It is a fact of modern times that virtually nothing happens without a camera in attendance. In 1857 a single photographer caught the moment of impending lift-oft of Professor Steiner’s balloon—a moment miraculous both for aviation and photography (this ambrotype is the first known photograph of a flying machine; however, Steiner’s was not the first manned balloon, though his intended trip from Erie, Pennsylvania to Canada was still impressive). A hundred years later, a similarly amazing aeronautical first—the first rocket launch at Cape Canaveral—was recorded for posterity by scores of cameras. The spectacle of observation, in this case the camera crews assembled for the unprecedented lift-off, plays an equal role in the scene.
I can’t help but think of the recent “Balloon Boy” incident in which an entire family played into the hoax of a child being swept away in a weather balloon. Tracked by media of all kinds, the balloon (minus the boy as it turned out) was followed for an entire day by the camera eye and an eager watching public. Today, people design their entire lives around the excitement quotient of a photo op, aeronautical or not, and some people live life measured in Andy Warhol’s “15 seconds of fame,” one photo op at a time.
The Smithsonian stages photo ops all the time. Almost everyday Smithsonian photographers trail celebrities and important public figures around the museums, or are in attendance with their cameras at awards ceremonies, or are creating publicity shots for museum staff, in order to document the ongoing history of the institution. Even for those who might have been in attendance when Andy Warhol visited the Smithsonian Castle or the Pope received his Smithson medal, photographs may later supersede memories of what actually happened. As Kiku Adatto, who has thought a great deal about how photographic images have influenced the course of politics, points our in her commentary for click!, the knowledge that no photograph is innocent means that we must treat all photographs as posed, even when the subjects are off duty and the pose is an informal one. To the extent that these pictures depend on photographic reality and not on reality itself, she seems to say, photography is about the desire of the viewer—not to merely see, but to believe. And the purpose of our “photo ops” changes over time. We constantly frame ourselves for photos to deliver a message: who we are, where we are, what we do, and what is important to us. When, then, are we not photographic?
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.