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The Genius of Photography - Duncan Evans checks out a new series on the history, development, conflict and creative forces in photography from the camera obscura to the digital world of today.
Although this new 6-part, TV series for BBC 4 starts by pondering the differences between reality and photography it rapidly shifts to declare that photography has the power to delight, serve, outrage, move and disappoint us but has mainly intrigued us. And it's, "the secret strangeness that lies beneath the world of appearances and that is the true genius of photography." So now you know.
The program starts in earnest with a startling example of the camera obscura, explaining that it preceded photography itself by hundreds of years. It moves on to reveal the experiments of the early 1800s, when light sensitive chemicals were discovered. The problem then, was that that the chemicals would continue on developing until they turned black. This leads into the experiments of Englishman Fox Talbot and Frenchman Louis Daguerre that created printed, fixed versions of the images that could be chemically developed. The different processes are explained and the reasons why Fox Talbot, who was a very private person, managed to invent a process for the masses - the print could be duplicated. By contrast, Daguerre, who was a showman and exhibitor, invented a process that produced one off images that couldn't be duplicated. It took a while, but eventually market forces ensured the Fox Talbot print process prevailed.
Of course, this being photography there's plenty of opportunity for banal philosophy and artistic pretence but fortunately the narrator largely leaves this to the commentators and experts who provide over half of the dialogue. In this first 60-minute episode such pretentiousness and self-importance is largely, thankfully absent.
The pace rapidly races on, from the early experiments, to Eadweard Muybridge and his horse experiments in San Francisco to the commercial photography of the 1850s. It has to be said, that this starts to be a check list of people and projects delivered at a breakneck pace. The subjects are introduced and dispensed with before there's any chance to digest what your eyes have consumed.
From there it's off to the prototype studios and then to the Warhol of his day, Nadar, in his studio in Paris. His early portraiture was stripped down, direct, completely at odds with the Victorian neo-classical recreations. No need to stop there though, because the narrative is off again, showing early photographers stepping into the shoes of painters and painters taking photos and incorporating the elements of naturalism that the photo captured, into their own paintings. Degas is rolled out as a proponent of this, but also that most artists looked down on photography or saw it as just a tool.
Then it's back to America for Eastman and his development of the film roll, the creation of the word Kodak to market it. Kodak doesn't mean anything, Eastman thought it up as word with no prior meaning or association that had strong elements. This section talks about the commercialisation of photography for the masses, with processing of film roll, the availability of cheap cameras and how the early adopters became known as Kodak fiends, snapping everything in front of them.
This outpouring of happy snapping inadvertently produced classic photographs, rich with detail. As the narrator explains, this was "the gift of the medium rather than the genius of the photographer." This leads into the world of crime photography in the early 20th century America, where as much detail as possible was required. Here, the crime scene photographers developed their own style. The word genius, needless to say, crops up in the sound bites constantly.
Back to France then and the massed albums of Jacque-Henri Lartigue, whose snapshot pictures of everyday life and people jumping into the air contrasted deeply with the Pictorialism of po-faced serious artists, who were seeking to establish artistic photography as a creative and valid medium. All this leads to the Great War and the demands for accuracy, detail, sharpness in records and surveying. To round the first episode off, the narrative leaps forward another 20 years to wave a finger about the global and photographic conflict yet to come, with a picture of a Hitler Youth.
If you were expecting a detailed look into anything in this first program, then forget it. This is a helter-skelter gallop through the past for the masses, not photography students, so covers ground that could have filled hours of television otherwise. Fortunately this isn't the Open University, and while the pace of the first episode obviously excludes plenty of worthy material, future episodes cover specific topics and themes in more detail.
The Genius of Photography is on BBC4 at 9pm every Thursday night. To see the full schedule of content for the entire series, check out our news story here .