‘Photography Changes Everything’, a review

Photography Changes Everything
Marvin Heiferman (ed.)
Aperture, New York, 2012

Photography Changes Everything

There can be no doubt that photographs are a powerful way to affect change. The book offers a number of interesting and diverse examples. Maurice Berger (on the NYT Lens blog) outlines its place as the advocacy tool of choice to improve awareness of racial injustice in 1960s mainstream America. Sandy Puc’ and Diane Granito contribute with current organisational examples – Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep and Heart Gallery of America respectively. Subhankar Banerjee describes the critical role photography has played in the American land conservation movement; although voyeuristic and idealised and abetting tourism to destroy some of the landscape it portrayed, he goes on to show how his own approach of portraying the Arctic as the “most connected landscape on earth” (p.65) attunes aesthetics to sustainability, helping preserve our common heritage. In a similarly powerful moment in Australia’s recent history (not mentioned in the book), the choice of Peter DombrovskisMorning Mist, Rock Island Bend by Bob Brown as the iconic image used by The Wilderness Society to protect the Franklin and Gordon Rivers from flooding saw that image broadly reproduced in print media during the campaign in the early eighties. While Dombrovskis’ images are not used to sell products, they are another strong example of the power of photography to drive change. Dale Kaplan mentions that although photography has been used in marketing since the mid-nineteenth century (when it was still a novelty), a century later “quotidian pictorial artifacts are ubiquitous” (p.46). By the late sixties, Ansel Adams was able to use his images of Yosemite to lobby for conservation of the area as a national park; his Winter Morning, Yosemite Valley (1969) also appearing on Hills Brothers coffee cans; a successful mix of commercial and political activism.

Desire is perhaps of photography’s most frequent targets. As well as changing beliefs, it can certainly change what we want. Amy Henderson discusses the example of the nascent Hollywood movie industry, where photography “helped catalyze motion pictures” (p.37), and became a “staggering machine of desire” (p.37). Henderson cites how glamour ads with Veronica Lake consciously raised viewers’ expectations about what how they were supposed to look. Photography is part-and-parcel of our being “shopping species” (p.57), a phrase from Paco Underhill, who goes on to say that “…the increasing role photographic images now play in the exchange of goods for money has become a telling dipstick of our social, economic, and visual evolution.” (p.58). Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the ubiquity of photographic images, and their consistent sirens’ call. In the last essay of the book, Jeremy Wolfe shares research showing the mnemonic strength of photography, and just how well and how quickly we can assess the ‘gist of a scene’. Maybe we’re yet to develop enough of a natural critical distance with this medium that we love so much.

Plate XIX of

Bentley’s Snow Crystals

The book also deals with the broad themes of how we view ourselves and how photography relates to art, referencing a number of intriguing examples. Two memorable examples are Steven Heller’s discussion of picture magazines like Paris Match and VU popularising photojournalism in the 1920s, and Kenneth G. Libbrecht on how Bentley‘s Snow Crystals (1931) went on to define how we imagine snow. However much of the discussion about change is misleading – a function more of the title of each chapter than of the content. Each title begins with ‘Photography changes…’, whether the chapter talks about change or not. The titles were no doubt added during the editing of the book, and have the effect of sanitising the content. For example, ‘Photography changes what and who we desire’ by Lois W. Banner talks about how the iconic ‘flying skirt’ photos of Marilyn were an extremely successful publicity stunt; a more accurate title would read ‘Photography sells what and who we desire’. Similarly, Bob Rogers recounts how his father posed in front of somebody else’s boat for a family ‘snapshot’. Called ‘Photography changes how family history is constructed’, it could just as easily be called ‘How family history is falsified’. The way that the book is divided into sections also detracts from the impact of individual chapters. The categories that make up the six sections consist of four ‘What’s (What We Want, …See, …Do and …Remember), as well as Who We Are and Where We Go. Like the chapter heading construction, I found this forced and impractical.

It feels to me as though Photography Changes Everything misses its mark somewhat, by focusing on easy and in several cases trivial examples. While it does offer genuine food for thought in regards to the role and uses of photography, I would have liked to see at least a little more consideration given to how commonplace modern day surveillance is, for example, and some of the impacts on our lives. There were two interesting historical examples (Sandra S. Phillips on the Cuban missile crisis and Von Hardesty about the important role of aerial reconnaissance in the Allies’ WWII landing at Normandy. Perhaps it’s unreasonable though to expect an institution like the Smithsonian to publicly engage in some of the drawbacks of our mass media culture. The ubiquity of CCTV and the significant use of Google StreetView seem like straightforward examples.

I was left wanting more from the book. I have some appreciation for how photography profoundly shapes our world, and was hoping for it to be comprehensively covered. The book should have helped more. It’s difficult, though, to articulate the profound ways in which photography works. Some weird and wonderful examples redeemed the book, and the many historical examples were a strength.

The Wired interview with the editor is recommended.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Posted on April 5, 2014

One Response to “‘Photography Changes Everything’, a review”

  1. Drew says:

    ‘Photography Changes Everything’ on Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14498161-photography-changes-everything

Leave a Reply