Uses of Photography

“Since its invention in 1839, photography has served as a medium for documenting, understanding, and interpreting the world. It has radically contributed to the evolution of visual representation, in part by allowing for the documentation of a moment in time, and, because of its inherent reproducibility, by enabling the wide circulation and distribution of images—which has exploded with the advent of the Internet and social media platforms.

Photographs are forms of representation, shaped by a series of decisions made by the photographer. Moreover, the way we interpret a photograph is influenced not only by the photographer’s intention, but also by the ways in which a picture is produced, edited, and circulated. Photography has been used throughout history and into the present day as a tool for science and exploration; as a means of documenting people, places and events; of telling stories and recording histories; and as a mode of communication and critique in our increasingly visual culture. The medium is being continually reinvented and rethought, shaped as much by technological advances as it is by the ever-changing dialogues surrounding photography’s use.” – From the MOMA.

Types of uses of photography:

1. Posed/unposed. “Although the advent of social media opened the floodgates on the taking and sharing of photographs of ourselves and others, people have been posing for the camera since photography’s invention. Early cameras required long exposure times, and for subjectsto appear in focus they had to remain still for extended periods. By the late nineteenth century, photographic technology had improved: film became more light-sensitive and cameras became easier to use. Beginning in 1888, Kodak’s advertisements for its new, handheld cameras promised: “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.” With photography accessible to a much broader audience, not only could anyone take a picture, but the pictures they took could capture people in candid moments of daily life. Such flexibility allowed photographers to challenge viewers’ assumptions about what is posed and what is unposed.”

2. Photography and Public use. “Photography and celebrity have become so intertwined that our understanding of famous figures is largely shaped by the images we see of them. Before the invention of photography, the likenesses of the rich, famous, and illustrious could be found on coins and in paintings and statues. With the advent of film negatives in the 1840s, photographic portraits could be reproduced and widely disseminated. Roughly 150 years later, when digital cameras were introduced and widely adopted in the 1990s, it became easier than ever to take, circulate, and manipulate pictures of people. Early in photography’s history, those with means and stature went to photography studios to have their portraits taken. The resulting images were formal and posed. As camera shutter speeds increased and technology advanced, photographersbegan to experiment with new ways of picturing public figures. While some photographers reinforce celebrities’ public personas through carefully structured portraits, others have sought to uncover and capture something of the real, unguarded person behind their public image.”

3. Photography as witness. Photography is often perceived as an objective, and therefore unbiased, medium for documenting and preserving historic moments and national and world histories, and for visualizing and narrating news stories. But the choices made by a photographer—including how the image is composed, what is left in or out of the frame, and how it may be cropped, edited, or otherwise altered after it is taken—introduce a point-of-view into the photograph and inevitably impact how we receive and understand images. Such considerations raise critical questions about how willingly we accept any one photograph as a reflection of definitive truth. Photographs can bear witness to history and even serve as catalysts for change. They can foster sympathy and raise awareness or, alternatively, offer critical commentary on historical people, places, and events. Throughout the history of the medium, photographers have aimed to capture the essence of events they witnessed—though the question of the trustworthiness of their images is always up for debate.

4. Sets, stories, situations. In its early decades, photography was considered a valuable artistic tool—especially by painters who based their compositions on photographs—but not necessarily a fine art. By the mid-19th century, photographers and artists became eager to demonstrate that the medium had serious artistic potential and that photographs could be on a par with the long-established arts of painting and sculpture. Among the ways they did this was to stage and photograph tableaux based on literature or Biblical stories, which were historically the province of painters and sculptors. Other photographers restaged well-known historic events that they were unable to capture in real time because of the technical limitations of early cameras and negatives. Building and reflecting upon the legacy of early staged photography, many contemporary artists make their own elaborately structured photographs—with a twist. Their images are carefully constructed and meticulously photographed, but in ways that consciously reveal their artifice. By showing the ease with which images may be set-up or manipulated, these artists challenge the commonly held perception of photography as an objective medium.

5. The photographic record.  Shortly after photography’s invention in 1839, rapid and succeeding technological advancements allowed photographic images to be adopted as memory aides, surrogates for direct observation, and even trustworthy duplicates of important documents. Photographs can provide glimpses into lives past, long-ago events, and forgotten places. They can help shape our understanding of culture, history, and the identity of the people who appear in them. Photography has been utilized in these ways, and perceived as a tool of accurate and objective documentation, because of its inextricable connection to the real world: light-sensitive film records what is before the camera’s lens. Generations of photographers have used the camera for this end, even as many of them acknowledge that their images are not fixed statements of fact but, rather, that they may be read and interpreted in many different ways. Photographs can also be powerful tools for telling stories and chronicling events. Their context and presentation can greatly influence the way we understand everything from historical narratives to current cultural issues and situations. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, photographers, scientists, and social historians gathered together photographic images into archives cataloguing people, places, and natural phenomena. By the second half of the 20th century, new perspectives emerged, which challenged the idea of the photographic archive, and the photograph itself, as an objective record. Many contemporary artists have taken on photographs and photographic archives as the subject of their own work, re-examining and re-interpreting the histories they convey through methods ranging from appropriation to digital manipulation of existing images. In doing so, they seek to reveal biases, challenge accepted histories, and construct new narratives.

Source, Image by Richard Avendon.

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