Photography defines how we remember critical historical events. Whether its the tragedy of war or famous portraits of leaders, photography has become the ultimate form of news since its creation in the mid-19th century.
However, photography is changing. We now are filming ourselves nonstop, with Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, and other apps that keep us vigilantly connected to friends and family.
New York Times columnist James Estrin speaks to social media’s affect on photography. There are two notable changes. One, it is creating a vast new audience that can appreciate photography (consider Instagram). Two, it is changing what we share; the majority of pictures circulated is about ourselves, our friends, and families (consider selfies).
Teju Cole’s “On Photography” column in the NY Times has addressed the influence of photojournalism throughout history. Images that may seem simple now; for example, the dancing legs of three African boys gracing the sand as the ocean splashes their feet, inspired artistic masters to go out and capture the “eternity through the moment.”
Without photographers to help us define our world, where would be? How would we understand our vast history — in moments dark and bright?
“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images — one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”
– Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)
Let’s take a moment to look back at some of the most influential photographers and their iconic images.
Fenton was one earliest to capture the war’s effects on film to be brought to the public. He traveled from Britain in 1853 to the document the war on Crimean peninsula, where England, France, and Turkey were embattled in a territorial fight against Russia. This photo is famously free from any dead or wounded bodies. This avoided offending Victorian sensibilities, but the natural landscape littered with cannonballs evokes the wasted tragedy of the war.
Matthew Brady and team didn’t actually have quite the technical ability to photograph the the civil war battles in action, but his haunting visions of the aftermath of major battles like Antietam and Gettysburg perhaps forever defined the public’s relationship with warfare; and journalism.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s talent as a chemist helped him pioneer some of earliest color photographs of the diverse culture and history of the Russian empire.
Jacob Riis was a Danish-American social reformer who believed that goodhearted citizens would help the poor when they saw for themselves “how the other half” lived. His work was turned into a groundbreaking book in the muckraking movement.
In one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, Dorotea Lange captured the muted fear of a migrant mother during the Great Depression in the American West.
As a Swiss Jew venturing across the US at the height of the Cold War, Frank captured a subtle honesty in his portrayal of the American people ; black and white, poor, middle, and upper class , in the cities and countryside. The Americans is arguably the best visual critique of modern society from an outsider’s perspective produced in the twentieth century.
Nick Ut captured what would become a Pulitzer Prize winning photo for the Associated Press. It showcases the utter terror of war, as children run from a Napalm bombing during the Vietnam War, ripping their clothes of from the extreme heat. If we consider the earlier photos listed here, it’s evident that we still live with a culture of violence; and we rely on these photographs to come to a better understanding of these moments.