A Snapshot of Photography's Revolutionary Early Days

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Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900 By Mary Warner Marien Cambridge U. Press 222 pp., $55 It is commonplace to acknowledge that the computer revolution is fundamentally transforming our society. Time magazine articulated this view when it selected the personal computer as "Man of the Year" in 1982 and wrote, "The 'information revolution' that futurists have long predicted has arrived, bringing with it the promise of dramatic changes in the way people live and work, perhaps even in the way they think. America will never be the same. In a larger perspective, the entire world will never be the same." This is not, of course, the first time that a new technology has been heralded as the harbinger of sweeping social change. Indeed, as Mary Warner Marien documents in her fascinating book "Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900," the advent of photography was immediately recognized as an unprecedented revolution in visual knowledge that was alternately described as "a wonder, a freak of nature, a new art, a threshold science, and a dynamic instrument of democracy." Photography emerged suddenly in 1839, and its antecedents were not clear. Indeed, to this day, there are a large number of varying ideas about the origins of photography and the meaning of the photographic practice. Unlike the computer or the machines of the Industrial Revolution, photography's pioneers resisted the temptation to claim that photography was a technological invention developed by humans. Instead, they insisted that it originated in and was disclosed by nature. This emphasis allowed its pioneers to present photography not as a new science or technology but as the culmination of the long-standing search in Western culture for a means of pure representation that was "free from omission, distortion, style, murky subjectivity, or outside interference." As a result, photography was seen as a form of "natural" vision that implied a pure and direct truthfulness. This view was easily expanded to suggest that photography was also a "neutral" vision that was independent of the subject's thoughts and feelings. These ideas that photography was a natural vision and a neutral one are simply two of the many aspects described by Marien that shaped early attitudes toward, and understanding of, photography. The sometimes inconsistent ideas that shaped the understanding and acceptance of photography proved not to be a problem. To the contrary, Marien finds such ambiguity a benefit. Photography became a malleable art form that allowed many different social meanings to be ascribed to it. …