The evolution of photography

Like any good Darwinian, I think that the best way to start my blog is by telling a quick story about the evolution of photography; where Charles Darwin was actively involved in the early days.

Silver gelatine photography was the product of the industrial society, bound up with advances in chemistry and the colonial expansion driven by capitalist economics. In the beginning, photographs were judged according to their resemblance to reality, in the same way as drawings and prints. From the 1830s to the 1880s, exposure times were shortened from minutes to fractions of a second, allowing the medium to conquer the veracity label. Scientists started using photographs to illustrate their theories due to the implicit objectivity assigned to the camera.

Charles Darwin was a pioneer in publishing photographs in a scientific treatise. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1871), he compared human facial expressions with those of animals, pointing out that even the most complex human emotions can be seen in basic animal reactions. Animals were illustrated with wood engravings, but for humans, he thought that the veracity of photography would be more appropriate. Darwin chose Oscar Reijlander, who was notorious for altering and manipulating photographs, as the main photographer to illustrate his book.

Reijlander’s job consisted of capturing fleeting expressions of human emotions in a time that the photographic process was still fairly slow to succeed. One of the most famous images of the book was “Ginx´s baby”. In spite of its acclaimed instantaneity, there is now no doubt that the image was not a true photograph. Rejlander did manage to produce a modest photograph of a crying child, but Darwin wasn’t happy with the final outcome. He thought that the image was too small and its quality too poor to be used effectively in his book. “Ginx´s Baby” is a drawing by Reijlander that was photographed afterwards to make it look like an original photograph, as Phillip Prodger explains in Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution (2009). 

The technological advances in photography are constantly making it easier to manipulate images. The digital photography boom started in the 1990s as the product of an economy that privileges information as a good and invisible electronic transactions. In contrast to the materiality of silver gelatin, digital images are made by code and algorithms. According to Joan Fontcuberta in Pandora’s Camera (2014), the main difference between both techniques is that analog photography is inscribed, and digital photography is written. Analog images are the outcome of a physical process; light sensitive emulsions are marked by light. On the other hand, digital images are written in binary language to be processed for an electronic device in order to exist.

The history of photography could be considered a metaphor to understand how the economy has evolved since the industrial revolution until the present. Analyzing the advent of virtual photography may offer us a glimpse of what is about to come.