A First Sight

Prehistoric paintings, Lascaux caves, France. Photo courtesy of Prof saxx, Wikimedia Commons. Roger Shattuck, teacher, writer, and cultural critic (The Banquet Years, his study of turn of the 20th century French avant-garde stands as one of the best cultural histories ever produced), once wrote that he envied photo historians because they could locate a point of origin. What he meant, I think, is that photography, compared to painting and sculpture, offers us a recent history that can be charted in specific ways. The caves at Lascaux are painting’s best guess at a birthplace, but photography, give or take a few images, can point to the first photograph ever made. Samuel Finley Breese Morse, 1840, by Unidentified photographer, Daguerreotype, Archives of American Knowing where you come from can be a powerful thing, especially when the medium itself is based on the idea of speed and efficiency and as image specialist Steve Hoffenberg points out in click!, the number of photographs in the world grows exponentially with every technological advance. In our media rich world, we can hardly imagine what it felt like to experience seeing the first daguerreotypes. American inventor Samuel Morse, who actually visited Daguerre’s studio in Paris in the winter of 1839 and saw one of the first daguerreotypes, described what he saw as “miracles.” Journalist Philip Hone had a similar reaction of wonder when he visited a display of photographs in a Broadway gallery where daguerreotypes, including examples by Daguerre himself, were on display. His pleasure, however, was tempered by a concern that the profusion of images too closely mirrored and might even encourage the turmoil and conflict of the urban moment. Photography arriving in America at a moment of deep economic crisis was a new vision that evoked a new brand of emotions, not all of them “wondrous.” Critics were sure of one thing though: photography would provide a good barometer of our feelings and perceptions about the historic moment itself. Young Man Looking at a Daguerreotype, c. 1855, by Unknown photographer, Daguerreotype (1/4 plate), S Can photography be contagious? Today made in the billions by all kinds of imaging devices, photographs are measured in tidal waves of visual response to contemporary states of affairs, both public and personal. In their recent book, Connected: the Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How the Shape our Lives, Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler argue that the contagion of social networking can spread all kinds of ideas—from obesity to politics. But the more interesting implications are philosophical. A social network acquires its own agency; it shapes the system that invented it. By learning more about the structure of communication networks we can identify where the most potent areas of influence are. And it would seem, given the increased use of camera phones by people who might never before have made photographs, the most important influence may be a photographic one. The implication for collecting the history of things in pictures—the pictures that have made up our histories ever since the beginning of photography—is considerable. The history of photography is predicated on the saving and sharing of images. The visual chatter of phones, a language of pictures, and subsequent visual literacy is a wonderful thing—a miracle in its own rite, but what will the stuff of the archive be in the future? We still have the first picture in our grasp and for the moment it generates new ways of thinking about photography’s effect on us, but perhaps in the future, the weight of the historical archive will be in the present—forever young.

Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.

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