By: Jordan Levy
“I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.”
-LOUIS DAGUERRE, 1839
“From the moment of its birth, photography had a dual character—as a medium of artistic expression and as a powerful scientific tool” (“Daguerre”). In my mind, this holds true today. Photos are used both for self-expression (professional or amateur), as well as serving as a more utilitarian tool: that of a symbolic icon. When I say symbolic icon, I am referring to the notion of that photo physically depicting an image of the artist’s choosing, yet possessing an ulterior motive or symbolically representing another phenomenon.
A personal example of this is the image below: an untitled IPhone digital image by Jordan Levy.
Untitled 2017 IPhone Photograph by Jordan Levy
Yes, to the eye of an outsider it may appear as a poorly constructed and executed snapshot of a seemingly insignificant household object. But to me, the photographer, this image is indicative of an aspect of my life. I recently took this photo as a method of remembering to complete the chore of purchasing more dog food. According to author Liz Wells, I was guilty of using my “camera as a method of note-taking” (Wells, 298). As such, this image was solely for personal use as I never intended for anyone else to view the image. Because it was only for my benefit, I took no time in arranging an artistic composition; I did not consider lighting, the rule of thirds, space, delivery, or framing. As a matter of fact, the only principle of this photograph I did care about was the subject matter. Because this image is symbolic of an activity, I took a minute to ensure that all of the writing on the bag of dog food was legible even on my small phone screen.
If I had to assign a genre for this image, I would create a new category, as I barely consider this image to be art. The genre I would create would be iconic of images intended for memory aid, perhaps entitled ‘Small Remembrances.’ Ultimately, as soon as I complete my symbolic task of purchasing more dog food, I intend to delete this image as a method of physically checking the activity off of my ‘to-do’ list. This image can barely be classified as ‘art’ in my mind (if at all) due to the photographer’s lack of care and precision regarding this image; I did not care to design any aspect of its composition, and I do not care for its lasting impression or existence in the world. In this way, “photographs have become information,” serving a purpose outside of aesthetically pleasing viewers (Lister, 8). Finally, due to this image’s short life span, some photographs are “fugitive and transient; they come and they go” (Lister, 8). My photo of dog food is not long for this world, and nobody will miss the image when it is ultimately permanently deleted.
2006 Digital Photograph by Mannie Garcia for the Associated Press
A different genre of photography is photography for propaganda. Such photos often stem from news outlets or artists working in photojournalism. The 2006 notorious Obama “Hope” photo is no exception. In this instance, the digital, color-photograph taken by member of the Associated Press Mannie Garcia is not as famous as the appropriated and edited version of the tri-color “Hope” poster designed by Shepard Fairey in 2008. In my mind, these images can be viewed side-by-side, as they share a number of artistic characteristics, including their dual genres of portraiture and propaganda.
2008 “Hope” Poster by Shepard Fairey
Although these images may seem similar, their biggest difference lies in their medium/production and means of dissemination. Whereas the Garcia image is a photograph shot from a real human, the Fairey image is a screen-printed poster designed from Garcia’s original image. Fairey has essentially re-mediated Garcia’s photograph, drawing attention to both the subject (Obama) and the practice of digital appropriation (on a side note, Garcia later sued for copyright and later settled outside of court). In addition, Garcia’s photograph was intended for the use of the Associated Press to educate readers in an un-biased fashion about Obama’s bid for presidency. Meanwhile, Fairey’s poster was intended for mass reproduction to promote Obama as a candidate. Fairey’s produced over 4,000 digital recreations of Garcia’s photograph to distribute at Obama rallies (Wikipedia), where this re-mediated image quickly became an icon for Obama’s campaign and overall message of ‘Hope’ for America.
1850 daguerrotype: Fathers, daughters, and Nurse by Thomas Easterly
The final image I would like to discuss today is vastly different from the first three. This image, entitled Fathers, Daughters, and Nurse, is a daguerreotype dating back to 1850, created by Thomas Easterly. As the title suggests, the subjects include a Southern gentleman, his two daughters, and their African American nurse/servant (Getty Museum).
Although these subjects do not appear to be hugely significant, it is their insignificance that makes this daguerreotype fascinating. “Among the many momentous social transformations generated by photography’s invention was the possibility of self-representation by a large variety of groups previously excluded from official portraiture” (metmuseum.org). This Southern family epitomizes this phenomenon. Although they have no defining familial connections or accomplishments (Getty Museum), the invention of the daguerreotype allowed them to eternalize their familial likenesses in the history of photography along with other average people. Most likely, this photograph was intended for personal viewing as the family was not widely recognized. Like Garcia’s original ‘Hope’ photograph, the genre of Easterly’s daguerreotype is portraiture, indicative of the family’s desire for pictorial representation. Unlike the Obama photo, this photograph is highly staged; each member of the family is looking directly into the camera, whereas Obama did not pose specifically for Garcia’s benefit. This juxtaposition suggests the family’s desire for this image as they had to pose and remain still during the exposure time (metmuseum.org).
“Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_%22Hope%22_poster.
Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography. Metmuseum.org
Easterly, Thomas. Fathers, Daughter, and Nurse. 1850, Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
Fairly, Shepard. Hope. 2008.
“Fathers, Daughters, and Nurse.” The J. Paul Getty Museum, www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/49516/thomas-martin-easterly-father-daughters-and-nurse-american-about-1850/.
Garcia, Minnie. Untitled. 2006, Associated Press, Washington DC.
Levy, Jordan. Untitled. 2017, Washington, DC.
Lister, Martin, ed. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2013.
“The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–1860.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Metmuseum.org
Wells, Liz, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. Excerpts.