Q: How do you think that the relationship between photography, science and technology has affected how we attribute ideas around knowledge and truth to the photographic image?
Science, technology and photography are inextricably linked. Chemistry and the fixing of light led to photography’s invention, with competing methodologies.
Interestingly, even as a scientific instrument (allowing us to see things we could not otherwise – astronomy, microscopy, natural processes, motion, X-Rays etc.), photography is also a means of personal expression.
Photography undeniably impacts the way we now consider and relate to ideas – scientific, journalistic, sociological, natural and so on. It also impacts the way we communicate and educate. I just wrote a related post on Felice Frankel, a researcher at MIT who uses photography to both explore and explain science – and to educate.
In the presentation, several examples stood out for me, such as Anna Atkins, who created the first commercial publication of scientific illustrations (1843) via Herschel‘s invention of the cyanotype process (in 1842).
Wilson Bentley is credited with using photography to capture individual snowflakes (1931) thereby demonstrating that no two are alike, and giving us a deep-seated stereotypical view of a snowflake.
On the other hand, photography can fundamentally mis-inform. Perhaps the most infamous is Francis Dalton‘s use of photography to further eugenic ideas, attempting to strengthen human kind and thus, politically and economically, the British Empire (1880s).
Manipulated images can misinform, too. This is not however a new issue. Dorothea Lange modified her image of the ‘Migrant Mother‘, both by asking the children to turn away, and then removing the thumb in the right corner of the image. Of course, a benign manipulation. But when Stalin physically eliminated members of his Politburo, he also eliminated them from photographs, an attempt to manipulate history.
© George Eastman House
Q: What aspects of technology do you think have had the most profound impact on the development of photography?
This is a veritable shopping list, and it is, in my view hard to say what is most profound as each invention lead to new ones – and new uses for photography. For example:
- Printing in books and newspapers.
- Transmission by wire of photographs for the faster spread of news.
- Emulsion technologies, which increased the speed of image capture and also the types of light we can capture (e.g. Infra Red)
- Kodak’s Box camera and film processing – ‘you press the button, and we do the rest’ (1888), which revolutionised the ‘amateur’ connection and use of photography.
- The Moving Picture, bringing a new type of imagery to a huge public base.
- Miniaturisation – such as the Leica – which changed the way news was gathered and pictures were taken ‘in the moment’.
- Digital image making, largely replacing analogue, in image capture, transmission and processing.
- Space Travel, giving us new views of our planet and where we fit in the Universe.
- The Internet, in making photography much more widely available.
- Multi functional devices – the smart phone, so everyone now has a camera (and uses it!)
- Social Media, an application itself based on the World Wide Web, which means everyone can share everything, should they chose, to everybody.
- Security – biometric facial recognition.
Ankele, Denise. 2014. Anna Atkins: 250 Cyanotypes – The First Woman Photographer. Kindle Edition.
Atkins, Anna. 1853. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843, 8 volumes through 1853). London: British Museum.