Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Short History of Photography

While I await my laundry finishing up in the dryer I might as well post this idea I had saved up.

A Short History of Photography:

Looking at photos from all around the world, noting those which have struck a particularly forceful impression upon us, or which had an unusually important role in history.

01. France - View from the Window of Le Gras - 1826
This is the first permanent photograph. Fittingly it is a view out a window, of the rooftops seen by Nicephore Niecepe, who also invented the internal combustion engine with his brother. What a show-off.

02. France - Boulevard du Temple - 1838
It was more than ten years later until Louis Daguerre (literally 'Louis of War') took the first picture of a person, indicating how the French feel about each other. Selfishly he named his process of development after himself, the Louisotype.

03. Mexico - Saltillo - 1847? 
The first photographs of war were captured of the Americans invading Mexico, by an anonymous ambulance-chaser apparently. The quality of the photograph is notably inferior to those of the French photographs above because, hey, you know what things are like south of the border. 

 04. Ukraine - The Valley of the Shadow of Death - 1855
Roger Fenton went to the Crimean War and took this photo. Or, rather, he took a photo, thought it wasn't gruesome enough, and so went back and added more cannonballs. True story. And then he gave it a priggish 'artistic' title. So begins pretentious art photography.

05. USA - Promontory Point - 1869
The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad is a happier photo from the U.S. in the 1860s, since that was a decade of us primarily slaughtering each other. Taken by Charles Phelps Cushing this is exemplary of the classic awkwardness of staged photos of the day, a tradition persisting to the present.

06. China - Honan Soldiers - 1871 
Scotsman John 'China' Smith accidentally created this self-portrait which is very symbolic, juxtaposing thousands of years of traditional proud arrogance and savage grace with a couple of friendly Chinese guys.

07. USA - Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache, Kneeling with Rifle - 1887
Geronimo was the last free native on Native American soil. Scarred as a young man so his face was a perpetual sneer, this photo was taken by Ben Wittick (asshole) after the legend had surrendered and was classified as a prisoner of war. So it's not really that threatening, seeing as it's staged and all. 

08. Germany - Wife's Hand - 1895
Taken by Wilhelm Rontgen who discovered the little buggers this is the first X Ray photograph. Not quite as awkward a story as the Curies' radiation poisoning, Rontgen also won the Nobel Prize, and also totally died from exposure to the stuff.*

 09. Congo - Nsala of Wala in the Nsongo District (Abir Concession) - 1904
Alice Harris was a missionary in the Belgian Congo when she took this photo, where the Abir Congo Company routinely savaged natives. Nsala is looking at the hand and foot of his five year old daughter. This image is part of a series that were sent back to Europe for the newspapers, beginning a tradition of making first world people feel bad about all the suffering caused on their behalf.

10. Peru - Machu Picchu - 1911
The early years of the 20th century distracted us from the terrors of photographs like the above by opening Egyptian tombs, scaling unscaled mountains and desecrating all manner of otherwise pristine places. Hiram Bingham III had a douchey enough name to 'discover' Machu Picchu, and then became a U.S. Senator. Go figure.

11. Soviet Union - Komsomol Member at the Wheel - 1929 
Arkady Shaikhet (pronounced 'shake it!') was a Red with an artistic side. Man, those Russkies sure made a lot of depictions Progress which would later sort of be ironic, didn't they? They just don't make proletariat industrial metaphors like they used to.

12. USA - Migrant Mother - 1936 
Dorothea Lange helped develop documentary style photography, as opposed to the soulless lies rendered above. This mother, Florence Owens Thompson, survived the Depression, and lived to see Reagan elected. So sort of a wash, really.

13. Japan - Battle of Iwo Jima Flag Raising - 1945 
But enough of depressing topics, let's get back to war photography. As is typical of war photographs, this was actually the second flag raising, the first photo being not at all inspiring or Pulitzer-worthy. The photographer Joe Rosenthal, ironically, was rejected by the Army for 'poor eyesight'. I guess he had a better eye for AMERICAN GREATNESS. USA! USA!

 14. Soviet Union - Laika - 1957
Who's a cute little cosmonaut? You are! You are! You're the first animal to go into space. Yes you are! You're the first brave little doggie to go into space! You're going to boil alive up there! Yes you are!

15. Vietnam - Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla -  1968
After the Soviets whupped the U.S. in the space race with Sputnik and dog murder we got back at them by getting bogged down in the Vietnam War. Eddie Adams captured the photo, and felt really bad about ruining the life of the police chief (on the left), since the guy on the right actually killed scores of innocent civilians, but the photo makes the guy on the *left* seem like the bad guy. It's like they say: you can't take it with you.

16. USA - Kent State Massacre - 1970
Okay. See, the reason why the U.S. was better than the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War was that the Soviets violated human rights. That's why they were godless bastards and we were beacons of democratic freedom. But John Filo didn't love freedom, so when Ohio National Guard opened fire on peaceful protesting college students he took this photo to strike a blow for the terrorists Commies.

17. China - Tank Man - 1989 
The Unknown Rebel was captured by Jeff Widener. This photograph of a civilian standing up to brutality was so moving that the Chinese Communist Party immediately collapsed as a result, out of deep shame.

 18. Sudan - Sudan Famine - 1993
Kevin Carter took this Pulitzer-prize winning photograph and, unable to answer what became of the girl, committed suicide shortly afterwards. Life is more important than art. Discuss.

19. France - Paris Hilton - 2005
Unlike previous decades, the dawn of the new century was absent of war, poverty, famine, catastrophically mishandled floods or strife of any kind. Photographers such as Eric Gaillard, instead decided to capture the bareness of our own souls.

Well my laundry's all done. Better go and think about art's role in society, and what I've done.

 * Just kidding! He actually was smart and protected himself with lead shields. Still died, though.


Jessica said...

I'd add:

And this one:

And this one:

And I feel like an Ansel Adams should be on there...

Errol Morris also did a whole thing on the Crimean photo:

Karen said...

Editorially, you may have misspelled the x-ray guy's name. I'm pretty sure there's another "e" in there. Roentgen? Also, I sat next to Joe one night at dinner around 1979. It was a dinner for Pulitzer prize winners. Your dad and I had been invited b/c of his work with the guy from the Point Reyes newspaper who was (that night) the latest recipient. All the prize winners (around) were there, and I was seated next to Joe, who was a lovely old man. We had a nice chat about that photo.