The Images Within the Looking Glass

 

On a visit to the US, I was thrilled to read this inscription on the base of a large relief bust of Louis Daguerre (a memorial first presented by the Photographer’s Association of America in 1890, now on the lawns of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery).

Photography, the electric telegraph, and the steam engine are the three great discoveries of the age. No five centuries in human progress can show such strides as these.

A few people to whom I mentioned this immediately began to debate the veracity of such a statement, quite unmindful that it was made in the last century. What about the electric bulb, the radio, the telephone, the personal computer, or the clock? What about the wheel and the wagon, the pen and the printing press, media and medicine, internet and Instagram?

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and this is not a debate that can go anywhere. But think of it! A ‘kamarah’ was used to map the stars somewhere in ancient Arabia, over two thousand years ago. A man in Germany made a print with strange, invisible rays that saw through his wife’s hand to the bones, over a century ago. A few decades later, a desperate, hungry mother stared into a camera as her children hid their faces on her shoulders. There was something writ in her eyes, something very difficult to describe. Something that could only come from a starving mother. She became the face of The Great Depression. A seemingly frail, bare-bodied 76-year-old man in a dhoti was seated on the floor behind his spinning wheel, reading letters, head angled in contemplation. It was 1946. He had captured the admiration and adulation of hundreds of millions around the world, even as he was captured just thus, on a piece of film. He was leading a country to freedom. His only message—non-violence. In 1972, a photo of a naked girl running down a road, her face a mask of unimaginable agony and terror from the fires that burned the clothes off her body, twisted the hearts of people into stopping a horrific war.

Closer home, exactly three years ago, a visually impaired grandfather scrawls painstakingly under a photo he made of his beaming wife. “5 min after dear granddaughter’s arrival”, he writes, plainly and eloquently. The only record of me holding his granddaughter, my daughter, on the day she was born, comes from his camera. These records—tiny fractions of time, insignificant to the universe and to everyone else—are worth more to me than any photograph that I, or anyone else in the world, has made.

The other images from history may not be as valuable to you or me, but they are important for us to draw a thread through time. They are the foundations of our identity as a species, as a people, and as photographers. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and take things for granted. Once in a while, we need to glance into a looking glass to see how far we have come.

It’s not been all that long since Daguerre gifted photography to the world, but the world changed because of it.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Better Photography.

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