“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images – one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”
– Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)
Photography is an outlet for us to both collect and create history. However, photography is changing. We now are filming ourselves nonstop, with Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, and other apps that keep us vigilantly connected to friends and family.
New York Times columnist James Estrin speaks to social media’s affect on photography. There are two notable changes. One, it is creating a vast new audience that can appreciate photography (consider Instagram). Two, it is changing what we share; the majority of pictures circulated is about ourselves, our friends, and families (consider selfies).
Teju Cole’s “On Photography” column in the NY Times has addressed the influence of photojournalism throughout history. Images that may seem simple now; for example, the dancing legs of three African boys gracing the sand as the ocean splashes their feet, inspired artistic masters to go out and capture the “eternity through the moment.”
Without photographers to help us define our world, where would be? How would we understand our vast history – in moments dark and bright?
Here are some of the defining photographs through time.
Roger Fenton – Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855)
Roger Fenton was one of the first people to capture the brutality of war on film. Fenton traveled from Britain in 1853 to the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea, where England, France, and Turkey were embroiled in a war against Russia. This photo is famously free from any dead or wounded bodies to avoid offending Victorian sensibilities, instead, the natural landscape is littered with wasted cannonballs.
Mathew Brady – Confederate Dead Gathered for Burial at Antietam (1862)
Brady’s team didn’t actually have the technical abilities to take pictures of the civil war battles in action, but his haunting visions of the aftermath of major battles like Antietam and Gettysburg perhaps forever defined the public’s relationship with warfare and reporting.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s talent as a chemist helped him pioneer some of earliest color photographs. He also ambitiously ventured to capture the diverse culture and history of the Russian empire as it bounded toward modernization.
Jacob Riis – Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement (1889)
Jacob Riis was a Danish-American social reformer and journalist armed with a camera in New York City at the height of immigration. He believed that charitable citizens would help the poor when they saw for themselves “how the other half” lived, which turned into a groundbreaking work in the muckraking movement.
Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson (1936)
In one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, Dorotea Lange captured the muted fear of a mother facing the threat of the Great Depression in the American West in her work for the Farm Security Administration.
Robert Frank was a Swiss Jew who travelled across the US at the height of the Cold War, capturing the American people —black and white, urban and rural, poor, middle, and upper class – in what seem to be mundane settings. His collection titled The Americans is arguably the best visual critique of modern society from an outsider’s perspective in the twentieth century.