Reflections of Life

Reflections of life

Insights into the history of photography

The first photographers were artists and artists have been using the new visual medium ever since. From the very beginning, photographers were at the forefront of innovative artists who reacted to the sensitivities of their era and promoted the development of visual languages that make the epochs comprehensible and tangible in retrospect.

Initially, photography in the 19th century followed the academic traditions of painting in terms of composition and the poses of the models. But the second generation of photographers joined the avant-garde of visual artists of the emerging modern age. It was no coincidence that the first Impressionist exhibition took place in 1874 in the rooms of the respected photographer Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, on Boulevard Capucines in Paris, and if Edgar Degas had had his way, the Impressionist group of artists would have called themselves "La Capucine".

The move away from classicism that accompanied the new trend placed reality above the idea and thus significantly enhanced the inherent possibilities of photography. More powerful cameras and increasingly light-sensitive photographic plates made it possible for photographers to leave their studios to get closer to reality. As early as the middle of the 19th century, photographers set out to photograph every corner of the earth. Whether cities, landscapes, buildings or works of art, everything was photographed for the first time and contemporaries called the early veduta images "a mirror equipped with memory."
The possibility opened up by photography to get hold of the world through authentic images had an almost revolutionary effect on the human horizon of experience and was a great help to the thirst for knowledge in the middle of the 19th century. Photography also lent a permanent appearance to the increasing loss of perception of the gaze as vision became increasingly fleeting due to the acceleration of travel. A fact that has taken on grotesque proportions today, when tourists stumble through their vacations with digital cameras in front of their eyes in order to realize their experiences at home in front of the screen. As early as the end of the 19th century, photography was given the role of transforming life into memories.

The visualization of the world took its course, which in turn began to influence the course of the world. Photography has changed the world more quickly, radically and lastingly than any other visual medium. In today's urban centers, postmodern man is more densely surrounded by photographic images than by reality, and before man had even reached Mars, the robot photographer had already preceded him.

Around 1900, it was again artist photographers who countered the mass production of images, which was also becoming increasingly flat at the time, by striving to visualize a subjectively experienced reality. Individual rebelliousness against conventions was the leitmotif for photographers such as Wilhelm von Gloeden, who sought to realize his personal dream of Arcadia and thus became a pioneer of staged photography because he elevated the subjective view and the emotions of the photographer to the standard of photography. At the turn of the century, the photographers of Pictorialism, the last artistic position that sought to transfer the creative means of painting to photography in order to emphasize the artistic value of the medium, pursued similar endeavours.

Just one generation later, after the devastating First World War, which had accelerated the revaluation of all cultural values, the artists of Surrealism, Dadaism and Constructivism made use of photography as a fully-fledged and independent means of artistic expression. Parallel to the avant-garde experiments, a modern, objective and documentary photography developed with the New Vision, which no longer needed a role model, but now itself had an exemplary effect on painting and other arts. Man Ray is regarded as the first artist whose photographic work is held in higher esteem than his painterly oeuvre.

The enormous spread of illustrated magazines on the one hand and the development of unexpectedly powerful and handy 35mm cameras on the other created the basis for the emergence of a new photojournalism in the 1920s, which quickly found its way to an international visual language and, after the Second World War, to a human style under the term "human interest", which was characterized by personal commitment to its subjects. Despite the Iron Curtain that divided the civilized world at the time, there are hardly any differences between the important photographers in East and West. Evelyn Richter and Will McBride photographed very different worlds on both sides of the Wall, but their images are of the same spirit and speak the same language.

In contemporary photography, the most diverse and subjective approaches and schools exist side by side. In narrative tableaux and all kinds of artificial visual worlds, poetic or provocative fantasies compete and vie for the audience's favor. In infinite variety and in keeping with the philosophy of a pluralistic society, photographers today act as creators of their own visual worlds. The fact that David Hamilton or Jan Saudek polarize is a matter of course that is at best discussed in the arts pages.

Since the introduction of digital technology, the discussion about the authenticity and truthfulness of photography has become completely historical. The question of where the future path will lead will only be answered by those born later.

Andreas J. Mueller

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