How Photography Expanded Our World View

Written by Bob Walden

Ramiro Mendes

Recording history has come a long way. From early cave drawings to the digital age, people have been able to see the past and present and make judgments based on mostly accurate visual representations.

The early cave dwellers did an excellent job of getting their message across. Primitive minds recorded what they saw and what they did. Some inaccuracies and distortions of their subjects are pretty obvious. I’m sure there were fat cavemen and cavewomen. Not all were stick people thin. And you do have to consider how hard it would have been to get a clear idea of what a wild animal looks like as you are either chasing it or being chased by it!

The Egyptians and other advanced groups of people brought us words and symbols of a more precise nature. And their visual representations were more extensive.
I personally find the caveman’s approach much easier to understand.

While the Egyptians’ hieroglyphics were a great advancement to the recording of the past and present, the information was only available and understandable to a limited few. The masses still had only the words and explanations of those in power and their own limited experiences to understand the world around them.
As the world expanded, people began to express their newfound knowledge to others. Still, it was only one person’s idea of the world around them being passed on without a means to verify its accuracy. One person’s idea of an event or a person’s appearance could be influenced by personal likes and dislikes, political leanings and even motives of personal gain.

The next effort of expanding the workings of the world were artists’ renditions. While beautiful works of art, they were not necessarily accurate renditions of the times.

The masses were still dependent on someone else’s interpretation of events and people and places.

If Washington had waited a day or two before crossing the Delaware, maybe a more accurate depiction would have been painted. Doesn’t look scary at all to me.

While paintings widened people’s knowledge of themselves and the world, the invention of the printing press really got the information ball rolling.

In September of 1690, the first newspaper was published in America. It was as printed by Richard Pierce in Boston and it was three pages long.

That became the primary way people received their news. They depended on it to keep them informed of local and national news, current events and social news. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, not all the news was presented in an unbiased way.

Illustrations were added to newspapers in the 1830’s. The London Illustrated News was one of the first newspapers to add illustrations and, in 1855, the first to add color illustrations.

American publishers were a bit slower to add color but rapidly adopted using black and white illustrations. Newspapers across the county saw their circulations rapidly expand with the use of illustrations. And illustrations certainly added interest and information to the stories.

There was still a matter of personal interpretation by the illustrators. Accuracy could still be slanted. Oh, happy days!

Reality might have been a little bit different.

Photography initially was used for recording things like still life images, landscapes, and buildings. The cameras were bulky and needed to be tripod mounted because of the long exposure times required to gather enough light to expose the film plate.

By the late 1840’s, improvements in cameras and methods of capturing the photo to a film plate advanced the use of photography from a novelty to an accurate way of capturing life and events. Portrait studios opened up all over the country. By 1850, New York City had over 70 photography studios.

Hard working, rugged itinerant photographers loaded wagons with camera gear, large amounts of chemicals—some highly toxic and flammable—and traveled the back roads of small towns in America.

Portraits had always been available, for the rich, in the form of paintings. But would any artist be willing to portray a client with a big wart on their nose? Or one who was obese? If he or she wanted their commission, the portrait had better be favorable.
Photography brought realism to the visual world. People, places, and events for the first time were shown as they really were. No longer was it necessary to accept another person’s interpretation. And what better place to display this new found realism then where people got their local and worldwide news!
A photograph of the June Days Uprising in Paris, taken on June 25, 1848, is considered to be the first photograph used to illustrate a newspaper story. The photograph was made into an engraving then printed in the weekly French newspaper L’Illustration June 25, 1848. While the image was from a photographic original, the engraving process takes on the look of an illustration. I could not find an image of the newspaper.

A true newspaper photograph uses the halftone process. Dots make up the image. In 1880, the Daily Graphic newspaper in New York printed a real photograph using the halftone process. It was called “A Scene in Shantytown, New York.
Once again a new innovation energized people’s view of the world around them. A picture is worth a thousand words. And in most cases, photography showed the story in an unbiased way. People could form their own opinions because pictures don’t lie! Yes, photos could be manipulated, even back then, but it was a very difficult job.
Photography enabled people to see the world and people and events around them, sometimes good, sometimes bad. A drawing or illustration of the civil war does not have the same impact as an actual photograph.

Brave men fighting brave men were well illustrated. But like many previous illustrations of other events in history, they tended to glorify the civil war as a noble endeavor. Actual photographs showed there was no glory in war. War just produced death and terrible destruction on both sides.

The true, unbiased representation of photographs let the world see and form their own judgments and opinions.

For the first time, people could actually see in newspapers and books about what events, places, and people looked like. Photographs also helped bring social injustices to the attention of people. Most people had no idea of where and how their clothing and meat products came to be on their store shelves. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” a novel telling the story of the deplorable working conditions in the meat packing industry and bringing to light horrible health and safety issues. Child labor had children working long hours and five or six days a week.

The Jungle raised outrage with the public. And the newspapers joined in with their new found media tool, photographs.

Some of the major abusers were the meat packing, clothing and coal industries. However many industrial companies participated in the child labor abuses. Children have worked on family farms for ages. However, the Industrial Revolution brought with it horrible child abuses never seen before.

Sadly these conditions continued for many years. While there was a lot of public outrage, Congress did not pass any child labor laws until 1918 and 1922 but the Supreme Court decided both unconstitutional. It took two more years for Congress to act on child labor.

In 1924 Congress proposed an amendment prohibiting child labor but the states didn’t ratify it. Congress, not wanting to jump into something, debated and stalled until 1938 when they finally passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The photographic and writing coverage of child abuses also lead to the uncovering of the deplorable conditions families were being forced to live in.
Using photography as media affected other businesses as well. Carte de visite’s (CDVs) was the first business cards to use photography.

The primary use of the CDVs was to give the photographic client a portrait. Photographers quickly saw their usefulness in advertising their photography business.

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It didn’t take long for other types of businesses to see the potential of photography to increase their recognition over their competitors.

But it was George Eastman, entrepreneur, inventor, visionary, and marketing master of the Eastman Kodak Company that used photography in advertising his products that led the way for almost all companies to switch from illustrations and renderings to photographs.

George Eastman’s approach was unique. Eastman knew his customers and who he wanted as customers. His intentions weren’t to go after the professional photographers and their bulky and complicated to use the equipment. Eastman figured if he could make cameras easy to use and inexpensive he could sell the mass market of consumers. He succeeded in both. And Kodak’s brilliant use in advertising of using women and children in photos to illustrate the ease of use of Kodak cameras brought photography to the masses.

How could a child or parent resist this advertising?

Instead of just showing a picture of one of Kodak’s cameras the company’s advertising told a story. Moms and children actually using the cameras in a recognizable situation gave people examples of how a camera would be useful in their lives.

Other companies saw the success of Kodak’s approach to advertising and joined in this form of advertising. Cigarette companies were eager to show people how much fun and how cool smoking would make you look.

And if doctors, scientists, and educators recommended it, well it must be ok!

By the 1970’s the Digital Revolution was beginning to make its mark. Computers rapidly replace typewriters and typesetting. The old analog technology was rapidly being replaced by digital technology. Film cameras were being replaced by digital cameras. Instead of having to buy a roll of film, have it processed and made into prints, a person simply installed a small reusable card into the digital camera and started shooting. No longer would people take film to a lab to have prints made, labs which by now have all but disappeared. A small digital camera card could hold many times more images. If the image didn’t come out as anticipated, it was simple to erase it. Waiting until your photos came back to see the results became a thing of the past. Simply plugging the card into the computer provided instant results. Wonderful! Unfortunately, the old axiom “Pictures don’t lie” is no longer true. Digital photo manipulation, usually called “Photoshopping” has in a way, brought us back to the old illustrations and drawings of old.

While some are funny many are lies and misrepresent the truth.

Another side effect of the digital camera is instead of people taking a bit more time to think about what they are taking a picture of it’s a lot easier to just take multiple shots and hope one is just right.

Trying for that perfect family portrait but someone moves at the last second? No problem! Just use one of the new graphics programs like Photoshop or Photoshop Elements and just change heads!

Aunt Marion couldn’t make the family reunion? Well, just add her at a later date!

Photo manipulation isn’t something new. From the mid to the late 1800’s photography wasn’t a hobby but a profession. Professionals could manipulate a photo in camera using the double exposure method or on the negative using techniques like hand coloring and tinting could change expressions or remove unwanted marks or objects.

This is from one of my 5×7 glass negatives. It was an accidental double exposure. But could be fairly simple to do well in camera.

An unusual example is the 1860’ portrait of Abraham Lincoln. A photo of Lincoln’s head was put on the body of politician John C. Calhoun. It is believed that this was done after Lincoln had been assassinated. Lincoln’s portrait had been taken by Mathew Brady. Unfortunately, the head of Lincoln had been flip and a mole on his face was reversed and went unnoticed. Lincoln’s head was from Brady’s portrait of Lincoln used on the $5 bill.
From early wall renderings to the new digital age visual renditions of life have brought truth and understanding to masses of people. Manipulation and biased opinions have always and will always be present but it’s a small part of the picture! (a pun!)

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