People’s Photography - A Brief History

It would be nice to say that photography has been a democratic medium from its beginnings. In fact, some people claim that it is the first truly democratic art form; one, which anyone can learn, and everyone can understand.

However, the two people who are considered to have invented photography in 1838, the Englishman, Henry Fox Talbot (i) and the Frenchman, Louis Daguerre (ii), had relatively privileged backgrounds. Virtually all the earliest photographers, including the first Englishwoman to make her mark, Julia Margaret Cameron (iii), were well to do. This was almost inevitable because of the specialised equipment and costly, dangerous and time consuming chemical processes required to produce these first photographic images. Photography was not a hobby for the common person.

Early social documentary photography

Social documentary is a form of ‘straight’ photography in that it strives to show the truth about social situations. Its claim to truth is based on the idea that the images are not manipulated, nor the subjects influenced, although these points are often disputed. Many writers, photographers and other artists have felt an obligation to document the realities of daily life and to make a commitment to try to change social conditions through their art. Social documentary photography grows out of that tradition (iv).

From the start, photography was used by the Victorians to classify people according to their appearance or supposed biological attributes. Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution were influencing the way people thought. Darwin corresponded with Henry Mayhew, the founder of the magazine, Punch, who developed a theory of social stereotypes. He made a distinction between ‘civilised’ and ‘nomadic’ peoples in his study of the London poor (v).

Some Victorian photographers were interested in using photography as a means of social reform, eg. Thomas Annan (vi), who photographed the slums of Glasgow in the 1860’s in order to show the plight of the urban poor. In 1877, photographer John Thomson teamed up with journalist Adolphe Smith (vii) to produce a document of working class life in the Street Life of London. These were pictures of labourers in East London supposedly showing the biological inevitability of their lowly social position. In America, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (viii) were making pictures in the crowded tenement blocks of New York, and of the plight of the children of the poor across America.

These were probably some of the first examples of social documentary projects to use photography in order to campaign for better living and working conditions for ordinary people. Whatever the intentions of the photographers, these images can be criticised now for their tendency to reinforce the negative social stereotypes of the period. It is only when people begin to control the means of image production themselves that the use of photography can be said to truly be a democratic medium.

It was common in Victorian ethnographic photography to show poor and dark skinned people as inevitably inferior, criminal or exotic, while those with power and social status were shown to be ‘naturally’ superior. Because of photography’s supposed objectivity, as opposed to the interpretative role of the painter, these photographs were held to provide a scientific proof. Of course most thinkers eventually discounted these theories, but it would be wrong to deny the role that photography played in the establishment and justification of colonial exploitation. However, the collection of images in The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis (ix) is one of the most significant and controversial representations of traditional American Indian culture ever produced. Photographing during the early 20th century, Curtis aimed to document "the old time Indian, his dress, his ceremonies, his life and manners," believing that the imported European culture of which he was a descendant would soon overwhelm all American Indian cultures. The use of photography to document a disappearing way of life has since engaged many photographers.

Increasingly, the new practice of photography allowed ordinary people to experience, at least vicariously, what went on in distant places. Photographers such as Francis Frith, Maxime Du Camp, Samuel Bourne and Frances Bedford, among others traveled to distant places and brought back images of exotic countries and cultures that most people would only ever see in photos (x).

Early portraiture

From 1862, after Napoleon commissioned the famous French photographer, Nadar (xi) to take his portrait; it became the practice among the fashionable to have similar small portraits made as calling cards. In Britain Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were photographed; this seal of royal approval helped photography to become not only respectable but also highly desirable. By the late 1860’s the photographic process had been simplified to the point where there were thousands of cameras in Paris alone. Growing numbers of the middle classes aspired to the respectability which photography had come to represent. Commercial studios offering elaborate painted backdrops and elegant looking furniture were everywhere and it was customary to have your portrait taken in the kind of surroundings which represented your desires. It was a bit like having your picture taken standing next to a Porsche while actually driving a Ford. These images were often printed and distributed as postcards called carte-de-visite, usually showing a flamboyant self portrait made in an elaborate studio, which were exchanged or left behind when visiting others. Victorian ladies gathered the cards into albums and today carte-de-visite albums are highly sought after by historians and collectors. They provide important evidence of the social role of photography in Europe in the 19th century (xii). Photography’s claim to truth made these images seem less fanciful than a painting might have done, and eventually, photographs were cheap and accessible enough for most people to afford to have them taken on special occasions, at least. But this kind of photography was about having yourself portrayed in a particular way; it was not about portraying yourself.

Beginnings of war photography

In the mid1850’s, Roger Fenton (xiii) photographed the Crimean War using a horse drawn van as a darkroom. Queen Victoria was one of Fenton’s patrons and she may have instructed him to avoid sending back disturbing images which showed the sufferings of the enlisted men. Fenton’s Crimean photographs were much more about the heroism of the officers and gentlemen. This may be the first example of the use of photography as a government propaganda tool.

During the American Civil War,1861-1865, Matthew Brady (xiv), with a large team of photographers, photographed the carnage. Their approach was radically different to that of Roger Fenton. Images like Timothy O’Sullivan’s, “Harvest of Death” (xv) helped to bring home the grim realities of war to a public not yet used to such pictures. This kind of work helped to establish photography as a means of documenting important events and a medium of social change, and the idea of ‘the camera with a conscious’ developed out of the process.

Science or Art?

From its inception, there were debates about the proper purpose of photography. There were those who saw it as primarily a scientific tool for classification and documentation and those who saw it as a creative and interpretative art form.

Just as painters had realised that they could not compete with photography for accurate reproduction, and had created the aesthetics of Impressionism, now some photographers rejected "straight" photography and strove to make impressionistic and pictorial images which concentrated on aesthetics rather than accuracy.

Early in the 1850s, Roger Fenton helped to found the Royal Photographic Society (xvi) which played a very important role in the development of photography (see the RPS collection of historical work now at the National Museum of Film and Photography in Bradford) (xvii). Originally, the RPS emphasised the scientific aspects of photography, but by 1892, a rift had developed with those for whom photography was a fine art like painting. Henry Peach Robinson resigned as vice president of the RPS and formed a group called the Linked Ring dedicated to the promotion of photography as art. Other photographers who joined this group included Frank Sutcliffe, Frederick Evans, Paul Martin, and the influential American, Alfred Stieglitz (xix).

In America, Stieglitz founded a similar group, the Photo-Secession, with the aim of working outside the conservative photographic establishment. Eventually, the two groups bickered among themselves, and the Linked Ring was disbanded, but not before fine art photography was well established in high culture on both sides of the Atlantic. On Fifth Avenue in New York, Stieglitz opened the fashionable 291 gallery and published "Camera Work" showing the work of photographers like Edward Steichen, Clarence White and Gertrude Kasebier (xx).

The tension between photographic forms continued with the formation, in 1932, of the American Group f/64. Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and others agreed to dedicate themselves to "straight photographic thought and production" (xxi).

It is highly likely that all of these avant-garde and theory based photographic groups sought to distance their work from the growth of photography-for-all brought about by the introduction of simple cameras. However, social documentary photography was also facilitated by the simplification of the photographic process.

Social documentary photography moves on

In 1935, in the aftermath of the Depression, Franklyn Roosevelt started the American Farm Security Administration (xxii) to support recovery in the American heartland. The historical section of the FSA hired eleven photographers, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein, to document the hardship and deprivation that had been exacerbated by soil erosion and drought in rural America. When these pictures were published in newspapers in the relatively prosperous East, the country responded with congressional and public support for relief programs to alleviate the suffering (xxiii).

The tradition of social documentary photography continued throughout the 20th century. Photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa, Lissete Model and Sebastion Salgado, to name but a few, are known for their images of the lives of ordinary people. To do this work well, the photographer must gain the trust of subjects and work with them to tell their story. There are many other examples of the uses of photography to facilitate social change and it may be seen that community photography springs from these roots.

More recently, the advent of digital photography has facilitated the use of image manipulation in creating issue-based art which makes a social point (see the work of Pedro Meyer and Martha Rossler). Again, this is a continuation of a tradition which stretches back to Oscar Reylander's "Two Ways of Life", an image exhibited in 1857, in which thirty negatives were combined to make a photographic tableau with a moral message (xxiv).

A democratic medium?

In 1900, Kodak produced the first ultra affordable consumer camera in America, the $1 Box Brownie. Kodak even sold a pre-loaded camera which could be sent back for processing and returned reloaded with film. These new inventions turned Photography finally into a popular way of recording and expressing daily life. People's Photography had truly begun (xxvi).

In the 21st century we can choose from disposables and cheap digital and analogue cameras which make this medium more accessible than ever before. Whether "straight" documentary style or interpreted through the use of digital or darkroom manipulation, community photography is first and foremost a medium of communication which allows people to express their everyday concerns and interests.

Poet Ani di Franco (xxvii) once said that anything is a tool if you use it in the right way. Photography today is what we make of it; it can be a powerful tool in helping communities come together to tackle issues, or simply to celebrate unique identities and our shared humanity.