1

Historical outline of photographic representation

‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘have you ever pondered on Life?’

‘From time to time, sir, in my leisure moments.’

‘Grim, isn’t it, what?’

‘Grim, sir?’

‘I mean to say, the difference between things as the way they look and things as they are.’

(P.G. Wodehouse, 1930:18)

THE history of photography over the last 160 years traces the emergence of a practice that has revolutionised our understanding of visual communication. We can therefore propose that, in contrast to the conventional approach of describing the invention and development of the medium, we should study the medium’s growth in social, cultural and psychological significance to offer an understanding of the photographic phenomenon. But in order to do this it becomes necessary to provide both the historical background and philosophical rationale for photographic representation. This can help us to understand some of the reasons and influences that might explain how the medium has attained such significance in contemporary society. Above all, photography can be seen as a product of its time, reflecting the intellectual climate of its origins, as well as operating as an instrument of social change. Nonetheless, perhaps the most basic and fundamental question that needs to be addressed is: why is it that photographs seem to appear so realistic? And is it this assumed realism that accounts for its widespread influence? Is the answer of a purely mechanical nature, arising from quite plausible demonstrations that the camera works in a similar way to the eye and thus provides the same sort of information we obtain in everyday perception? Or is it because we have been brought up in a culture that has developed a particular set of interpretative conventions and strategies that enable its members to perceive photographic codes as realistic images?

We shall see that the opposition of the realist view of photographic representation to the conventionalist theories has haunted photography from the first years of the medium’s invention and seems to be surviving today’s impact of digital imagery. While the accumulating evidence appears to suggest that the photograph cannot be so easily

-12-

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