Over the past one and a half centuries, photography has been used to record all aspects of human life and activity


Over the past one and a half centuries, photography has been used to record all aspects of human life and activity. During this relatively short history, the medium has expanded its capabilities in the recording of time and space, thus allowing human vision to be able to view the fleeting moment or to visualise both the vast and the minuscule. It has brought us images from remote areas of the world, distant parts of the solar system, as well as the social complexities and crises of modern life. Indeed, the photographic medium has provided one of the most important and influential means of expressing the human condition.

Nonetheless, the recording of events by means of the visual image has a much longer history. The earliest creations of pictorial recording go as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic period of about 35,000 years ago. And although we cannot be sure of the exact purposes of the early cave paintings - whether they record the 'actual' events of hunting, whether they functioned as sympathetic magic to encourage the increase of animals for hunting, whether they had a role as religious icons, or if they were made simply to enliven and brighten domestic activities - pictorial images seem to be inextricably Jinked to human culture as we understand it. Throughout the history of visual representation, questions have been raised concerning the supposed accuracy (or otherwise) of the visual image, as well as its status in society.

The popular notion that 'seeing is believing' had always afforded special status to the visual image. So when the technology was invented, in the form of photography, the social and cultural impact was immense. In the mid-nineteenth century, the invention of photography appeared to offer the promise of 'automatically' providing a truthful visual record. It was seen not only as the culmination of Western visual representation but, quite simply, the camera, functioning in much the same way as the human eye, was regarded as a machine which could provide a fixed image. And this image was considered to be a very close approximation to that which we actually see. The chemical fixing of the image enabled the capture of what might be considered a natural phenomenon: the camera image. At the same time, the photographic image was held to be an achievement of sophisticated culture and produced the type of image that artists had struggled throughout the centuries to acquire the manual, visual and conceptual skills to create.

It may seem a further irony that, because of the camera's perceived realism in its ability to replicate visual perception, it was assumed that all peoples would 'naturally' be able to understand photographs. This gave rise to the question of whether photography constituted a 'universal language'. For example, in 1933 this view had been expressed in a series of radio broadcasts by photographer August Sander: 'Even the most isolated Bushman could understand a photograph of the heavens - whether it showed the sun and moon or the constellations.' However, in the face of the rapid increase in global communications which characterised the latter part of the twentieth century, we do at least need to ask to what extent the photographic image can penetrate through cultural differences in understanding. Or is photography as bound by cultural conventions as any other form of communication, such as language?

Is it possible that our familiarity with the photographic image has bred our current contempt for the intricacies and subtle methods that characterise the medium's ability to transmit its vivid impressions of 'reality'? Photography is regarded quite naturally as offering such convincing forms of pictorial evidence that this process of communication often seems to render the medium totally transparent, blurring the distinction between our perception of the environment and its photographic representations. It is the most natural thing in the world for someone to open their wallet and produce a photograph saying 'this is my grandson'.

Ever since its invention in 1839, the technology of photography and the attitudes towards the medium by its practitioners have changed radically. This may partly be attributed to photography gradually moving into what might be termed 'mythic time' – its initial role as a nineteenth-century record-keeper has now moved beyond the human scale and photographic images, once immediate and close to photographer and subject alike, have now passed out of living memory. The passage of time has transformed the photograph from a memory aid into an historical document, one which often reveals as much (if not more) about the individuals and society which produced the image as it does about its subject.

I hope to show that the camera is not merely a mute, passive chronicler of everits, and that photography does not just passively reflect culture, but can provide the vision and impetus that promote social and political change and development. For example, it is difficult to imagine the cultural changes of the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century without recognising the central role of the development of perspective in bringing about new visual means of representation. Similarly, photography has made a major contribution to the bringing about of the media culture that characterises our own era, while at the same time it has assumed the ironic role of bringing the harsh realities of the world to the coffee table.

34 According to the writer, how has photography contributed to our lives?
A It alters the course of significant events.
B It enables us to see humanity in a more imaginative way.
C It offers us a wide-ranging perspective.
D It influences other technological developments.

35 The writer uses the example of the Upper Palaeolithic period to underline
A the durability of pictorial representations.
B the continuity of artistic forms.
C the original function of decorative art.
D the fundamental significance of visual images.

36 In the mid-nineteenth century, the camera succeeded in
A acquiring scientific status.
B winning over a sceptical public.
C showing reality with a new accuracy.
D invalidating the work of artists.

37 What does the writer question in paragraph 5?
A The universal accessibility of photographic images.
B The effect of photography on language.
C The artistic value of photography in a changing world.
D The role of the photographer in interpreting images.

38 What point is the writer making about present-day photography in paragraph 6?
A We find it over-complicated.
B We are apt to confuse it with reality.
C It makes us insensitive to our surroundings.
D It is insubstantial compared to other art forms.

39 In what sense have some photographs moved into 'mythic time'?
A They have grown indistinct with age.
B They lack supporting documentary information.
C They no longer serve as an accurate record.
D They are obsolete in terms of their original purpose.

40 In comparing the Italian Renaissance to today's 'media culture', the writer shows photography as
A a social mirror.
B a dynamic force.
C an instrument of satire.
D an essential record.

Over the past one and a half centuries, photography has been used to record all aspects of human life and activity

Text: Cambridge University Press

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