By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I was perusing one of my favorite Facebook ‘likes’, a site called ‘Humans of New York (HONY)’.  If you have never seen it, I highly recommend you check it out.  It is the self-described “photographic census of NYC: One street portrait at a time”.  The page is made up of touching, authentic and funny portraits of real people. (As an aside, for any RMU art students out there, this may be an opportunity.  ‘Humans of New York’ seems to have started an intriguing trend. There is now a ‘Humans of Copenhagen’, ‘Souls of San Francisco’, etc.  Hint, hint: there is no ‘Humans of Chicago’ as of yet, as far as I know.  But, I digress.

One of the HONY photos from May 3rd was of a photographer named Jill Enfield.  Enfield is wearing quite an elaborate, dirty smock. She has her hand on a vintage, 19th century camera.  As she gets her picture taken, she takes the HONY photographer’s picture in turn. You can see the antiquated photo she took inset the modern picture.  It is an interesting picture, but, frankly, I have seen better on HONY. This photo was not what caught my attention. HONY also has descriptions to go along with the portraits, and reading the description of Enfield’s points out that she is a professional photographer who practices a lost art of photography called the Wet Collodion process.  Don’t ask me what this means, but it was evidently commonly used in Civil War era portraits.

Enfield has a two minute Youtube video that shows her practicing this skill in Central Park.

Obviously, she has sped this video up, as the process must take about 10 minutes simply to produce a single exposure. After watching this video, what really struck me was how photography has evolved democratically over its lifetime. With digital photography, this evolution has reached a new apex.

Watching Enfield work her amazing craft, we get an idea how difficult and intensive photography was 150 years ago.  This was a special practice that craftsmen (not women like Enfield) would have had to be trained to do.  With such a labor intensive practice, a photo during the Civil War period obviously was a special, elite memento.  Nonetheless, we must remember how democratically revolutionary photography was in the early 19th century. One of the few ways to have your visage made prior to photography was to have an artist make a painted portrait.  The only people who could afford to do this were economic or genetic aristocrats. Photography allowed regular people to be recorded for posterity, but it was obviously limited during its earliest days. We can assume that a minority of people in the 19th century actually had their photos taken.

The photographic democratic revolution is progressing at breakneck speed. Today digital photography is available to us at ALL times.  The recording of daily life can now be continuous.  What events have not been recorded? Who in the developed world has not had their photo taken innumerable times? The ability to constantly snap exposures, and then erase them if they do not fit our personal needs is incredibly revolutionary.  No need to pose any longer, just keep snapping. Why is this democratic?  It is cheap, easy, and open to all; even children.  This Christmas, I bought my 5 and 3 year old daughters small, cheap digital cameras just so they could ‘fool around’ and capture what caught their fancies.  At this point, we all can be artists, photographers, social activists, anthropologists, journalists, historians.

It is really an amazing time to be alive. I can’t even imagine what will be next.

  1. PG says:

    It is amazing to have a camera on hand at basically all times (particularly those of us with smartphones). Like you said about your daughters, we can all document whatever catches our fancies.

    One fear, though, is the obvious, oft-stated one: is there too much documentation? We all have cameras, lots of people are on Facebook, YouTube is easily accessed and added to…it begs the question of whether anything is sacred? When photography was so limited, it perhaps didn’t present a “real” portrait of life because it was limited to the aristocrats. But has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction now, where the private has become public because everyone has easy access to a camera?

    It makes me wonder if what’s next is a way for us all to just continuously record our daily lives? (There is a great Science Fiction short story about that…can’t recall the title.)

  2. Jenny Jocks Stelzer says:

    This is like our conversation about Trisha’s photo post. The ability to constantly, easily, and cheaply document everything does have its drawbacks, but, I’ve been thinking, and Mike’s post makes me realize, that it really is the democratization of the ABILITY to do this that is wonderful. History, after all, is told from the perspective of those who have the power of narrative. If the aristocracy was the only part of society able to produce a narrative (in words or pictures), everyone else’s history is told for them. They become objects, never subjects. To tell one’s own story is priceless, to me, and worth any amount of facebook annoyance!

    • Trish says:

      Yes, the “democratized” image is an incredible tool for truth-telling. I am thinking of the impact of grassroots media coverage of Vietnam, specifically. However, there’s another project that a student shared with me, called Dream Big This organization, and countless others like it, gives children an opportunity to share their view of the world, and document it, too.

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