Posts Tagged ‘Photography’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Recently, a photographer named Lelage Snow began an incredible project.  Based in Kabul, Afghanistan, she photographed Scottish soldiers before, during, and after they had seen combat.  What she produced is astounding and haunting.  See here:

LalageSnow-Soldiers-06

This is Private Chris MacGregor, 24.  The rest of Snow’s work can be found here. There is no need to analyze these photos, as I think they speak for themselves the proverbial 1000 words (the eyes alone speak 900).  However, what does strike me is how almost a century ago the German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, described what we see in these contemporary faces.  In his essay The Storyteller, Benjamin had this to say about veterans who returned from the cataclysmic First World War:

“With the First World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?  What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes mouth to mouth. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”

A century on, the human body is still fragile.

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.