Photographers as Historians, Photography as History

12 April 2012


I. Nature and Human Nature

Bougainvillea (Paper Flower), Greenhouse at UD Botanic Gardens, April 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012 

Mandevilla 'Red Riding Hood,' UD Botanic Gardens, April 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012 

II. Material Culture

Emergency Light, UD Botanic Gardens, April 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012 

Emergency Button, UD Botanic Gardens, April 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012 

III. People and Places

High School Cross Country Meet, Spring 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011 

IV. Photojournalism

Street Photography, New York City, 2009; taken with my cellphone; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2009 

Street Photography, New York City, April 2009; taken with my cellphone; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2009 

V. Popular Culture through Technology

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy, Polaroid, 1994; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 1994 

Graffiti, Strasbourg, France, 2005; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2005 

Let me know which is your favorite or favorites.


Since inception photography has been a cultural icon–a leader in carrying history’s lessons and messages. The story began in France and swept across oceans and through people. And as John Berger said in his classic Ways of Seeing (1972), art was forever changed with the invention of the camera’s ability to record what was before its lens.

Geoff Dyer is one of the current writers whose commentary about photography and photographers is discussed inside and outside literary channels. To describe his eclecticism is to defy the quality of his range from fiction to non-fiction. His book Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011) is a tout de  force. This collection of essays are short teases about controversial and important people as well as topics. Narratives about photography are one fifth of the essays, which were previously published throughout his writing career. The book’s sections (visuals, verbals, musicals, variables, and personals) are divided into subjects that show his ability to be conversant and insightful.

So why do I bring up Dyer’s acclaim as a critic? His essays on photography remind me of an exhibition that I curated at a University library in 2006. The theme centered on the American photographer as historian. The books displayed, which are from the library’ s holdings, demonstrated the photographer’s ability to still the following areas of the human condition: material culture, nature and human nature, people and places, and photojournalism. See a description of that exhibition here, which includes a bibliography on the subject.

Today if I were organizing that same exhibition of books, I would add one category: Popular Culture through Technology. That is, the way in which the photographer’s work furnishes a history of technology’s contribution to the archives of human invention and innovation. Also, the way in which photographic techniques have been altered by technology and influenced the direction of the popular culture.

In the Lens section I have posted images that reflect my interpretation of the original four categories and the added fifth.

I. Nature and Human Nature: Yesterday I visited the University of Delaware’s Botanic Gardens where I did a photo shoot. The two images in part one are from the greenhouses. The staff grow, care, feed and experiment with varieties of flowering and non-flowering plants. These photographs toy with the connection between nature and Mother Nature: how “we” play with her majesty to try and manipulate her bounty for good or not.

II. Material Culture: From the same photo shoot I posted two images that speak volumes about the world we inhabit. Emergency equipment is front and center. What drew me to the images is the compact fluorescent light bulb, which fits neatly into the history of material culture. Also the yellow sign is among objects of our lives that is subjected to academic study about its role in our day-to-day existence.

III. People and Places: I took this photograph last year at a field and track meet between multiple high school teams. The competition was held at a local state park with autumn showing her colors. But I chose to convert it to black and white to emphasize the runners and the sport–subjects very much intertwined into the human animal’s story.

IV. Photojournalism: Street photography is a major piece of photography’s history, allowing a record of urban life and other events of minor or major significance in humanity’s progress. Isn’t New York City’s night life one of the more insightful, provocative and revealing visual details about our popular culture.

V. Popular Culture through Technology: I posted two images that were taken over a decade apart. The first is a Polaroid from a trip to Florence, Italy. Edwin H. Land’s invention of the instant camera in 1948 was a hallmark in the photographic process. Not only did it allow for a print in seconds, but it also pushed the creative forces of those behind the camera’s lens. During that 1994 trip to Europe, I hand-manipulated instant prints from France to Italy. Now its 2012 and minutes ago technology allowed me to scan a few Polaroids, place them in my photo archives, and decide the one that I wanted to insert into this post. The speed with which this happened leads me to take pause and reflect. Technology possibilities has accelerated at a rate beyond my enthusiasm for the Polaroid SX-70 camera. The second example is a scene that I took with a DSLR camera on the streets of Strasbourg, France, in 2005. Graffiti has a long history in urban settings. While city’s are never really devoid of its presence, this outsider art recently has had a resurgence throughout the world. The camera’s lens gives this form of expression its place in history, because most cities ban its application and remove it post-haste.

Since the nineteenth century photographers (amateur and professional) have recorded the human journey. The record has increased exponentially with technology’s production of cellphones and software applications. Photographic archival material is stacked with the image’s role as a provider of history through stilled memories–memories that are intertwined with our ability to re-orchestrate and secure our yesterdays, todays and tomorrows.

Note: As always I welcome any comment about this post or any part of my blog.

This entry was posted in Human Nature, Photography, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Photographers as Historians, Photography as History

  1. minacarson says:

    I like your take on things. I like your theory/practice approach, and I think we are wandering down the same road in this way. I’d be delighted if you’d take a look at my blog. Great photos!

  2. I learned at a very early age that the victors write history, which is why I don’t put much stock into the words of the Bible. At that point I thought pictures would do a better job at “writing” history. Now, with Photoshop, etc., even pictures are being “written” to portray that which isn’t, and wasn’t.

    I remember watching on television the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 2000. It was “live,” but now we know that it was live with alterations because there was a billboard in the background advertising the competition. The editors of the channel I was watching simply edited it out.

    Now even live events are not live because no channel wants the ol’ F bomb sent out on its airwaves, so there’s that seven-second delay.

    I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. In fact, I think better is done gone. lol

  3. Love this post! Such a wonderful collection and interpretation.

    • Many thanks for your comments and for visiting–cannot wait to take a peek at your site. I’m curious about your blog’s name, Sally

      • Ah, yes, I suppose it may be a little curious a name 😛 I’ve got a little, “What is Zen and Genki?” tab that explains it, and why I’ve used it as my blog name 🙂 Pleasure to “meet” you!

      • I used to read a lot of Alan Watts and the like. Just became a Follower of your journey. And serendipitously, we both were nominated this week for awards. I also am really enthusiastic about the badge that you posted: Read the Printed Word. It will go up on my blog tomorrow. Thanks, the “blogging” experience is a chance for people to meet who would never in any other way cross paths. It’s a joy, Sally

      • Cheers to serendipity and all of the lovely chance “meetings” 🙂
        Have a wonderful week, Sally!

  4. What led you to choose your original four categories (and in so doing indirectly exclude certain others)?

    • I had to consider space and number of books, because only one large case is available for exhibitions in the main lobby. The goal was not to have a definite representation, but try to show an overview of the photographer’s role in the documentation of history. For example, science or mathematics can fit into nature and human nature. Or art can be included in photojournalism or people and places. Since history covers the expanse of human and non-human endeavors, I took a few slices of its depth and breath. Certainly, the theme could be expanded to include other categories. And the idea could be interpreted from a different vantage point, Sally

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