A Snapshot of Photography's Revolutionary Early Days
BOSTON — Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900
By Mary Warner Marien
Cambridge U. Press
222 pp., $55
It is commonplace to acknowledge that the computer revolution is fundamentally transforming our society. Time magazine articulated this view when it selected the personal computer as "Man of the Year" in 1982 and wrote, "The 'information revolution' that futurists have long predicted has arrived, bringing with it the promise of dramatic changes in the way people live and work, perhaps even in the way they think. America will never be the same. In a larger perspective, the entire world will never be the same."
This is not, of course, the first time that a new technology has been heralded as the harbinger of sweeping social change. Indeed, as Mary Warner Marien documents in her fascinating book "Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900," the advent of photography was immediately recognized as an unprecedented revolution in visual knowledge that was alternately described as "a wonder, a freak of nature, a new art, a threshold science, and a dynamic instrument of democracy."
Photography emerged suddenly in 1839, and its antecedents were not clear. Indeed, to this day, there are a large number of varying ideas about the origins of photography and the meaning of the photographic practice.
Unlike the computer or the machines of the Industrial Revolution, photography's pioneers resisted the temptation to claim that photography was a technological invention developed by humans. Instead, they insisted that it originated in and was disclosed by nature. This emphasis allowed its pioneers to present photography not as a new science or technology but as the culmination of the long-standing search in Western culture for a means of pure representation that was "free from omission, distortion, style, murky subjectivity, or outside interference."
As a result, photography was seen as a form of "natural" vision that implied a pure and direct truthfulness. This view was easily expanded to suggest that photography was also a "neutral" vision that was independent of the subject's thoughts and feelings. These ideas that photography was a natural vision and a neutral one are simply two of the many aspects described by Marien that shaped early attitudes toward, and understanding of, photography.
The sometimes inconsistent ideas that shaped the understanding and acceptance of photography proved not to be a problem. To the contrary, Marien finds such ambiguity a benefit. Photography became a malleable art form that allowed many different social meanings to be ascribed to it.
Regardless of the differences about the origins and meaning of photography, there was no disagreement that it foreshadowed a revolution in education. Early writers assumed that photography would be a great vehicle for mass literacy. One writer went so far as to claim that photography would be to art what the printing press was to literature. Others believed that photography would make the grand tour obsolete - why study with tutors or go to Europe when you could see the same thing with much less effort and expense in a collection of photographs at the public library? Photography was also seen as a way to ensure widely shared cultural values in an increasingly heterogeneous society.
Interestingly, the desire to transmit common values was also an argument that Horace Mann and others used to justify the establishment of free public schools at the same time.
In the past 150 years, other technological inventions have also held out the promise of dramatic change in education. As soon as they were introduced, radio, film, and TV were all proclaimed as heralds of a new era that would sharply expand literacy. While all have changed educational practice, none has had the revolutionary impact that was predicted.
Whether the computer will have a deeper impact on education than earlier technologies remains to be seen. Marien's book suggests such predictions should be made cautiously.
Marien's book is not a history of photography. Indeed, in her view, a linear history of photography is probably impossible given disputes about its origins and meaning. Rather, it is an analysis of 19th-century ideas that draws on such diverse fields as art history, social welfare, education, and psychology. Marien examines the development of photography in the context of ideas about objectivity, appearances, vision, intuitive genius, copying, and scientific progress.
The book is rich in insights and draws on a large number of academic disciplines. Extensively researched and thoroughly documented, it reproduces nearly 70 photographs to help illustrate the range of popular and artistic photography in the 19th century.
Despite its many strengths, this is not an easy book. It is best suited for an academic audience, not the general reader. Nonethe- less, this fine study rewards the reader with a thoughtful analysis of the emergence of a central component of modern life. Anyone with an interest in photography and its evolution will find this volume worth reading.
* Terry W. Hartle is vice president for governmental affairs for the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.