From Ian Mortimer’s MILLENNIUM:
Photography did more than any other form of illustration to reform society’s image of itself. You could say it did for society what the mirror did for individuals in the fifteenth century…[photographs] reveal the object in front of the lens whatever it happened to be, including many details that the photographer would not have noticed when he took the shot. Although there was of course still a great deal of [subjective] intention in photographs, and many pictures were posed for propaganda and publicity purposes, people [came] to believe that the camera captured the actual scene. Once the camera shutter had flashed open, the object itself told the story. It was no longer filtered through a genteel artist’s imagination or memory.
Such a naïve view of photography has, of course, given way to postmodern skepticism; we know that photo scenes can be staged, that images can be airbrushed, cropped, and manipulated in numerous ways. Still, Mortimer is indisputably right about at least the initial impact of photography on a culture:
The invention of [portrait] photography would have amounted to little more than the puffing-up of middle-class pride if it had not been for the ability to publish photographic images. In this respect, the key invention was not Daguerre’s method of photographing people in studios but Henry Fox Talbot’s technique of creating negative images from which albumen prints could be made. The first photographic book, Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature…reproduced images of his family home, Laycock Abbey, as well as still-life images and landmarks such as the boulevards of Paris and the bridge at Orleans…John Thomson, who travelled extensively in the Far East in 1862-71, published views of China and Cambodia that showed English readers for the first time what a Chinese street scene looked like, or how the ruins of Angkor Wat, the great Cambodian temple, loomed out of the jungle. No amount of text could bring these things home to the reader so vividly.
Even the best artistic compositions, it seemed, “were not ‘true’ in the way that a photograph was true…By 1900, photography had become an essential component of publishing and journalism. The ability to create images that showed the actual scene in front of an observer’s eyes increasingly conferred the obligation to do so.”
This is more or less a rule of technology: any technology that can be developed will be developed, and any technology that can be used (profitably, of course) will be used.
What better subject for the camera than the horrors of war:
Images of the Crimean War taken by Roger Fenton were engraved for publication in the Illustrated London News in the 1850s. In the following decade, Matthew B. Brady employed a small cohort of photographers to document the American Civil War (1861-65); their work was published in engraved form in Harper’s Weekly. With the images there to tell the story, reporting became more visceral too, describing in detail the scenes of battle.
It was much more difficult to portray war as a romance when photographs showed it for the nightmare it was: “during the First World War [photographs] showed true horrors: the dismembered corpses of ordinary men and women among the wreckage of their houses, the earth spat up in the air in terrifying fury as a shell exploded, or a semi-naked woman blown in half with her baby when a mortar shell fell on a maternity hospital.”
Even apart from the battlefield, the camera punctured pleasant illusions about life:
Photography also influenced public awareness of social changes in less violent contexts, such as the disappearing Native American way of life, or the housing conditions of people in slum tenements. Indeed, photography and textual journalism developed a common concern to depict the reality of social inequality and deprivation…Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) combined text and images to show what life was like for the poorest inhabitants of New York’s tenements, from hammocks in seven-cent boarding houses to tramps’ sleeping places in basements.
An entirely new epistemology, based on the (supposed) veracity of visual images, was at hand:
Photography redefined our understanding of evidence and truth. It undermined the authority of the artist, whose storytelling images were appreciably more subjective than a camera. The witnessed moment could now be captured directly and shared amongst millions. Crime scenes were photographed to preserve evidence of illegal deeds. Prisons kept images of all those who passed through their gates. ‘Wanted’ posters in towns on the American frontier carried mug shots of fugitives from justice. Police forces kept thousands of photographs of suspects…from 1850 photography was also increasingly employed by scientists, especially in astronomy, with nebulae being photographed in 1880 and objects invisible to the naked eye in 1883.
Ian Mortimer concludes:
By 1900 the transformation was largely complete. A process of determining ‘truth’ that in 1880 had relied wholly on witnesses’ perception and narrative skill had been displaced by a system that was predominantly based on objective evidence, thanks in no small part to photography.
We might note that such developments as modern abstract art, surrealism, and modern “confessional” poetry were not unrelated to the fact that the camera could capture nature and external reality far more accurately and objectively than artists or writers—who understandably then began exploring other ways to represent reality and other facets of reality to represent.
By now, of course, the revolutionary impact of photographic images is old-hat and their mesmerizing effects have worn off. We take visual images for granted, and we’re even sophisticated enough now to challenge the established narratives of events like the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, the 9/11 attacks, or the size of the crowd at the president’s inaugural—despite the existence, in every one of those cases, of ample photographic and cinematic documentation. We now realize that images can be manipulated and that the camera can be used to frame a story in a particular way; so we're free to conjure competing narratives.
That said: it should give us pause to realize that we live in a visual culture that is less than two hundred years old and the full influence of which on our psyche is yet to be established. Might we live in a different world entirely if Jesus had given “The PowerPoint Presentation on the Mount” and if his miracles, death and resurrection (or lack thereof) had all been captured by photographs? What if Mohammed’s flight to heaven (or lack thereof) had been recorded on film, or if Joseph Smith had been able to display a snapshot of the Angel Moroni?
Unanswerable questions, of course, and despite our reliance on “objective evidence” to determine truth, we still quarrel about what the truth actually is; people still claim to have visions and to witness miracles and supernatural phenomena, and figures of authority even fall back on the idea of “alternative facts” when their claims aren’t supported by evidence. Visual technologies don’t settle everything by any means; but they do force us to grapple with their power and implicit authority.
I vote for the camera, then, along with the internal combustion engine, as one of the most consequential inventions (or, in Mortimer's phrase, "change agents") of the modern age.