and the technology became more affordable, newspapers, magazines and other types of publications replaced illustrations with images. The realism of photography grabbed people’s attention and revealed worlds that were previously inaccessible, such as battlefronts and remote expeditions.
As print publications amplified the veracity of photography, the process of pairing images with text, creating graphic layouts, or using mixed media to combine, alter, and create new images introduced the opportunity to alter and manipulate the meaning of photographs.The same image could be re-presented in different contexts and for different purposes. Remixing, combining, and altering photographs in order to take different aspects of reality and put them into a singular image became widely practiced, effectively calling into question photography’s relationship to truth, as well as highlighting the use of photography in propaganda and advertising.
Since the advent of digital photography and contemporary editing software, concerns about the authenticity of photographic images and questions about how images are made and presented have become mainstream. The availability and seamlessness of digital image editing, reproduction and dissemination has empowered individuals and communities to create and circulate their own stories. It has also revealed the importance of seeing beyond the content of an image and into the context of its creation and use.
Over the course of photography’s history, much debate has been had about its potential as an artistic medium. There’s a unique tension that exists between photography’s use as a mechanical, seemingly objective method of documentation, and the role of the artist who uses photography to make subjective artistic statements. Is it science or is it art?
Pictorialism emerged as an early style of photography that used the technical limitations of the camera, such as shutter speed and lenses, as well as printing methods that heavily involved the individual hand of the artist, as a way to create soft, emotive imagery, similar to the archival photographs of Verity Sweeny dancing in a field.
Photography’s entrance into the museum around the middle of the 20th century shifted perspectives about photography’s cultural status, positioning the photograph as a valuable art object – an institutional designation it was previously denied. Modernist art photographers highlighted the aspects of photography that make it a unique medium, such as its use of time, framing, and vantage point, and actively positioned the photograph and artist in the highest regard.
Postmodernist and conceptualist photography, developed in the latter half of the 20th century, responds to and critiques earlier ideas about the “artistic genius”, the role of the museum, and the value of photography. Iain Baxter& and N.E. Thing Co.’s A Portfolio of Piles is a conceptual artist-multiple project that situates the ordinary and everyday subject of “piles” as photographic subjects worthy of consideration as aesthetic objects.