Category Archives: 06. What is a photograph?

What is a Photograph?

The first question that Graham Clarke poses in his book, ‘The Photograph” is ‘What is a Photograph?’

If I am to be honest, it is not a question that I have consciously asked myself.  Before beginning this course had I been asked, my response would have been basic, attempting to describe a camera’s function and the end result, a photographic image.

In Clarke’s historical discussion he uses words such as ‘illusion’, ‘revelation’, ‘magical’ and ‘transformation’ to describe the search for a means to record and fix an image. When I further read about the developments of the heliograph and daguerreotype in the early 1800’s I was amazed at the scientific achievements. However, looking at the earliest images produced by these methods, ‘View from a Window at Gras, 1826 (see below), and ‘Intérieur d’un Cabinet Curiosité, 1837, my initial thoughts were not ‘science’ but were of amazement and magic as I was drawn into the images, contemplating the place and the time.

Nicéphore Niépce - View from the Window at Le ...

Nicéphore Niépce – View from the Window at Le Gras (1826) (Photo credit: luvi)

This has aided my understanding of the ‘dual aspects’ of photography, the scientific and cultural. The appreciation that a photograph is not simply a technical outcome, but is also influenced by the culture and in turn, content which it represents.

Clarke believes, the photograph is dependent on a series of historical, cultural, social, and technical contexts which establish its meanings as an image, and it’s values as an object.  These are factors that I need to keep close in my mind as elements of reference as I begin to ‘read’ photographs and also to consider how my own cultural and social experiences influence my interpretations.