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Photographic images have been altering people's minds and rearranging their lives for a long time. In 1839, the year of photography's invention, an American gentleman secretly photographed his wife in a tryst with a lover; no doubt this affected their marriage. A Scot serving in the far colonies thirty years later received some photographs from friends back home and immediately "fell head and ears in love with the portrait of a young lady of 18." He took the first steamer back to Scotland, proposed to the girl immediately, "gracefully allowed her two hours to consider of the matter," and soon the pair were wed. "Wanted" photos of criminals have made one kind of difference, radio photos of outer space another. Even the absence of photographs has been significant: think what the effect would have been had someone snapped a picture of Jack the Ripper or if Viking I had sent back images of city streets on Mars.
Photographs have a swifter and more succinct impact than words, an impact that is instantaneous, visceral, and intense. They share the power of images in general, which have always played havoc with the human mind and heart, and they have the added force of evident accuracy. A recent book on the power of images argues that a good part of the faith in representation depends on "the felt efficacy . . . of the exactly lifelike," whether the image be a votive figure, a religious icon, a nude, or a portrait. Lifelike images produce responses that closely resemble our reactions to actual people and events, as every teenage boy with a girlie magazine knows.
Religions have long attested to the persuasive and subversive powerof images. Jewish and Moslem prohibitions against representations of the deity go back to ancient times, and Christianity has undergone repeated outbreaks of iconoclasm. In the nineteenth century, even before photography, governments were as convinced of the influence of images as religions were. Louis-Philippe took the throne in France in 1830 to free the press, but five years later he reestablished censorship over one form alone: caricatures. A pamphlet was considered only a "violation of opinion," but a caricature amounted to an "act of violence," too dangerous to go unchecked.
Photographs have tended to make governments more nervous still. Today, fears of photography are steadily mounting—as Israel, South Africa, and China have gone to great pains to prove. South Africa has even prohibited sketches or photographs of prisons, as well as photographs of the security police headquarters in Johannesburg, where many prisoners were interrogated. Prohibitions against photographs testify directly to their power. Suppression works. When South Africa banned foreign journalists and photographers, repression in that country drifted off the front pages to an inside spot. When China cut off television broadcasting of the 1989 demonstrations, army repression necessarily vanished from the screen.
History might have worn a different face had certain photographs been let loose. In India in 1946 Mohammed Ali Jinnah's doctor developed a set of X rays that spelled a death sentence for his patient. Tuberculosis had already severely damaged the lungs; he was not likely to live more than two or three years longer. Jinnah, the iron-willed leader of the Moslem League, was determined to create the Moslem state of Pakistan, no matter what the cost. He swore his doctor to secrecy; if his opponents were to find out he was under a death sentence, they would probably try to outlast him, and Pakistan itself would die before it ever existed. The doctor sealed the film in an unmarked envelope and locked it in his office safe. At midnight on August 14, 1947, in the wake of bloody riots and untold deaths throughout India, Pakistan became a nation with Jinnah at its head. Thirteen months later, the Father of Pakistan died. The photographs of his lungs were still sealed in an envelope in an office safe.
In the late twentieth century we know at first hand a good deal about the effects of photography. Its visible results are everywhere, promising experience we have not earned. Those of us who have never been in a war zone share memories of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam with the men who fought the battles. We know how General MacArthur waded ashore in the Philippines, how dead were the eyes of GIs in Korea, how a prisoner was shot at point-blank range in Saigon. And that is one of the subjects of this book: how photography has created a communal reservoir of memories, and how certain images gained entry. We are inundated with images and threatened with drowning, yet in this flood of visual blandishments and assaults, only a few have changed some aspect of the world in even a tiny degree. It is those that are the heroes and villains of this story.
Photography came into a world that was already crazy about pictures and drove it mad. A populace that was at first charmed, fascinated, thrilled, and a little bewildered by the new images eventually became addicted. Photographs took up residence in daily life, they moved in, they took over. Within half a century it was impossible to imagine a life without them.
Western culture was in the process of being reinvented just as photography came to light. New opportunities, new wealth, a new merchant class were slowly changing the structure of society, and in the wake of the American, French, and industrial revolutions, ideas of entrepreneurial freedom and individual worth had begun to take root. The potential for information gathering and distribution exploded at the very instant that such cultural change made expanded information desirable. The railroad sent people and news across miles at frightening speeds; after the mid-1840s the telegraph sent the news even faster. Machines made cheap paper quickly, iron printing presses replaced wooden ones, steam drove the presses fast and hard. Cheaper, quicker, better: new ways to get there, new ways to find out.
In the growing industrial economies and burgeoning urban centers, literacy rose and governments encouraged it: French and English law instituted state-subsidized education in the 1830s. The penny press was established at the same time—a cheap source of news with more columns to fill than news to put in them. By 1840 the number of American newspapers had increased more than 70 percent, and circulation had almost quadrupled during a decade when the population had grown by only a little more than a third.
With life being lived more in public than before, in the streets and on the factory floor, in offices and shops, and with travel by rail and steamship becoming more common, people grew ever more curious about the strangers among them, strange lands abroad, and strange events in the news. The expanding information system responded. The penny press filled its half-empty pages with new "human interest" stories, increasingly illustrated by engravings of shipwrecks and foreign capitals. Soon the camera would add accounts of fisherfolk in Scotland and judges in America. Whether the desire to know called forth the information or the potential for information piqued the appetite is the kind of chicken-egg question that a chicken would answer differently than an egg would, but certain it is that supply and demand kept pace with one another.
The cheap press and wider literacy coincided with the graphic revolution, which had been picking up speed since the late eighteenth century, when broadsides and satirical prints streamed off the presses. In the century before the advent of photography, the popularity of caricature and social satire, the proliferation of illustrated books, the publication of Denis Diderot's profusely illustrated Encyclopedie, and the timid beginnings of illustrations in newspapers all testify to the growing appeal of images. Wood engraving was revived and lithography invented in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Photography would eventually shoulder them both aside, but until it did they fed an image-hungry public a rich diet of pictures.
Pictures sold papers. In England in 1821 the Observer published four engravings of the coronation of George IV and sold sixty thousand copies. In 1832 (seven years before the invention of photography) the Penny Magazine, founded in Britain by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, began to put illustrated information before the public on a regular basis for the first time. In 1837 the Weekly Chronicle printed a picture each week illustrating the notorious Greenacre murder case and claimed sales of one hundred eighty thousand an issue. But the biggest step toward picture communication was the founding of the world's first illustrated weekly, the Illustrated London News, in 1842. Picture papers were soon established across Europe and North and South America.
In their first volume the editors of the Penny Magazine had solemnly announced their participation in a revolution: "Cheap communication," they wrote, "breaks down the obstacles of time and space—and thus bringing all ends of a great kingdom as it were together, greatly reduces the inequalities of fortune and situation, by equalizing the price of commodities, and to that extent making them accessible to all." The penny press, the telegraph, and pictures, cheap pictures of everything, were about to sow the seeds of common knowledge across the world. The Penny Magazine sold its plates to French and German publications; already people who would never so much as pass each other in the street were having their minds stocked with common visual memories.
This fascination with printed images was accompanied by a mounting respect for realism that would have major historical consequences. When coins had been the chief means of identifying a king, rulers easily went incognito among their subjects, but when Louis XVI tried to escape the fury of the Revolution, a citizen who knew his features from a portrait on paper money saw through his disguise. Before photography a certain laxity in matters of realism had been perfectly acceptable. Faithful copies had been as faithful to the conventions and prejudices of their time as to the objects themselves. A seventeenth-century engraving of Notre Dame, for example, eliminated the cathedral's Gothic irregularities by making it more symmetrical and rounding its pointed windows. An 1836 lithograph of Chartres reversed the procedure by stretching that church's rounded windows up to Gothic points. Then photography stepped in with an immutable reality; it left the windows intact, no matter which style the photographer favored.
The public was enchanted, for the desire was abroad to catch nature in a net. In the late eighteenth century the camera obscura (which projected an image of the surroundings on the wall of an enclosed box, where it could be traced) and the camera lucida (a mechanical device to help artists precisely record the contours of landscape and urbanscape) caught the fancy of professionals and amateurs alike. William Henry Fox Talbot's experiments that led to the first negative process in 1839 were sparked partly by the fact that he drew so badly. He wanted to put down on paper, permanently, the lakes and forests he could not get right even with mechanical assistance. Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre did better with pen and brush: before perfecting his process (also in 1839), he was the painter and proprietor of a diorama that had astonishing powers to fool the eye.
After Daguerre had demonstrated what he could do with a camera in 1839, a Frenchman said the daguerreotype "is not a picture . . . it is the faithful memory of what man has built throughout the world and of landscapes everywhere. . . . You will write to Rome: Send me by post the dome of St. Peter's; and the dome of St. Peter's will come to you by return mail." When the painter Paul Delaroche first saw a daguerreotype, he cried out (or so it is said), "From this day painting is dead!" (To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of painting's death was greatly exaggerated.)
Photography came along when society wanted pictures and proof and was prepared to believe the two were the same. It is no accident that the medium's early years coincided with the reign of positivism in Europe and the realistic novels of Honore de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. The public was ripe for photography; millions were longing all unconsciously for what fate (and a couple of clever men) were about to confer on them. At a time when realism was all, the medium was considered so nearly synonymous with truth that a religious tract with no illustrations of any kind called itself Sunday-School Photographs and a magazine that had nothing to do with photography took the name Daguerreotype. As late as 1898 the New York Journal labeled several pictures from Cuba "photographs" to lend them authenticity, although they were obviously, even blatantly, pen-and-ink sketches. As one critic put it, "The nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true and it wound up believing that what it saw a photograph of was true—from the finish of a horse race to the nebulae in the sky."
Not everyone was pleased with the arrival of the picture culture. As early as the 1840s William Wordsworth wrote a sonnet decrying the degradation of "Man's noblest attribute," the printed word. Fearful that "a dumb Art" would lead his "once-intellectual land" back toward life in the caves, the poet cried, "Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!/Must eyes be all-in-all, the tongue and ear/Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!" Yet the advancing images could not be stopped. When Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883, he planned to pump up circulation by the sensational use of woodcuts, then gradually reduce the number of illustrations until the paper reached a dignified level once more. But when he started to cut pictures, circulation fell so precipitously he was forced to bring them back again.
It was clear from the moment photography was announced that the new arrival would change the life of everyone touched by it, although it may not have been so clear at the beginning that none would remain untouched. The first change was the possibility that almost everyone could have a portrait made. The production of portraits had already increased during the late eighteenth century in response to the desires of the expanding mercantile class. Equipped with a heightened sense of self and self-importance but not necessarily with the money for a painter, the new middle classes had run to have silhouettes of their profiles traced. In 1786 a device called the physiognotrace made it possible to engrave and multiply these profiles.
After 1839 people who were not wealthy enough to commission portraits by a painter like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres no longer had to make do with silhouettes or with the stiff pink renditions of their faces turned out by itinerant painters but could afford to have their presence in the world doubled on a polished silver surface. The daguerreotype, beloved for portraiture, dominated the field until the 1850s, but it was relatively expensive in the beginning, and each image was unique. Millions were taken—in 1859 Charles Baudelaire raged, "Our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze on its trivial image on a scrap of metal." Painted portraits could not match the magical presence of photographs. Elizabeth Barrett yearned "to have such a memorial of every being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases—but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing . . . the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever!"
As early as 1843 it was understood that the new medium would heighten the sense of life's fragility: "In the transition forms of his offspring, the parent will discover the traces of his own mortality; and in the successive phases which mark the sunset of life, the child, in its turn, will read the lesson that his pilgrimage too has a period which must close." And photographs rapidly altered connections to personal and family histories—in the Western world one's mother-in-law and great-grandfather had not previously been so eternally and visibly present. Photography could keep the dead around forever. On a table in the widow's front parlor, in a velvet-and-gilt case, stood a portrait of her late husband in the black-bearded vigor of good health. Beside his stern image rested the portrait of a dead infant carried off by diphtheria ten years earlier, photographed in gentle counterfeit of sleep. The nineteenth century was preoccupied with its own mortality; it must have been comforting that photographs allotted longer life than the Lord had seen fit to bestow. Portraits of the dead were big business in America. In 1854 Humphrey's Journal carried the following ad: "Daguerrian Gallery For Sale—The only establishment in a city of 20,000 inhabitants; and where the pictures of deceased persons alone will pay all expenses."
Photography formulated a new sense of what knowledge was and a new estimate of the kinds of knowledge anyone might hope to have. Today everyone—not duchesses alone, not lawyers educated at the Sorbonne, but waitresses, druggists, accountants, postmen—recognizes the pyramids. Photography tore down many of the fences put up around knowledge and information by class distinctions. Yet it could not do so for the first twenty years. A baron, an Oxford don, and a chimney sweep were unlikely to have the opportunity to view the same unique daguerreotype. Even the reproducible processes, such as Fox Talbot's calotypes, took so much time and effort to print that they were never produced in great quantities. Photography could not wield the kinds of influence examined in these pages until it achieved wide distribution.
Frederick Scott Archer's collodion-on-glass negative process of 1851 provided the key. Collodion on glass was simpler and faster; a commercial photographer could parcel out the printing operations to unskilled printers who produced photographs in quantity in a kind of assembly-line operation. The tintype, invented in 1856, brought the price (and the level of skill) of portraiture down further and immeasurably widened the market for photographs. But it was the stereograph and the carte de visite that turned ordinary picture lovers into addicts. The single prized photograph became a group, a hoard, a treasure trove. The stereograph and the carte transformed families, neighborhoods, whole populations into collectors.
Stereographs are paired photographs taken with a twin-lens camera. Viewed in a stereoscope, they open up the two-dimensional image into a fully convincing three-dimensional world. The stereograph became a practical object in 1849 when Sir David Brewster invented a viewer. Queen Victoria was so impressed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 that Brewster gave her a specially designed stereoscope. And what Victoria loved, her subjects doted on; English parlors soon enshrined these little monuments to binary vision. The London Stereoscopic Company, founded in 1854, sold one million pictures in 1862 alone. Europe liked stereographs even better, and the United States best of all. About 1864 Oliver Wendell Holmes—who had remarked that stereographs offered "a surprise such as no painting ever produced"—designed a more convenient viewer. For the rest of the century everyone with leisure time and a bit of money (the photographs cost as little as $1.50 a dozen) kept a stack of Niagaras and sphinxes on the front-room table.
The stereoscope performed some of the functions of television back in the nineteenth century. Family and friends gathered around it for entertainment, and it was an enormous, if superficial, source of education about a world beyond the reach of average experience. Holmes predicted that the stereograph would be "the card of introduction to make all mankind acquaintances"—the global village at an early stage. The stereoscope delivered the news from every corner of the world and placed it before a family's eyes right in their own living room. This was a repetitive sort of news, the same pictures on view night after night, but some might say that television is not so very different.
The carte de visite, invented in 1854 and popular everywhere by the end of the decade, was a small photograph (most commonly a full-length portrait) the size of a calling card (31/2 by 21/2 inches). The carte made every citizen avid for a glancing acquaintance with famous figures. Not that depictions of famous people were new, or that people had had no taste for them before. Inexpensive reproductive processes had long ago put prints of rulers' faces and figures within the reach of most of their subjects. By the mid-nineteenth century the print and publicity industries had advanced so far that a fan of Lola Montez (a mediocre dancer and exceptional courtesan) might purchase a lithograph of her, or an engraving, aquatint, woodcut, even a portrait on a stickpin or a tobacco box—or, for that matter, a daguerreotype. Social changes and the popular press had quickened interest in the famous to such a point that one American lithographic company in 1849 was turning out three to four thousand copies of popular prints each day, most of them portraits, and most good citizens had a picture or two on the wall, or maybe five or six. Until the 1890s, when the halftone took over, lithographs and engravings would remain the most widely available illustrations in the press.
But none of these reproductions was a photograph, which is precisely the point. Photography changed the terms. First it changed the degree of reality, making the person present in the image to a degree unknown before, and then it made that uncanny presence easy to buy. Photographs magnified the life of images. The identity of self and appearance in a photograph was so complete that even Balzac hesitated to have his picture taken. He had an idea that the body consisted of layers of ghostlike images that the camera would use up, depleting the very essence of life. Objects and their photographic equivalents were also totally identified: it was reported that a group of French nuns would put little photographs "of the heart of Jesus into their soup and eat them!"
Once the obviously superior (i.e., closer to life) photographic product became cheap and plentiful, collecting began in earnest. Cartes, stereographs, tintypes, cabinet cards, collodion prints in large sizes: like a species let loose in a new territory with no natural enemies, the photographic population grew unchecked. Cartes, like stereographs, were bought in quantity; it was no longer sufficient to have a picture of your husband on the table and a hero or two on the wall. Cartes by the dozen could be slipped between covers—fifty is not an unusual number of spaces in an album—and displayed for visitors. Every front parlor became a kind of private gallery in miniature.
The intensification of photographic influence was marked by major turning points in production and distribution. After the stereograph and the carte came the Kodak, first marketed in 1888. Once photographic technology had been simplified ("You press the button, we do the rest"), every man and woman became a potential photographer. The halftone sparked another revolution when it came into wide use at the end of the century. One of its first great successes was the picture postcard, which responded to changing postal regulations in the 1890s by clogging the mails with pictures of sunny beaches and smiling children.
In the last century and a half, invention and ingenuity have continually come up with new ways to make the world accessible, affordable, and desirable to masses of people who would not otherwise see it. Les Carabiniers, a 1963 film by Jean-Luc Godard, tells the tale of two peasants who join an unnamed modern army, lured by the promise that looting will make them rich. At last they come up with a suitcase full of treasure: hundreds of picture postcards with views of nature, stores, machines, and monuments.
The halftone turned the world upside down; photographs began to collect people. For most of the nineteenth century, someone who wanted a photograph had to make a conscious effort to get one, but with advances in technology and the postal system, photographs soon came calling. They waltzed into homes on the arm of the news, they winked at passersby from newsstands. They were the come-ons on front pages, in fashion magazines, fan magazines, theater lobbies. They pulled people out of their homes to lectures designed for their edification. The moving picture, glamorous offspring of still photography, added to the enticements and aggravated the addiction to images. In 1915 Vachel Lindsay wrote, "Moving picture nausea is already taking hold of numberless people. Forced by their limited purses, their inability to buy a Ford car, and the like, they go in their loneliness to film after film till the whole world seems to turn on a reel."
A new form of photograph now took over: the disposable image. In one week in 1899 the Illustrated London News published twenty-eight photographs (and nineteen drawings), a magazine called Black and White had sixty photos (and thirteen drawings), and Leslie's Weekly in New York had forty-four photographs (and three drawings). (On the Continent the numbers were smaller.) No one needed to keep so many pictures around each week. Photographs had become superabundant, transient, superfluous.
In 1900 a writer remarked that "the daily press, advertisements, posters, scientific literature, the popular lecture, decoration, and now the kinetograph, not to speak of the coming colored photography, have all contributed what is probably slowly coming to be a new mode of pictorial thought." In 1911 an editorial in Harper's Weekly complained: "We can scarce get the sense of what we read for the pictures. We can't see the ideas for the illustrations." The visual culture of the second half of the twentieth century is not an aberration; the groundwork was laid for it many years ago.
In recent years aspects of photography's influence have been written about with sorrow and loathing and occasionally with admiration, but the legible marks that specific photographs have left on history have received much less attention. The influence of photography has been more carefully considered than the influence of particular photographs, which, when dealt with at all, has been buried in studies of individual photographers or periods or genres. The images that became part of the cultural blueprint loom up like monuments; seldom does anyone ask how they were built. In this book I mean to propose some preliminary questions and answers.
Each of the photographs in this book was a catalyst in one way or another, "precipitating a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences," as the dictionary puts it. None acted alone. No photograph ever changed anything all by itself, for photographs are highly dependent creatures and their influence is entirely contingent on words, circumstances, distribution, and belief systems. A photograph has power only if the right people see it in the right context at the right time. The photographs on these pages met all the criteria and contributed to changes in law, science, elections, culture, opinion, or the fate of individuals.
In assessing the importance of these images, I have considered only their effects. Thus a Mathew Brady picture of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, when war and personal loss had mapped his face with sorrow, may be the deeper psychological portrait, but Brady's first portrait of Lincoln in 1860 is investigated instead, because it had political ramifications. Thus Eadweard Muybridge's pictures of the horse in motion are included because they revealed a fact never known before, but Harold Edgerton's beautiful image of a milk splash is not discussed because Edgerton's electronic flash, although it is much faster and discloses more than Muybridge did (or A. M. Worthington, who studied splashes in 1908), essentially does what earlier investigations had done, only better.
The photographs have been divided into categories corresponding to the kinds of influence they exerted—revelation, proof, political persuasion, social reform, and so on. But because photographs are multivalent, most categories turn out to be highly permeable. Photographs that are credited with effecting social reform often worked partly because their images were such revelations at the time. Similarly, although fame and political persuasion are separated here for convenience and to make a fine point, each may be a kind of subcategory of the other: fame is in itself persuasive, and conversely, the power to persuade can confer fame.
Studies of the impact of any medium—television violence and children's behavior, pornographic images and crimes against women—generally come to very little. No one ever seems to find proof of what nearly everyone believes. Although public opinion is a notoriously unreliable guide to anything but public opinion, it is hard to deny what intuition, common sense, and personal experience keep drumming into the mind—that certain images influence behavior. And recently, the media themselves have started questioning the power in their hands, so strong has been the evidence that political campaigns, affairs of state, demonstrations, even revolutions have been staged largely for the benefit of cameras.
It may be that the influence of images cannot be proved to a scientist's satisfaction, yet we always seem to be living with the results, like a man with a back pain that doesn't show up in an X ray but nonetheless ruins his life. Still, influence is a sticky business. Photographs do act on history, but seldom is it a simple matter of cause and effect. A photograph is not a vote that swings an election but more like a lobbyist that sways a legislator. Photographs change nothing but spread their influence everywhere.
If photographs act on history, they act in history as well. A photograph is little more than a cultural and historical artifact that is constructed by its own time, reconstructed by each succeeding era, and altered by editing, placement, and audience. Understanding the influence of a photograph requires some understanding of the world it was born into. Roland Barthes repeatedly stressed that photographs are bound in a matrix of cultural meanings; so too is their impact. A photograph must answer some need, belief, and expectation of its times. If the audience is not ready for the message, the image may be seen but the message will not be recognized. It's like telling a child about sex when he's too young to understand; he hears what his age permits and ignores the interesting parts.
The list of photographs studied here does not pretend to be complete. Readers will have their own choices, and I hope this investigation will prompt others. This is not a survey of great photographs, or of aesthetically remarkable pictures, or even of photographs commonly thought of as important, although most of these pictures are all those things. Some did a significant job at one moment, then vanished into the wilderness of forgotten images. The issue is solely whether the world is (or was) any different because of this photograph or that one, and if so, how. These photographs walked into our lives and in some way managed to change them. So it seems appropriate to ask the questions one would ask any intruder: How did you get in? And what are you doing here anyway?
The Unimpeachable Witness
The Eye of Discovery
Someone is Watching
Political Persuaders & Photographic Deceits
Fame & Celebrity
News Photographs as Catalysts: The Magazine Era
News Photographs as Catalysts: The Television Era
Author Biography: Vicki Goldberg, who lives in New York City, is also the author of Margaret Bourke-White.