Importance of History of Photography


How important is it to study the history of photography?

Answer by: Nitesh Noor Mohanty, Visual Artist and Professor
For anyone who is keen on making a life around photography, it is highly imperative that you are aware of its genesis, which helps in understanding the evolution of the medium. You must try and comprehend your subject of interest, not just through its historical point of view, but also through the social, cultural, psychological, and anthropological lens. Only then, one can go beyond the aesthetic, and map it’s relevance within the ever-shifting landscape of time.

The history of photography can be studied either through it’s technical advancements, the many defining moments and milestones that shaped our visual idioms, or through the tropes of style and technique, which can define our relationship with images.

For example, if you closely look at the work of Anton Corbijn, who traverses between traditional portraiture and documentary photography, you will realise how his style of recording people is strikingly akin to the images of Ed Van der Elsken, the Dutch photographer from the 1970s, who had a penchant for high contrast graininess, which added a dramatic quality to his images.
Studying history also offers you a way to learn about early techniques, approaches, and processes, which might help you to choose a specific treatment that can add a defining layer to your photographic project.

If you look at Harikrishna Katragadda’s photobook You Can’t Step Into The Same River Twice, you won’t have to struggle to find a rationale to why the photographer chose to develop the photographs as cyanotype blueprints. It is one of the finest examples of how, with the application of a dated technique, the photographer has offered a strong conceptual framework to his visual narrative.

The problem with history, however, is the way it’s taught in art and design schools. I feel one can understand the relevance of the past, if it is integrated within the context and practices of the present. In isolation, history can be a long and tedious journey. It is important that we trace back our fascination and interests, and see how it seeped from another time, and made it’s way into our subconsciousness, as an idea or an influence.

In this image, toxic foam from irrigation water accumulates in an agricultural field in Jajmau, Kanpur. Sourced from an effluent treatment plant, this irrigation water contains hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic carcinogen released by the tanneries. It acidifies the soil and seeps into the groundwater, enters the food chain, and eventually finds its way into the Ganges. Photograph/Harikrishna Katragadda

In the beginning, the picture might seem a little blurry, but as we continue to probe, question and contextualise our images, slowly, the historical references become a distinct primer to our understanding of semiotics and visual culture.