Oliver Wendell Holmes made a fascinating claim when he described photography as the “greatest of human triumphs over earthly conditions, the divorce of form and substance.” What an insight! And to think that he saw the power of photography – images/forms – to allow us to travel to all kinds of places back in 1859, when photos were still fairly rough.
Holmes hit on a key reason why we are so attracted to popular photography. Whether the images are of places or people, we are transported through our own imagination as we see views that would otherwise be unavailable to us – mountaintops, alleyways, and living rooms all promise knowledge and emotional responses out of our usual sphere of stimulation. We are fascinated by what we don’t already know both intellectually and emotionally—the studium and the punctum to use Barthes’s terms.
What photography highlights about human nature is how much we are creatures of longing: longing for what we idealize, what we desire, what we think we had and lost, what we will never have. In some ways, photography is also a reflection of our own minds with our “enormous collection of forms” that Holmes saw being cataloged into “vast libraries” of the future (what would he think of the internet!). Photographs put new forms into our minds and inspire other forms to be generated there.
But the power of photography is not solely in the forms that are present in the frames. As both Barthes and Annette Kuhn imply, the effect of pictures can lie as much in what is not present, in terms of the subject matter, the intentions of the photographer and the perceptions of the viewer. Our reactions to snapshots depend on our own filters and experiences, the text and the subtext of our cultural and personal histories. We select what to take photographs of and how to present and share them. Kuhn’s example of the family photo album, which has a certain arrangement to evoke our ideal of family, can be found today on Facebook – digital, but the same idea: here we are as a couple, a family, our dog, our daughter with her trophy, our date night. All stories are crafted through selection of images that tell the desired narrative.
This was no less true when the early American photographers such as Matthew Brady were telling the story of America through selected images of people and places that spoke to American ideals. Civil War portraits and landscapes of the sublime wilderness of the West fed cultural desires of freedom, expedition and power over dominating forces – nature and death.
Photography continues to take us to new places even though our modern world is saturated with photographic images. There are so many things to see and we never seem to tire of looking! Scientists are embarking on a project to build the largest camera ever created to take pictures of the night sky from a mountaintop in Chile. The images taken over 10 years will produce a new way to “see” the heavens, cosmic films full of shapes and colors of celestial bodies we cannot see with our eyes. In this sense, photography has always been an instrument of technology and of the soul – it teaches, records, inspires and creates new landscapes of experience and meaning.
Works Cited Holmes, Oliver Wendell. “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph.” Photography in Print. Ed. Vicki Goldberg. Fried, Michael. “Barthes’s Punctum.” Critical Inquiry; Spring2005, Vol. 31 Issue 3, p539-574 Kuhn, Annette. "Remembrance." Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1830s to the Present. Ed. Liz Heron and Val Williams. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996. 471-478.