Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The First Death of Photography 1895

Searching my archives today I came across the book, Photography: Artistic and Scientific by Robert Johnson and Arthur Brunel Chatwood, Published 1895. I reproduce here an extract from the Introduction. There is something slightly timeless about the sentiment expressed even if the language and the grammar are a little dated.

The strides that photography is made during the last few years, due to the patient and earnest work of a large body of experimentalists, have not been an unmixed blessing; the production sensitive plates and other materials at cheap rates, and the possibility which exist today of buying everything ready prepared, having induced thousands to take up photography as an amusement, not as “hobby.” The result has been that the quality of the work produced has deteriorated. We do not say that the photographs are no t[sic] produced today far excelling those of the wet collodion period, but we do say that if the whole of the plates exposed in any recent year could be collected, the average quality of the results, whether from the technical or the artistic standpoint, would be found much lower than that of 20 years ago.

In the days of wet collodion, only those who were prepared to take great trouble, to exercise much thought, and to do serious work, were attracted by photography. The enormous amount of impedimenta that it was necessary to carry about deterred the half-hearted; the trouble of preparing plates caused every effort to be put forth to make each plate serve a useful purpose, and the fact that the negatives were developed on the spot, gave every opportunity for correcting by a second exposure, the errors of a first.

“Some years ago,” says a contemporary magazine, “when amateur photography was in its infancy here, as well as in other countries, a soulless corporation extensively advertised a camera which only required a button to be pressed and pictures were made. The idea soon took root that there was nothing in photography, when it merely required the pressing of a button. It was apparent that any fool could do that. And when these cameras where purchased and tried, the result convinced the owner of the fact, not only that any fool could do it, but that he was a fool a good many sizes larger for doing it. The feeling of disgust and disappointment was created, and there is little doubt but that photography was taken up by thousands and dropped again when it was found out how it had been misrepresented to them....

...Photography is considered by very many as an art, and photographers, consequently, as artists; nothing could be further from the truth. Photography is purely an interesting science; it records with greater or less fidelity the scenes and incidents presented to it; and this record is governed by scientific and mechanical principles alone.

Art consists of the representation of a conception formed in the mind of the artist in such a way as to be appreciable to other minds. And the photographer becomes an artist only in so far as his work shows that he has the mind of an artist.
I particularly like these two final paragraphs, they sum up quite concisely the paradox of photography which persists even to this day, technology v aesthetics. The change from the wet collodion process to dry plates was the first technological turn in photography. Similar sentiments have been expressed when other technological turns have influenced the popularity of photography, namely the introduction of the Kodak Brownie, 35mm photography and of course the biggest technological turn of them all the digitisation of photography. On each occasion the cognoscenti have thrown their hands in the air and claimed that the end of photography is nigh.

You can view the book on line here

No comments:

Post a Comment