Seizing the Light
eBook - ePub

Seizing the Light

A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography

Robert Hirsch

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  1. 594 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Seizing the Light

A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography

Robert Hirsch

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The definitive history of photography book, Seizing the Light: A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography delivers the fascinating story of how photography as an art form came into being, and its continued development, maturity, and transformation.

Covering the major events, practitioners, works, and social effects of photographic practice, Robert Hirsch provides a concise and discerning chronological account of Western photography. This fundamental starting place shows the diversity of makers, inventors, issues, and applications, exploring the artistic, critical, and social aspects of the creative process. The third edition includes up-to-date information about contemporary photographers like Cindy Sherman and Yang Yongliang, and comprehensive coverage of the digital revolution, including the rise of mobile photography, the citizen as journalist, and the role of social media.

Highly illustrated with full-color images and contributions from hundreds of artists around the world, Seizing the Light serves as a gateway to the history of photography. Written in an accessible style, it is perfect for students newly engaging with the practice of photography and for experienced photographers wanting to contextualize their own work.

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Advancing Towards Photography: The Rise of the Reproduction


The idea of photography existed long before the invention of the camera. A primary function of visual arts originates in the desire to create a likeness of someone or something that society deemed worth commemorating. Dating back to cave paintings as well as to Plato’s Cave, according to Susan Sontag and other critics, this human urge to make pictures that augment the faculty of memory by capturing time is at the conceptual base of photography.1 Since ancient times, artists and inventors have searched for ways to expedite the societal desire for an affordable and repeatable picturemaking process. Eventually, they concentrated their technical efforts on how to automatically capture a “truthful” likeness directly formed by light.
As early as the fifth century B.C.E., the Chinese philosopher Mo Ti discovered that light reflecting from an illuminated object and passing through a pinhole into a darkened area would form an exact, though inverted, image of that object, offering a prototype of the pinhole (lensless) camera. In the West, the first recorded description of the pinhole was made by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who around 330 B.C.E., during a partial solar eclipse, observed the crescent-shaped image of the sun projected through a small opening between the leaves of a tree. When these observations were first formalized into a camera remains uncertain, but by the tenth century C.E., the Arabian mathematician Alhazen (Ibn Al-Haitham) demonstrated how a pinhole could act as an image-projecting instrument and that altering the size of the aperture could affect the image’s sharpness. Although Roger Bacon’s treatises, De Scientia Perspectivae and De multiplicatione specierum (circa 1267), do not specifically mention the camera, they indicate he used the optical principles to contrive an arrangement of mirrors in order to project images of eclipses, as well as street scenes and interior views of his house. In Perspectiva communis (1279), John Peckham, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a likely student of Bacon, made remarks about observing a solar eclipse through a pinhole in a dark room.
The evolution of the camera can be linked to a new Western concentration on science with an increased reliance on observation during the European Renaissance, a period from about the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. With new discoveries based on experimentation and observation, fifteenth-century artists and scientists, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Nicolaus Copernicus, provided a veritable process that meant people no longer had to accept the authority of the unprovable.2 Instead, they could look to an open system that was not predicated on belief and magic. Science offered an alternative to blind faith, and the foundation of belief for educated society began shifting toward objective, documentable, repeatable facts. In addition to praying for their invisible souls to be accepted into an unknowable heaven, scientifically minded people also built large ocean-going sailing ships and complex machines to carry their physical bodies out of the Old World and into a new, material world.
Athanasius Kircher. Illustration of a large portable camera obscura from Ars Magna, Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), Rome, 1646, page 807. Engraving.
In 1646, Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar and professor in Rome, described and illustrated a portable camera obscura that could be carried by two people on poles. It consisted of an opaque, outer cube with a lens in the center of each wall, and an inner cube of transparent paper for drawing on. The artist entered the device via a trapdoor in the floor.


Perspective drawing allows artists to depict a three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Although a system of perspective was known to the Romans, not until around 1413 did Filippo Brunelleschi of Italy devise the linear perspective we know.3 In this system, objects are foreshortened as they recede into space and lines converge to vanishing points that correspond to the spectator’s viewpoint. Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise On Painting (1435) was dedicated to Brunelleschi and provides descriptions for using geometrical linear perspective in picturemaking.4 Alberti compared the picture plane to a window:
Let me tell you what I do when I am painting. First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint I draw a quadrangle of right angles of whichever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.5
Other artists soon converted Alberti’s theoretical window into an actual one by drawing on a vertical piece of glass while looking through an eyepiece located opposite the center of the pane, establishing the visual convention of constructing a scene through monocular vision: viewing through one eye at one place at one time. This artificial window was subsequently replicated when light passed through a pinhole onto a vertical plane to form an image in the manner noted by Mo Ti.
Improvements in mapmaking during the fifteenth century reduced three-dimensional space into two-dimensional guides, producing geometrically consistent maps and changes in pictorial description. For the first time, mapmakers began to refrain from rendering opaque surfaces as if they were transparent, dispensing with fixed spatial coordinates, or adjusting the size and position of a site according to its cultural significance. Such improvements, made possible by scientific thinking, coincided with the advent of printed, illustrated books and meant that identical, mass-produced, visual information reached a wider audience.6


In 1490, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) wrote the earliest surviving description of the camera obscura (dark chamber), a device designed to reproduce linear perspective.7 The camera obscura, the prototype of the photographic camera, was a large dark room that an artist physically entered. Light filtered through a small hole in one of the walls and projected a distinct, but inverted, color image onto the opposite wall that could then be traced. Art historian Kenneth Clark stated that before Leonardo, “Alberti invented a device which seems to have been a sort of camera obscura, the images of which he called ‘miracles of painting.’”8 German artist Albrecht DĂŒrer (1471–1528) was one of the first to ingeniously adapt these camera-based principles of perspective and proportion to his drawings.9 In 1558, Giovanni Battista della Porta published his treatise Magiae naturalis (Natural Magic), describing the camera obscura and how it could make drawing easier:
The manner in which one can perceive in the dark the things which on the outside are illuminated by the sun, and with their colors 
 will make possible for anyone ignorant of the art of painting to draw with a pencil or pen the image [made by a camera obscura] of any object whatsoever.10
Johannes Gutenberg’s perfection of the movable type printing press (circa 1436) indirectly triggered a revolution in lens making during the Renaissance, as people now wanted eyeglasses so they could read more effortlessly. Improved lenses led to better eyeglasses, telescopes, microscopes, and cameras, which changed our understanding of science, our view of the world, and our place within it. In turn, the more widespread use of lenses flattened the physical world by converting it into two-dimensional images, changing how people saw things.
In 1589 della Porta discussed the use of a mirror to reverse the image that was reflected backward in the camera obscura; this is the basis of the contemporary single-lens reflex camera. He also told of staging night-time, torch-light dramas, accompanied by live music, and employing the camera obscura to view them on a screen inside his house, demonstrating that the camera could be used for narrative purposes as well.
Girolamo Cardano’s De Subtilitate (1550) mentioned attaching a biconvex lens (a lens curved on both sides so it is thickest in the middle) to a camera obscura, making its image brighter and sharper. Daniele Barbaro’s treatise La Practica della perspettiva (1568) described how fitting a diaphragm to the biconvex lens allowed the amount of light passing through the lens to be controlled, enhancing depth-of-field—the range in front of and behind a focused subject in which detail appears sharp—and forming a sharper image. By 1611, Johannes Kepler had built a proto-portable camera: a human-size tent that could be dismantled and transported to make drawing easier. By the mid-seventeenth century, a scaled-down modification of Kepler’s device meant that one did not have to enter into the camera but could remain outside of it and view an image projected onto a translucent window, a forerunner to the first truly portable cameras.
By the end of the seventeenth century, advances in lens making included the correction of aberrations to give better resolution. Also, the ability to vary focal lengths allowed the production of different image sizes based on the specific needs of portrait and landscape artists. Image size is proportional to a lens’s focal length, the distance from the center of the lens to the point of sharp focus; the longer the focal length, the greater the magnification of the image. Instruction manuals for matching lenses with cameras and situations became necessary.
The optics of the camera obscura were simultaneously ideal and natural, reflecting the empirical, scientific, and humanitarian trends of the Enlightenment. Drawing shifted from the private act of a highly trained individual to a broader commercial enterprise that incorporated ideas of mass production and standardization (making exact copies), as seen in rationalistic works such as Denis Diderot’s EncyclopĂ©die (1751–1777). By the close of the eighteenth century the camera had been tailored along the lines of Renaissance pictorial standards to help fulfill a cultural demand to make drawing easier and quicker.


Although they were internally organized by machines—cameras—early photographs resembled drawings and paintings because they depicted the world according to linear perspective. The camera obscura was popular with artists because it automatically modified a scene by compressing form and emphasizing tonal mass according to Western pictorial standards. The camera was not designed as a radical device to unleash a new way of seeing, but evolved to produce a predefined look that took into consideration formulas and procedures such as composition, angle and point of view, quality of light, and selection of subject matter. What was being represented remained unchanged. This does not diminish the camera’s importance in defining an image. As with most inventions, unforeseen side effects create unintentional changes. As imagemakers became more sophisticated they routinely used specific cameras and lenses to shape an image, and knowledgeable viewers can often trace the connections betw...

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