Looking at my fourth grade self, forever caught in the moment, I’m reminded of Picture Day at school – the fifth of 19 between Kindergarten and my senior year in high school – and how if your hair got mussed up before you sat down in front of the photographer, your teacher would run a comb, her own if you didn’t have one, through your hair. The photographer’s equipment was set up in the lobby of Santrock Elementary where we sat around the Christmas tree every December singing carols.
The photographer cajoled little Tommy or Susie into just the right position, adjusting his big lights for the most expedient shot. His camera was a big contraption with a long stretched neck around which he sometimes wrapped his arms and behind which his face disappeared. Issuing a cheery “smile and say cheese,” he’d say “look at my hand,” raising it in the air, then, “hooold it” so the picture wouldn’t blur. Your smile remained frozen – like that familiar Cheshire cat’s – until “that’s it sweetie” signaled it was over.
The art of photography has come a long way since the 1950s, and even farther from its original debut in 1839 with Louis Daguerre’s introduction of the daguerreotype in
France. One of the earliest photographic processes, the daguerreotype produced an image on iodine-sensitized silver that developed in a mercury vapor. Its surface was solid, made of .999 pure silver and photons of light that acted on it at the molecular level, and created an image unequaled in detail – provided preparation of the plate, which could be easily scratched, was carefully monitored. It involved a lot of steps and processes that not many professional photographers, and even fewer amateurs, have practical knowledge of today.
The picture I hold in my hand is passé. Its image is fine and clear, but the paper on which it is printed is curling and cracked in a few spots – though that could have been a consequence of the shoebox in which I found it.
Early photographic inventions were slow, large, lumbering things. Processes took time. But as with the inception of the automobile and manufacturing industry’s assembly lines, medicine’s quick march in search of vaccines, NASA’s lengthy reach into outer space’s great beyond, and the lightning speed with which technology, particularly in the computer field, is currently advancing, it seems our history is in danger of being forgotten.
A lot of things, little things, are getting left in the dust, and some of us are forgetting how we got where we are.
It was 1826 when the first permanent image used pewter plates in a technique called heliography; this was known as “sun drawing.” And in 1839, Daguerre, a French painter, chemist, and inventor, became the first photographer to capture a person on a photographic plate. The Paris street scene Daguerre tried to capture using this daguerreotype, with people moving in and out of his camera’s lens, took too long to coalesce, movement he failed to capture on the plate. But a man who was having his shoes shined in that same street scene remained still long enough for his photograph to be “taken,” and a new era in photography was born.
The world of photography, like so many of our worlds, has undergone many metamorphoses since Daguerre’s time, and today those changes are accruing at an exponentially quickening pace.
Yet the little girl in my hand remains the same – a bit cracked and curled, her tones slightly faded, but her eyes and her smile haven’t changed. Looking beyond her, everything else has. Old-fashioned photography like this might not be around much longer.
We’ll still have pictures, of course, but they won’t be the same. No. They’re not the same even now. Digital technology has changed all that. The-school-of-the-perfect-face employs methods like air-brushing that wipes away flaws, prettifies, sanitizes – like spin doctors whose words do the same for politicians. And with the advent of this newest photographic age, we don’t even need a photographer to fix our faces, highlight our cheeks, lift our heinies, erase the rolls around our middles, color out the zits, wash away the bags under our eyes, or surgically eliminate the sagging jowls, figuratively speaking. One finger on a computer button will do that for us.
Photo-shop is the new fountain of youth.
We can crop, cut away, minimize, enhance, turn upside down, foreground, or background our best or worst attributes, then put our revisionist, best selves out there front and center. Or for fun, we can create a chimera and put a friend’s head on it, adding bits and pieces of other people for greater affect.
Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein will have to make room for the competition.
In the 1880s the English physician and photographer Peter Henry Emerson was of the opinion that photographs should reflect nature by offering “the illusion of truth.” He eschewed the use of retouching techniques, recombining multiple prints, or utilizing staged settings, models, or costumes. He believed that the unique qualities of tone, texture, and light inherent in photography made it a unique art form, rendering embellishments unnecessary.
Too bad he’s not around now for the staging of senior picture days that include multiple props and changes of clothes, and different poses in “unnaturalized” settings. The seniors’ pictures in my yearbook offer a prism of clones on the same blank canvas, wearing the same black wrap on their shoulders, all stiffly posed to the left or right – the Gen-C (Clone) generation. Appointments were made for us with one photographer set up in the gym. No variations and only one theme.
The girls in my granddaughters’ classes made their own appointments in professional studios of their choice, took lots of clothing changes, and draped themselves over a variety of props. Their pictures were taken with a more traditional camera, then downloaded using modern methods, producing disked-proofs which would be “touched up” using the digital equivalent of air-brushing, minimizing, or wiping out altogether.
This current crop of seniors would be turned out perfectly. Looking like movie stars, every one.
In 1946 some Johns Hopkins applied physics researchers strapped a 35mm camera to a German V-2 missile which snapped one picture every second it was in space.
In 1991 the first digital still camera arrived on the scene. Only professional photographers were able to afford its steep price tag, but within five years they were more affordable to the public.
And now…well, you know.
We learned to burn our pictures onto computer disks and view them on our own monitors. Then we bypassed the disk in favor of an umbilical cord that transfers those pictures from camera to computer, and now there’s an itty-bitty wireless knob that downloads everything from your camera, or your camera-phone, as it passes, unseen, through the ether, directly to your computer. And there’s nothing you can’t do, with enough pixels.
Everything is forever, even Frankenstein – in multiple, computer-age versions.