A Snapshot of Photography's Revolutionary Early Days
Hartle, Terry W., The Christian Science Monitor
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
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. …