The first surviving photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, was taken in 1826 (or maybe 1827—it’s not entirely clear) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. He was 61 or 62 years-old. From an upstairs window at his family estate near the town of Chalon-sur-Saône, 189 miles southeast of Paris, Niépce captured the landscape of the property. To make the photograph, it is believed that he coated an 8-inch by 6.5-inch pewter plate with Bitumen of Judea: organic, black, oily liquid asphalt, distilled from coal and petroleum. He placed the plate inside of a camera obscura and left it exposed for at least eight hours.
In the brightest areas of the image, the bitumen hardened. With a brush, he applied oil of lavender and white petroleum, which disintegrated the unhardened bitumen sections that had been exposed to less light. He referred to it as “the first results obtained spontaneously by the action of light.”
The image Niépce captured is now so faint—so barely recognizable—that in order to see some semblance of shapes, the pewter plate must be tilted just so. Eventually, you won’t be able to see it at all. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, where the photograph is held, will be displaying a blank pewter plate. They’ll be displaying something that has become nothing.
When I was 20, I worked as an intern in the Fine and Decorative Arts Department of the British National Army Museum in London. One day, I documented a series of watercolors by Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly, a British soldier, which focused on WWI’s Western Front. Talbot Kelly used bright colors. His images seem to flutter, as if he’d painted beyond where the end of a man’s face should have been or beyond the border of a tank, so that each object bled into the other. Men wore gas masks. Green tanks rolled in no-man’s-land. An orange sun dropped behind the bleak brown battlefield of Verdun. I put the information in an Excel Spreadsheet, including a transcription of the notes Talbot Kelly had made on the back of each piece.
Talbot Kelly painted most of the watercolors when he got a rest from the front, a place where he undoubtedly slogged around in muddy trenches, killed rats, and took trips over the top to try to kill a man in another trench a thousand feet away. I wonder if he killed anyone on the same day that he created one of the watercolors—an unsettling fusion of destruction and creation.
The museum purchased the collection for, if I remember correctly, around 30-thousand-pounds. Once I was done with the documentation, it was shipped to one of the dozens of storage warehouses around the outskirts of London. Museums have lots of stuff: they have to put it somewhere. Many museums have less than one percent of their holdings on exhibit. To my knowledge, Talbot Kelly’s collection has never seen an exhibit floor. Although I wasn’t supposed to, I photographed every one of them, wanting to capture something that I knew would disappear into the archives of obscurity. Those digital photographs have less emotional weight than the originals, of course. The existential exploration of war feels less significant. It’s why visitors crowd around the Mona Lisa in Niépce’s home country’s most famous museum, The Louvre. Even though we’ve seen photographs of the Mona Lisa hundreds or thousands of times, a photograph can’t encapsulate what it means to see the work it is entirety—the experience of the viewing.
The term “photography” was first used in 1839 by Sir John Herschel. The word comes from the Greek words for light (photos) and to draw (graphein): light drawing. 1839 was also the year when the process was made available to the public by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, the Frenchman who Niépce had gone into a partnership with in 1829. Daguerre pushed Niépce’s process further and was able to cut the exposure time to half an hour, making the image more permanent by submerging it in a salt solution. Of course! Salt! It had been used as a preservative for centuries. And so Daguerre created the first fixed photographic process. By this time, Niépce had been dead for six years. He never heard the word photography. He never knew that what he had created was called a photograph.
I must have been eight or nine when I got my first camera—a big rectangle thing that took a roll of 24-exposure Kodak film. The first roll I developed included a number of shots out my bedroom window, looking out on the suburban street below and the electrical towers standing in the distance like stickmen made of steel. I don’t remember why I took those photos. They are, seemingly, of nothing. Uneven photographs taken by a boy. I suppose I liked the sound of the shudder. I suppose I liked the idea of capturing the world outside of my bedroom. I suppose I was simply excited to see what a photograph I had taken would look like. To say that I had taken a photograph. To capture a moment in time like Niépce.
The Daguerreotype was a significant but expensive improvement of Niépce’s process. And there was no way to make a replica. For many, this created value in the photograph as a work of art. Sure, a second camera could be used to make a near identical version of the first, but it wouldn’t be exact. The quality was impeccable, especially considering what Niépce had done only a little over a decade earlier.
In 1839, along with his son, Daguerre sold the rights of the Daguerreotype to the French government in exchange for lifetime annuities. France made the technology—the instructions on how to create a daguerreotype—available to the world. Photography no longer simply existed: it was given to the world for free. Less than fifteen years later, Daguerre, like his plate of iodized silver and mercury vapor, which had failed to capture a fixed image, faded. Just outside of Paris, at the age of 63, Daguerre died from heart failure. He was just a couple of years older than Niépce had been, and could never have imagined where photography would go in the decades after his death. His name is one of 72 on the Eiffel Tower.
I was 11-years-old the first time I went to Paris. My father had spent some time there when traveling through Europe with a friend the summer after he graduated college; he thought that we could all use some culture. And so we went. There’s a photograph in one of my mother’s photo albums of the five of us—my older brother, younger sister, parents and I—standing at the top of the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elyssis in the distance behind us.
We stayed at a hotel near the Moulin Rouge and the rest of the Red Light District. When we walked through the neighborhood on the way to the Arc, looking for orange juice and baguettes, my parents made my siblings and I walk in the pathway in the middle of the street, away from the sex shops. “Don’t look,” my mother said as my father tried to block our vision with his body.
After the visit to the Arc de Triumph, we went to the catacombs under Paris’ streets. I was overwhelmed by the millions of human skulls and bones moved there when the cemeteries had become too crowded. In hindsight, it seems strange that we had to wait in line and then purchase tickets to see such a thing. I took photographs that were lost over the last 15 years. They weren’t very good anyway. All of those bones and skulls together minimize the vastness and finality of death, dehumanizing the lives of the deceased, detaching the onlooker from his or her own mortality. I wonder if Daguerre or Niépce ever imagined that the catacombs would be photographed—if they considered how the boundaries of the technology would be pushed until there were, eventually, none.
At first, artists, and particularly painters, feared that the daguerreotype was the end of art. If someone could create such a detailed rendering of life in just a few minutes, then what was the point of laboring over a canvas for weeks or months or years? Sure, there were no colors, and details couldn’t be manipulated, but slices of real life could be captured in exactitude. The Romantics, after all, were concerned with emotionalizing aesthetic experience—the beauty and terror of life. What did it mean if those elaborations of life—those emphatic representations—could suddenly be disqualified, or, conversely, attested. What did it mean to no longer be able to massage reality?
In response to the innovation of photography, or maybe in collaboration with it, the realism movement in painting began. Photography could capture life without exaggeration. Without amplification or reduction. The aesthetics of reality was what was most interesting. And the painters, maybe surprisingly, responded. Suddenly, ordinary people and things became the subject of some of the most infamous canvases of the era. Farmers and blacksmiths. Housewives and laborers. A table of fruit and a landscape of rolling hills. The Romantics sought to escape from the increasingly industrialized world—growing populations, technological advancements—and return to the magical, pastoral, medieval world. What the Romantics seemed to be against was everything that photography seemed to promise. And yet, in photography the simple became the extraordinary. Were they so different after all? Did reality actually need to be altered in order to make social commentary? Wasn’t the real world painfully beautiful as it was? The French Revolution in 1848—and the revolutions around Europe that same year—was an affirmation of exactly this. The ordinary man wanted more than he’d been given. The ordinary man wanted the ability to be extraordinary.
There’s a young woman sitting up in bed. She’s 25-years-old, 5’1”, tan, sericeous blonde hair—brown at the roots where she parts it on the left side of her scalp. You’re 25-years-old, too. There is a lamp on in the far corner of the room pointing up at the ceiling; the TV is flickering images, casting on her intermittent explosions of shadows and light. She is naked. A white sheet covers her left leg; she leaves half of the right side of her body exposed —from the mid-knee up to her abdomen and her right breast. She is crying. Not sobbing. Tears run undisturbed down both of her cheeks, creating shiny patches of skin near her dimples. There is no eye shadow to smear because she doesn’t wear any. She doesn’t wear makeup when she’s with you. She simply holds the sheet up to her long, thin nose, obstructing her mouth. She stares straight ahead, the blue of her eyes magnified by the tears that sit in them.
You have just returned from the bathroom to discover her like this. Minutes before, you had taken off each other’s clothes. Maybe you excused yourself to go to the bathroom because you had to relieve yourself, or maybe you excused yourself because the two of you have known each other for nearly a decade and you’ve never slept together and you’re unsure if you should. You’re unsure. You love her, and you know that she loves you. You know things about each other that no one else does, and you trust that it will stay that way. And so you find her crying, not because she doesn’t want to sleep with you, but because she does and she doesn’t know what that means. And you wish, in that moment, that you could take a photograph of her like this because she looks so beautiful there, in bed, with half of her body exposed, but all of who she is.
Of course, you can’t take a photograph. And on the drive home at four o’clock in the morning, as you weave through the dark streets of your youth, you wish that you had learned how to paint. Because a photograph could never have done the moment justice. Photography, you think, has its limitations.
In New York City in 1840, Alexander Wolcott opened the first photography studio. The following year, its counterpart was opened in London by Richard Beard. The size of the camera had been reduced to make it easier with which to travel. Franz Kratochwila combined chlorine and bromine vapors and increased light receptiveness by five-fold. In just two years, the photograph could be taken 20 times faster, and with a resolution five times greater than the original Daguerreotype. The portrait studio was born.
By the late 1840s, virtually every town in America had a studio. Exposure time was still long enough that those posing had to keep very still, but Beard reduced it to between one and three minutes. Antoine-François-Jean Claudet, who secured a license in England from the patent that Daguerre had received in France (even though the French government had said it was free), decreased exposure time to 20 to 40 seconds by the summer of 1841. Smiling was still out of the question. Maybe it was because of having to hold that smile for too long. Maybe it was because quality dental care was still a century away.
Growing up, my family went to a portrait studio at a J.C. Penny’s 45 minutes away from where we lived in central New Jersey. I never liked going. My mother made my brother and I wear turtlenecks, often red, covered by cream-colored wool sweaters, as is evidenced by the Wall of Shame (what my brother and I named the long wall of family photos as my parents’ house). My sister never seemed to mind; she got to pick out a new dress. I felt uncomfortable in those clothes—clothes I otherwise never wore except to Christmas mass—walking through the mall, other girls my age looking at me. And then dealing with the photographer for 45-minutes. “Say Cheese!” He made us sit still for minutes, adjusting where and how my hand rested on my sister’s shoulder, how big my smile was, which way and to what degree my head was tilted. It was unbearable. I would have rather stood still for 15 minutes, not smiled, and been done with the whole mess. At least we didn’t have to see the portraits until they were developed and mailed to us a couple of weeks later. What really bothered me, although I doubt I could have articulated it then, was how staged it was—how my brother, sister and I would never have sat like that, wore clothes like that, or smiled that manufactured smile.
Although the significant technical advances of the daguerreotype may have happened in Europe, it was the American family that embraced the daguerreotype wholeheartedly. And it was the Americans who began hand-coloring daguerreotypes—from the lips and eyes to, sometimes, the clothing. A trip to the photographer’s studio was serious business, a luxury to most. Americans wore their Sunday best, standing tall and still as the exposure time elapsed. And yet there were some early cavaliers in Boston—Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes—who took portraits of people as they were, sometimes seated with unkempt hair and typical daily clothing, another step away from the Romantics and towards the Realists.
That form of documentation of things as they were took the camera around the world, where it captured the growth of American cities and the expansion of European colonialism. For the first time, average westerners could see places that they would never have dreamt of visiting. Photograph studios opened in Brazil, Japan, Lebanon. The photograph was everywhere.
Here’s another photograph I didn’t take: I’m staying with my grandfather for much of the week before he dies. He’s 86-years-old, at home on hospice. A widow to a wife of 50 years. A man who moved from central New Jersey, where he and his wife had lived for most of their lives, to the Jersey shore to escape. He has skin cancer, which started as a small bump on his scalp 14 months earlier. Four days before he dies, the skin cancer has eaten his face. From just below his eyes—halfway down the bridge of the nose—to the chin, is no longer flesh. The right side of the nose is consumed by a dark oozing scabby mass that is partially stuck to yellowed gauze, the whole of which is sinking into his face rather than—as had initially been the case—outward from it. The lips aren’t lips: they’ve become swollen, dry, flaky dark masses that invade the inside of his mouth, including the bottom row of teeth—like an over-sized cuticle on the base of a fingernail. As he lays in bed with his eyes closed, right hand on his forehead, his mouth is partially open and hardening puss runs from where one lip had been to the other, as if it is a string of chewing gum. His body must be 20-pounds lighter since I saw him a couple of months ago, legs as skinny as a boy’s. Candles burn around the house—the windows open. I don’t need a photograph to remember, with precision, this scene. Inevitably, however, photography would begin, soon after its widespread availability and accessibility, to document the uglier truths of life.
Matthew B. Brady took the photograph of President Abraham Lincoln that was transformed into the engraving used for the five dollar bill. He was the first photographer of the rich and famous, photographing everyone from Andrew Carnegie to Ulysses S. Grant. Yet, maybe his most influential work was his Civil War photographs. Following the battles on a mobile photography cart, he captured, like his photography forefathers had, things the world had never seen before. But his photos were different: they captured the casualties of war—the dead on the battlefield after the fight was over. There were no ethical boundaries of the photograph; rather, there were frontiers to explore. Brady was obsessed. With the money he made capturing portraits before the war, he self-financed a $100,000 campaign to document the war, at times having as many as 20 photographers working for him. The obsession eventually ruined him financially. He died in obscurity but never regretted the decision he had made.
Brady may be responsible for another first in photography. In New York City in 1856, Brady took a portrait of A.T. Stewart, one of Brady’s first clients who had made his millions in department stores. In the portrait, Stewart is smiling, unambiguously—something unparalleled during the era. Granted, Stewart had a lot to smile about, considering his fortune, but the smile was a couple of generations away from becoming commonplace.
After my grandfather died—and admittedly, even while he was dying—my mother and aunt discovered some early photographs of my grandfather and grandmother taken the night they had first met. It was the first time I had seen them.
My grandparents had gone to a collegiate dance with different significant others, but with the same group of friends. A few of those friends would stay close with them until their deaths. In the photo, six couples pose. My grandfather was with a woman, who my grandmother would mention in a loathing but comedic way, until her death at age 74.
The photographs, in black and white and not a whole lot crisper than the daguerreotype of a century before, were taken with a Kodak camera. It was the camera of the twentieth century produced by a company no longer in business.
Eastman Kodak Company (Kodak) was incorporated in Rochester, New York in 1901. It was the brainchild of George Eastman, who had established a business twenty years earlier, no longer having to coat plates with wet chemicals. Eastman had built a machine that produced dry plates, pre-coated with the right mix of chemicals. By 1888, he’d created a smaller, more portable camera than any of his predecessors, and he sold them with film inside—the camera being shipped back to him in Rochester for development, the film inside then being replaced. At the turn of the century, removable film was introduced. For virtually the rest of the century, Kodak dominated photography, introducing the home-movie camera, color film, videocassette recording. But the introduction of digital photography at the end of the twentieth century would lead to its demise.
When I went to Rome in the fall of 2006, I took many photographs of the Colosseum; two were taken of me with the Colosseum in the background. The first is of me sitting on a ledge across the street from the Colosseum. I’m wearing a grey designer T-shirt with some kind of overdone crest that covers most of my chest, blue jeans, and an inexpensive leather-band watch. A half-smoked cigarette hangs from the corner of my mouth, and I’m smiling a smart-ass smile because I’m twenty, at the Colosseum, likely hungover, and this seems like the type of photograph to take. I can post it on Facebook later, something which I joined only months before.
On August 18, 2010, Facebook launched the “Check-in” feature, allowing a user to announce wherever he or she is on the planet. Since then (as of the writing of this piece), 1,493, 814 people have checked in at “Colosseum,” although others have checked in at alternately spelled Colosseums. If each of these people took three photographs of the Colosseum while there, and those photographs were printed out at the standard size 5” by 7”, and lined up horizontally, they would stretch for nearly 500 miles. Or to put it another way, they would encircle the Colosseum nearly 1500 times. This in just four years.
None of these photographs are the same. Each photograph has its own thumbprint. Its own unique angle, even if it’s mere thousandths of inch off from where another photograph was taken. And the light and the sky and the weather are always different.
There are over 140 billion photographs on Facebook, although the number is rising exponentially. Hundreds of millions are added each day. It could be 200 billion by now. Maybe 300 billion. It’s not entirely clear. Their collection of photographs is more than 10,000 times larger than the Library of Congress. It’s conceivable that Facebook will have tens of trillions within the next decade.
Before the first Kodak camera was invented by George Eastman, it’s likely that the total number of photographs taken was in the tens of millions. And that was in 1888, and the photograph had been around for 60 years. In 2011, it’s estimated that 280 billion photographs were taken. In 1970, the number was 10 billion. In total, approximately 3.5 trillion photos have been taken since Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras. And he thought what he’d done was a light drawing. What he did was alter reality.
I was at a concert recently when the band, one minute into their most popular song, stopped playing. The lead singer announced that they wouldn’t continue playing until everyone put away their cell phones. The crowd was a sea of cellphone flashlights, of people holding their phones up, recording the song being played. The people were watching the song through their phones. But few people, if any, did indeed put away their phones. And so the lead singer stood there, looked out on the crowd, and the crowd looked back at him through their phones, a collective groan spreading. And the singer took a step back from the microphone and looked around at his bandmates, a couple of whom shrugged back at him. They started playing again.
Bitumen, the material that Niépce used to coat the pewter plate in View from the Window at Le Gras, has a history that goes back through practically all of the human record. Its first proven use was by the Neanderthals 40,000 years ago; bitumen was used it to secure pieces of tools together—some of the first complex tools man created.
I can’t get away from the fact that my life is seen through photography. Through sill images and moving images and composite images. Through paintings and drawings and sketches. Through light drawings.
Recently, I’ve tried to take fewer photographs. To immediately erase the images that I don’t want to keep. I try to let my memory do more of the work. To give my mind the opportunity to make meaning of the events unfolding as they happen. I get confused, sometimes, when I see photographs of myself from years ago. I remember things differently from the ways in which the events are documented. That’s not to say I want to live a revisionist version of my life. It’s to say that I want to trust my mind more. To allow my mind to condense time and expand time in order to create a truer version of my life. Like the photojournalists of the late nineteenth century who began manipulating images—a tactic which is accepted nowadays with the standard photoshopping of photographs published in magazines and newspapers—photographs often manipulate how I see the truth of the wholeness of my life. They reveal a fiction, however small, that makes me question who I am in a way that’s more overwhelming than that natural existential angst of living. And I don’t know what that means. And I don’t know how to get away from it.
I know one thing. I try to keep my phone in my pocket when I see something beautiful. When I go to see my favorite band in concert. When I share a profound moment with a friend in a place I’ve never been before. I try to let that moment simmer in my consciousness so that I don’t need a photograph to remember. And the reality is in that sentiment—that powerful feeling of being alive. I’ll let the professionals capture that intimacy, and let my own life be my own.
Our formed memories collect to give an understanding of a cohesive, if flawed, self. What does it mean to have an external collection of visual understanding of oneself? A collection that can be just as large as that of our memories—an archive of dated photographs on a near daily basis? How do those two selves interact with one another? How do they disagree? One third of people on Facebook have disclosed that at least once in their life, they have done something simply so that they could share it on Facebook. The photograph, then, at least sometimes, is an intentional manipulation of who we are. And if that’s the case sometimes, then the boundary between truth and fiction, which has always been blurry, becomes so permeable that the two mix together to create a brackish perception of life.