On Thursday 5/02 we had our third lecture. It was held by CTS coordinator Dr. Mark Ingham and was about photography. The title of the lecture was ‘ Pose! “That’s not me” ‘. The lecture touched many different aspects within the wide field of photography. We started off by looking at the following picture and briefly commenting on it:
Is it a real portrait? or do we see just a staged scene? Why are the people in the picture dressed and styled like this? Why does the man have a parrot and the woman a gun? Are they symbols that tell us something about the characters and their relationship or are they random? What is it we see when looking at a portrait? Is it really the person who has been photographed or is it the eye of the photographer we see?
All these questions were raised and different points of view discussed resulting in an exciting kickstart to the lecture.
Then we looked at the photograph taken by David Burnett in July 1969 when Apollo 11 was launched and sent the first man to the moon:
I think his image is very interesting and in some way amusing because if you see it for the first time don’t know the title and when it was taken you really ask yourself “What are these people looking at?”. It can be hard to guess they are looking at a spaceship because it is such a rare event you would hardly think of it. In fact before telling us the true story behind the picture, Mark wanted us to guess what the people where looking at and I think hardly anyone thought about a spaceship. At this stage Mark also told us there is a whole debate about photography having no meaning without text.
Subsequently we were introduced to some historical facts about photography:
This is the oldest surviving photograph, View from a window taken in 1826 with a camera obscura (don’t know what it is or want to know how it works? click here!) by Niécephore Niépce.
At the beginning of the 19th century the desire of capturing the surrounding environment grew and numerous scientists began to experiment to find a way to make this possible. Three names will stay memorable in the history of photography for their pioneering contributions: Niécephore Niépce, Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Tablot. As it often happens when talking about new discoveries and inventions in a specific field, there are some disagreements on who actually invented photography and who’s image capturing process was the most influential one. But I think there is no doubt that the 1939 publicly announced “gift to the world from France”, the Daguerrotype, would probably not have been possible without Daguerre’s former partnership with Niépce and his Heliography. At the same time the experiments that lead to Talbot’s Photographic Drawings might also been influenced by the work of Daguerre and Niépce, or other contemporary scientists or just by the commonly shared need to capture and fix reality on a solid base in a way different than drawing, with a scientific approach.
We then moved to the Victorian age when photography, in particular portrait photography, spread and became available to the masses. Photographic studios opened in the big cities and it became part of social customs to get family portraits. Exposure times for the Daguerrotype where quite long so one had to keep very still otherwise the image would come out blurred.
(when Mark first showed it to us -again we had to guess what it was- the most bizarre assumptions came up such as candle holder, lantern holder etc. In the end we all agreed it would be a sort of tripod – which thinking at it again now was quite stupid because photographic apparatus were very big and heavy so they would definitely need something more stable than this!)
To simulate the process of portraits taken with an Daguerrotype, Mark asked us to pair up, pose keep still for one minute and then take pictures of each other. So now we know why people never smile in old photographs: it would be too hard to keep smiling for such a long time and one would just look very odd and stiff!
We looked at some examples Victorian photography and the atmosphere got quite creepy while looking at this particular one:
What we see is a child sitting on her mother’s lap. The mother is hidden behind a curtain and the child is actually dead. This is just one example of a series of post mortem photographs, which used to be quite common in the 19th century. Photography had become more common, still it was not yet accessible to everyone so one would normally wait for the child to grow up before having it photographed but infant mortality was still quite high at that time so photography was a form of remembrance for the family.
After this historical part on photography we made a huge jump in time and discussed the trend of the decade: selfies! Actually humankind has been taking “selfies” from the very early days but only recently this word made its way in common used vocabulary. Indeed some regard the following to be the first “selfie” ever taken:
More on Robert Cornelius’ selfie here.
At this point we were asked to take some selfies: one should be unposed (impossible) and another should be as posed as possible. Then we had to take a picture of a classmate taking a selfie. We all went a bit funny.
What followed was a very famous photograph of Barack Obama, Helle Throning-Schmidt and David Cameron taking a selfie during Nelson Mandela memorial. This was a bit of a scandal and the leaders were accused of disrespect and inappropriate behaviour in such a special occasion.
So where is the difference between a selfie and a self-portrait? And between a self-portrait and a portrait? What is more effective? What pictures us in the most accurate way?
We then looked at some of the Photographs of diCorcia’s series “Streetwork” (1993-1999) which I found a very interesting work as he really challenges the concept of identity and the individual within society.
At the end of the lecture we briefly came back to the text “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography” by Roland Barthes, of which Mark had requested us to read an excerpt to prepare for his lecture. Mark also briefly introduced us to Susan Sontag, who also wrote about Photography (“On Photography-” 1977). We should read both authors’ texts if we choose to respond to one of Marks questions in our 2000 words essay.
To end this long post I share this quote of Susan Sontag :
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
Some further reading:
- Milestones in Photography (by National Geographic) features some iconic photographs in photographic history)
- Early Victorian family portraits and the disappearing mother (by The Telegraph)
- The lady vanishes: Victorian photography’s hidden mothers (by The Guardian)
- Haunting photographs of the dead taken in Victorian age (Daily Mail)
- NOT a postmortem photograph (Pinterest) – apparently there are a lot of fakes when talking about postmortem photography of the Victorian age and in many pictures the character are actually alive-
- The posing stand- for helping LIVE people hold still (Pinterest) – again tries to unmask false information about the posing stand which was NOT invented to keep dead people standing (but instead to support the ones alive)-
- Turning point inventions: the camera – an good source for history and development of photographic techniques
- Nelson Mandela: Helle Thorning-Schmidt defends David Cameron ‘selfie’ (The Telegraph) – a response of Danish Prime Minister to the accusation after taking the selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial
- How the camera saved photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia (The Telegraph) – more on diCorcia (another link on his work can be found when I mention him in the post)