What’s in a Photograph

Photographs are something we all take for granted and it’s easy to see why this is the case. It’s so simple. One click and there it is, a perfect, high-definition image staring back at you in a matter of milliseconds. Photography has become a kind of way to communicate, a substitute for language when words cannot do enough to describe something. How often do you resort to screenshots when you don’t feel like explaining an image to someone online? How often do you take pictures on holiday to show people what you did and the experiences you had? How many people do you see in your photos of the Taj Mahal also taking photos of the Taj Mahal? Taking pictures has become a kind of automatic response to certain situations. 

What's in a Photograph

The accessibility of images and the ability to create them is a wonderful technological advancement that has revolutionized art and culture worldwide. But with this ability we often forget how amazing a photograph actually is in itself. 

Consider the following photograph

What's in a Photograph

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is an image of a battalion resting by the river near Merville, France during World War I. The picture was taken on August 5, 1915. Every single one of the faces you are looking at are people that are no longer alive (the last WWI veteran died in 2010). This photograph is a small glimpse into the lives of over a hundred people gathered at one place at the same moment before diverging into their own separate lives. 

But what makes this photograph so interesting is something in common with all photographs. It is the simple idea that for a split second, the light from the sun beaming down on that day on August 5th, 1915 reflected off the river and the trees and the faces of those soldiers, redirected into the lens of a camera and was captured forever. Light will never create that exact pattern on a piece of film ever again in history.

This idea becomes more complex the more you think about it. But before we dive in, we should also consider the distinction between a painting and a photograph. 

What's in a Photograph

The image above is in fact a painting by Gottfried Helnwein. It was created using hyper-realistic techniques and from this distance it is essentially impossible to tell that it is not a photograph, but there is an important distinction to be made. 

photograph is generated by light. Specifically it is generated by a reaction between light and some chemically reactive material which creates the exact pattern of light of the moment that photograph was taken. A painting on the other hand is created when light that enters a human eye is incorporated as a memory into their neural network and is reproduced to the best of their ability. 

Obviously, the artist Gottfried Helnwein does not simply remember the face of a young girl and try and recreate it. He likely uses photographs as an aid, constantly reminding himself where the slightest of details on her face are, creating a copy very similar to the original image. But a photograph is an exact copy because it is the light itself that created the image, not an artist’s hand. 

Consider another photograph

What's in a Photograph

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The image you are looking at was taken on May 29, 1919 and it shows a complete solar eclipse — the moment when the moon blocks the view of the sun in the sky. But what is not inherently obvious about the photo is that it happens to be one of the most significant image in the history of astronomy.

Let me explain a bit of background on the significance of this image. At the time, the way people thought about gravity was still in a Newtonian sense. Essentially, everyone thought of gravity as something that attracted bits of mass together in the universe. But an intelligent young physicist named Albert Einstein saw something more in gravity. Specifically, he thought that gravity, space, and time were all interconnected such that large objects in space would not only attract other objects with mass, but also warp the space and time around it. 

You can think about it like dropping a bowling ball along with a bunch of marbles on you bed sheet. As the bowling ball sinks into the sheets, warping its shape, all of the marbles will fall towards the bowling ball. Your sheets represent something referred to as ‘spacetime’ — a four dimensional continuum that is stretched by things with a lot of mass. Einstein believed that big things like planets had the capacity to not only warp the direction of orbiting objects, but light as well. 

This was one of the most influential ideas in Einstein’s theory of general relativity and for awhile no one could prove it. But in 1919 a group of British astronomers led by Sir Frank Watson Dyson and Arthur Eddington figured that during the solar eclipse (when it is easier to see the light of stars nearby the sun) they might be able to capture an image Einstein’s theory of action.

It’s impossible to tell, but the light visible beyond the silhouette moon in the photograph is coming from a combination of the sun’s solar flares and light that has travelled hundreds of light years away. That is, light from distant star clusters. Not only is the light coming from different stars, but the light can be seen (or rather, measured with instruments far more accurate than the human eye) bending around the shape of the sun as it makes it’s way into the lens of the camera. 

There is nothing else, other than photography, that could have made this discovery. This is because of the nature of a photograph — it captures the exact pattern of light from a particular moment in time. The light from those distant stars took 153 years to travel to our solar system, bend around the sun, and fall directly into the 4 inch lens used to capture the image. No painting, illustration, or story has as much power as this. No painting or illustration can create an exact replica of a moment in history. Perhaps this is why we say that people ‘make’ paintings, ‘tell’ stories, but ‘take’ photographs. We take something from that moment and immortalize it.

Now I direct your attention to the photograph below

United States Capitol, ca 1846

Image Source: Library of Congress

This is a picture taken in the capital of the United States in 1846. It is one of the earliest photographs ever taken, but when shown to the public, it elicited not a feeling of excitement or joy but shock in most of the people who first saw it on display. It’s no surprise that the earliest photographs struggled to make their product marketable in the very beginning. Imagine a world in which any image of the world was created by other people, and often had a characteristic artistic flair that made it distinguishable from reality. Now imagine that someone has told you they can reproduce an image of something, anything, exactly how it is in reality, with a machine. 

The only way the photographs were really able to show that photographs were nothing to be afraid of was by taking photographs like this:

What's in a Photograph

Image Source: Library of Congress

Pictures of famous people. When people saw that well respected figures like Abraham Lincoln were having their photographs taken, they were more likely to trust the camera. This may be because the suspicion associated with cameras was replaced with an association of wealth and status. After all, if Abraham Lincoln gets his photograph taken, I want one too! And as the years went on, more and more of the public became accustomed with the wonders of photography. A similar story can be said for motion pictures, which began with films like Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station

It amazes me how much our perception of photography has changed. It has evolved from a strange kind of magic that takes moments and captures them forever on a tiny piece of film, to a way to gain recognition and popularity, to a medium for propaganda, to an art form, to a medium for language. It records history, it makes scientific discoveries, and it expresses emotions, sometimes all at the same time. The photographs stored on your phone are no different. Contained within bits of digital code are exact replicas of moments in time that can be saved forever.

In respect to the theme of this article, I would like to end it off not with a sentence but a picture taken from a hot air balloon in 1853 — the first aerial picture taken in history. And as you examine it, imagine the rays of light that travelled from our sun in a pattern unique to that moment, all captured by a machine in a matter of seconds. 

What's in a Photograph

Image Source: PetaPixel


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