The alchemy involved in photography (in which packets of film are inserted into cameras, buttons are pressed and pictures of Aunt Edna emerge in due course) are regarded as uncanny, but as uncanny processes of a natural rather than a human order, like the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies. The photographer, a lowly button presser, has no prestige, or not until the nature of his photographs is such as to make one start to have difficulties conceptualizing the process which made them achievable with the familiar apparatus of photography.
(Alfred Gell, 1992:50)
OVER the past one and a half centuries, photography has been used to record all aspects of human life and activity. During this relatively short history, the medium has expanded its capabilities in the recording of time and space, thus allowing human vision to be able to view the fleeting moment or to visualise both the vast and the minuscule. It has brought us images from remote areas of the world, distant parts of the solar system, as well as the social complexities and crises of modern life. Indeed, the photographic medium has provided one of the most important and influential means of expressing the human condition. Nonetheless, the recording of events by means of the visual image has a much longer history. The earliest creations of pictorial recording go as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic period of about 35,000 years ago (some 25,000 years before the development of agriculture). And although we cannot be sure of the exact purposes of the early cave paintings—whether they record the ‘actual’ events of hunting, whether they functioned as sympathetic magic to encourage the increase of animals for hunting, whether they had a role as religious icons, or if they were made simply ‘to enliven and brighten domestic activities’ (Ucko and Rosenfeld, 1967)—pictorial images seem to be inextricably linked to human culture as we understand it.
Throughout the history of visual representation, questions have been raised concerning the supposed accuracy (or otherwise) of the visual image, as well as its status in society. Ideas and debates concerning how we see the world and the status of its pictorial representations have been central political, philosophical and psychological issues from the time of Plato to the present-day technical revolution of the new media communications. Vision and representation have pursued interdependent trajectories, counter-influencing each other throughout the history of Western culture.
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Publication information: Book title: The Photography Handbook. Contributors: Terence Wright - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1999. Page number: 1.
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