Every photograph is a small miracle. It captures a beat of time, fixing it forever. It is nothing short of magic and, like most things magical, its genesis is wreathed in controversy. For some, it is as old as the first primitive who noticed that the hot African sun darkened his skin even further. Others date it to the ancient Greeks or the medieval Arabs. Some historians say that its origins lie in Renaissance Italy, 17th-century Holland or 18th-century Britain. The purists say that it began with a fuzzy view of a barnyard roof in southern France; the literalists side with a faded imprint of a latticed window frame in rural England. But in terms of the popular imagination, the age of the photograph dawned on a bright morning in Paris early in the 19th century. It was then that Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a struggling artist-inventor, managed to freeze a fleeting image upon the face of a piece of polished copper. “I have seized the light,” he exclaimed at that moment. “I have arrested its flight.”
Although there may be others with a stronger technical claim to have invented photography, it was Daguerre’s discovery that launched the world upon a dizzying adventure. His “mirror with a memory,” as the 19th-century American author Oliver Wendell Holmes termed the device, would set in train events that were destined to change the very manner in which we see and think. It would take us around the planet and to the stars. It would show us the intimate face of joy and grief, poverty and luxury, war and peace. It would condition what we buy, the way we dress, eat, vote, make love. It would spark a technological revolution, placing in people’s hands a universal tool of communication unhampered by the bonds of language. “Photography,” said the legendary American photographer Edward Steichen, “is the best medium ever devised for explaining man to man.”
There will be ample opportunity this year to put that claim to the test as the 150th anniversary of photography is celebrated across Canada and around the world. Galleries, museums and exhibition halls are mounting a series of expositions throughout the year. A summer-long program scheduled for the new National Gallery in Ottawa includes A Survey of the Portrait and a mass retrospective of the work of Yousuf Karsh (page 50). Across town at the National Archives, there are two shows planned—a collection of rare metal imprints from the early years of photography, and a retrospective of the work of photojournalist Kryn Taconis, best known for his clandestine photos of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. One of the most ambitious exhibitions opened in February at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The Art of Photography: 1839-1989 displays 463 works by 85 seminal photographers. After closing in Texas later this month, it will move to Australia in June and England in September. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will mount a similar exposition of 400 photographs, travelling later to Chicago and Los Angeles. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City will stage The History of Photography. There are also programs planned for Montreal, Milwaukee, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and dozens of other locations, large and small.
It all amounts to a major effort to mark photography’s sesquicentennial, which is a far cry from the situation that prevailed as the medium was still suffering its birth pangs 150 years ago. It took the world some time, in fact, to realize that a powerful new tool had suddenly appeared on the scene. It took even longer to appreciate many of the individuals who were responsible. The man who took the first-ever photograph, Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, died destitute and disillusioned. The man who invented the process upon which modem photography is based, William Henry Fox Talbot, labored for years in relative obscurity. The man who staged the first photographic exhibition, Hippolyte Bayard, never managed to achieve real recognition. All three were eclipsed by Louis Daguerre, who did not really invent photography but who possessed a genius for making it work and making it popular.
Daguerre won acclaim from the start. When his work—a refinement of that initially created by his collaborator Niépce—was presented in a lecture at the French Academy of Sciences on Jan. 7, 1839, it created a sensation. “From today, painting is dead,” artist Paul Delaroche declared. The 79-page manual that Daguerre published soon afterward, detailing his process, sold out in days. Within a few months, it had gone through 30 editions in French and appeared in translation from New York City to Saint Petersburg in Russia. The French Chamber of Deputies showered honors upon him, and King Louis Philippe awarded him a lifetime pension. His very name was immortalized in the “daguerreotype,” the polished-metal forerunner of modem paper photographs and color transparencies. And the apparatus he devised and manufactured for taking daguerreotypes, a wooden box with a ground-glass lens, made him wealthy. Sold in opticians’ shops, each model was stamped with a serial number and signed by the inventor.
It is primarily because of Daguerre that the world is celebrating the 150th anniversary of photography this year. That is because the Frenchman not only unfolded his own discoveries in 1839, he also goaded his chief rival into action in the same year. The English aristocrat Fox Talbot, spurred by Daguerre’s tumultuous success at the French academy, hurriedly announced the results of his own pioneering labors in photography. On Jan. 25, 1839, he displayed samples of what he called his “photogenic drawings” at London’s Royal Institution. On the last day of the same month, he read a paper to the Royal Society that described a process for capturing images on sensitized paper. He eventually labelled those pictures “calotypes,” from the Greek word kalos, or beautiful.
There was no similarity between the daguerreotype and the calotype. The Frenchman’s images were startlingly clear, a delicate silvery grey that gradually oxidized into purplish brown. The Englishman’s were tiny, faded and blurred, the color of lilac. What is more, the processes for producing each were totally different. Daguerre manufactured a single opaque metal plate upon which the image was reversed, while Fox Talbot created what was essentially a paper negative. At first glance, it seemed to be no contest. Even the English astronomer Sir John Herschel, who named Fox Talbot’s invention “photography” (from the Greek words for “light” and “writing”) and who also applied the words “positive” and “negative” to the principal elements of the process, favored the French product.
Fox Talbot’s invention, however, did possess one advantage. His calotype negatives were capable of producing any number of positive copies. The daguerreotype could not be duplicated. In the end, Fox Talbot’s multiple-copy technique provided a benefit that would prove to be critical; his negative-positive system is the basis of modern photography. The daguerreotype is extinct. It passed into history a mere 20 years after it had appeared, with such fanfare, to the world.
The story was far different when Daguerre started it all. Daguerreotypes swept the world. Travel photography began in the first year of Daguerre’s invention as enterprising publishers quickly saw the profit in turning the populations of Europe and North America into armchair tourists. It was the beginning of photojournalism. Daguerreotypes still exist that document the 1842 fire that swept Hamburg, the 1844 Catholic-Protestant riots in Philadelphia and the 1846 Mexican-American war. It was also when portrait photography began. The first daguerreotype parlor opened in New York City in 1840, the first in London in 1841. In 1847, 2,000 cameras and 500,000 photographic plates were sold in Paris alone. The parlors charged as much as $5—then a massive sum—for a portrait. And their subjects had to endure some considerable torment as well. They were required to sit absolutely still for as long as 20 minutes, often in bright sunlight, faces coated in white powder.
Almost all of the traits that would come to distinguish photography were established when Daguerre’s invention was king: the first telescopic picture of the moon, the first microscopic image of blood cells. Even some of the more sinister aspects of the medium developed. Pornography took on a whole new dimension. So did the unsubtle art of influence. It was one of Daguerre’s eclipsed rivals who manipulated what is probably the first-ever propaganda picture. Hippolyte Bayard, in despair at being forced to live in the great one’s shadow, took a picture of himself posed as a corpse.
The changes that have overtaken photography in 150 years are principally a matter of degree. Daguerre’s process slipped from the scene, replaced by Fox Talbot’s. There have been unimagined technological advances (page 51). Daguerre’s 110 pounds of equipment have been reduced to a few ounces. Along the way, George Eastman’s Kodak company democratized the medium in 1888, the American Speed Graphic put it in the newspapers in 1912, the German Leica A took it to war in 1925 and the classic Japanese Nikon F kept it there, beginning in 1959. But despite all of the gains, the principal elements have remained the same. Pictures continue to be taken by a box with a glass eye. As Marvin Moore, a Halifax photographer, put it: “Strong images remain strong images, and technology is irrelevant to the truth. Beethoven has been dead for years, but in artistic terms he is up to date.”
Much the same can be said about the way photographs are taken. Alterations in technique and approach have led photography some distance from the pictorial essays of the late 19th century. The early-20th-century Modernists wrenched photography from the hands of the genteel rich. Such pioneers as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand chose to portray the world as it was, an unembellished, sometimes brutal place. They inspired generations of social documentarists, a line running from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans all the way to the photojournalists who documented the Vietnam War, among other catastrophes, with such graphic results. They were such men as Larry Burrows, Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths. Some of them paid heavily for their efforts. Burrows was killed while on assignment in Vietnam, as were 44 other journalists who monitored that war.
In the 1970s, the medium began to move away from documentary realism and veered across the ill-defined border into art. The school of so-called Postmodern photographers has taken to constructing its own images, much the way a painter does. Among the young in particular, it remains a potent influence. “Photography is a loaded medium that is extremely powerful,” said Maureen Donnelly, a photography student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. “We know that photographs do not tell the truth. They always have a bias.”
That view is new, in line with Postmodern thinking about the essence of the medium. For the moment, it is a minority opinion, but it is an example of the wide range of sentiments that photography is still capable of evoking. There are others, some of which are particularly relevant to an immigrant society like Canada’s. “For many families, photographs are often the only artifacts to survive the passage through exile, immigration and the pawnshop,” Canadian historian Michael Ignatieff wrote in his 1987 award-winning family memoir, The Russian Album. “In a secular culture, they are the only household icons, the only objects that perform the religious function of connecting the living to the dead and of locating the identity of the living in time.” That is an opinion that Uran Ishnjam, a Mongolian refugee who lives in Calgary, seems to share. “I left my past with my photos,” she declared. “Now, I want to start all over again.” At the same time, that new beginning also involves photography. “One of my first purchases here was a $17 camera,” she said. “I wanted to fix my daughter’s development, her personality, as she grew, in pictures.”
For much of the world, photography has become as familiar as an old pair of sturdy shoes—and just as necessary. “The camera is an essential part of life,” said Olive Dawson, a former professional photographer who has retired to Dartmouth, N.S. “It’s something everybody can do. People go on trips and they bring back memories—of that sun in Bermuda, or whatever.” For many, photography is even more than that. Aubrey Kyte is a retired airline pilot who lives in Montreal. He said he is glad that he can now devote himself full time to taking pictures. “It’s an obsession with me,” he said. “I will sit down anywhere and talk about two things—flying and photography.” According to Jane Corkin, who runs a commercial fine-art photo gallery in Toronto, photography’s allure is based on the fact that it is “a democratic medium—nonelitist.” Added Corkin: “It crosses all boundaries. It describes the human condition and it speaks to people in a very direct way. As the world gets smaller, that is very important.” Richard Graburn, director of the Nickle Arts Museum at the University of Calgary, has another view. “People are not frightened by it,” he said.
Some would dispute that opinion. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter of New York City’s Rock Foundation recalled photographing natives in New Guinea, people who not only had never seen a camera before, but who lacked mirrors or any other kind of reflecting devices. When he showed them pictures of themselves, said Carpenter, “suddenly they could see themselves, and when you see yourself for the first time, it’s very frightening. You think your soul is outside of you, like your shadow. They would cover their mouths in self-consciousness. Mouths and speech are the self, the source of intelligence and identity, and they wanted to prevent the self from escaping. They would stamp one foot in fear and turn away in embarrassment.” For his part, Asen Balikci, an anthropology professor at the University of Montreal, experienced something similar—although more frightening—when he tried to film the Danikil people of Ethiopia. “They hated it,” he said. “They thought it was soul-stealing. They were afraid that the camera might capture their souls and that the owner of the picture would be able to control their souls. Their rejection was brutal. They became very violent and we had to abandon it.”
It is not only primitives who fear photography. The medium is powerful and, like all powerful things, there are moments when it has to be treated with circumspection. Although the natives of New Guinea are in a sense light years away from most modern societies, Carpenter pointed to something that significantly narrows the distance. “We do not stick pins in pictures to do people harm,” he said, “but we can literally kill someone by sticking their image in a negative context in a newspaper.” There are none who understand the nature of that power better than photographers themselves, which may be one of the reasons why many of them are so reluctant to have their pictures taken. Henri Cartier-Bresson, for one, says that he hates it to the point where he once physically attacked a photographer who was about to take his picture.
Sometimes the pressures are more subtle, as in advertising. Some industry observers have noted a new trend in advertising photography that appeals to some but which others find vaguely disturbing. “The products are hidden, or out of focus, or not even appearing in the photographs,” said Anthony Jazzar, art director of Flare magazine. “They contain a certain amount of information about the product, but the mood and the image created are what is really important.” The mood is frequently erotic: one advertising photograph for women’s hosiery portrays nothing but a naked woman’s legs upon a bed. It is a testament to photography’s power that, while technically a visual phenomenon, it still manages to arouse other sensations. Fred Bird understands the phenomenon well. He is a Toronto-based photographer specializing in shooting food advertisements. Said Bird: “Food itself touches all the senses—it is erotic. And the hardest thing is to touch all of those senses in a photo, so you can hear the bacon sizzle.”
That is precisely what a photograph is capable of accomplishing. If the hand wielding the camera is skilful, if the eye behind the lens is astute, a photograph can make bacon sizzle. It can hear a laugh, touch a tear, summon a memory. A century and a half after Louis Daguerre seized the light, the magic is still there.