Recent years have duly witnessed an explosion of scholarship considering the social and psychological impact of taking photographs. This course draws on recent approaches to explore the wide-ranging changes in perception brought about by the technology since its invention in 1839. How has photography shaped the aesthetic sensibilities and ethical sensitivities of the modern world? Through a series of discrete but related talks by experts in the field, this programme considers how the camera has informed our understanding of art, politics, nature and the self.
This talk covers the origins and early uses of photography, considering what set the technology apart from other forms of visual media. What is photography? What truth value does it have? How has it shaped our relationship to art and science, self and other, life and death? Such are the guiding questions of the lecture series. This inaugural talk begins to answer them by looking at the images of William Henry Fox Talbot and other early photographers, introducing some key concepts and outlining popular scholarly perspectives on photographic technologies.
Taking and sharing self-portraits on social media has recently been found to cause body dysmorphia and bad mental health amongst teenagers and children. The obsessive sharing of portraits of oneself, however, has a long history going back to the first photographic craze for carte-de-visite portraits in the 1860s. This talk explores the birth of social media in the nineteenth-century, around the exchange of photographic portraits collected into albums. It goes on to look at the changes to the family album brought about by the development of cameras that allowed everyone to take snapshots of oneself, family and friends, to then introduce the work of British photographer Jo Spence in the 1980s, urging us to go ‘Beyond the Family Album’. Her work showed how to become conscious of the role of photographs in perpetuating impossible role models and pernicious stereotypes, and how to use selfportraiture to neutralise and reverse their effects on the self. Could some of her insights also serve to critique and resist the negative effects of contemporary ‘selfie’ culture?
It is often assumed that photography began life in the 19th century as a document and it was only in late twentieth century that its potential as an art form was recognised. But the question of photography’s relationship to art has been a staple of discussions on photography since the new technology was made known to the public in 1839. Moreover, the suggestion that photography could be artistic also had political ramifications: some commentators saw it as a threat to the natural order (Lady Eastlake) and to the primacy of imaginative labour (Charles Baudelaire). What was at stake in making an art of photography?
Since its inception, photography has been used to explore the geographic and the botanical. This talk centres on British photography and ways in which photographers have used the camera to explore place and environment, particularly in relation to rural lands and landscapes. Early photographs were generally accepted as ‘straight’ empirical evidence. More recently, photography has become associated with interrogative questioning of ecosystems and environmental change. We shall note historical developments, including changing notions of beauty in landscape. Then, through critical evaluation of selected recent examples, we shall consider conceptual framing, ways of seeing and modes of photographic representation.
Lectrure 5: War Photography: The Pleasure of Ruins
The fifth lecture of this series was not recorded.