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Photography: A Critical Introduction How



From its inception photography spread to every continent and most countries, but we now live in a globalised world that is increasingly connected. It is one in which billions of messages and images are exchanged every hour. The invention of photography was a pre-condition for the existence of such a world, but photographs also comment on and critique globalisation. In these conditions it is hard to imagine anyone setting out to write a synoptic and encyclopaedic history of world photography. In the last century histories of photography were produced that helped to structure the way in which the medium was understood and appreciated. Today, useful and informative histories of photography continue to appear, often organised around the material available in particular archives. Typically, histories of photography offer a series of histories of photographers illustrated with examples from their work. In the twentieth century, in common with other areas of the arts, such as painting or the novel, there was a tendency to conflate the history of the subject with the work of particular practitioners. The central purpose of this opening section is to compare key, published in English, most of which are variously titled The History . . . or A Concise History . . . . What is the story of photography? It was invented in 1839, or so we have commonly been led to believe, but this apparently simple statement masks a complex set of factors. It is true that it was in 1839 that both Fox Talbot in England and Daguerre in France announced the processes whereby they had succeeded in making and fixing a photographic image. But the idea of photography long precedes that date. To a large extent the history of photography prior to 1938, when Beaumont Newhall first published his commentary, then entitled Photog - raphy, A Short Critical History, has been represented as a history of techniques. The focus was not on what sorts of images were made, but on how they were made. This approach is to some extent reflected in museum collections wherein it is the instruments of photography which are prioritised for display, with photographs acting as examples of particular printing methods, detailed in accompanying descriptions. The subject-matter of such photographs (and associated aesthetic and social implications), if acknowledged at all, is presented as being of secondary importance. So, was the story of photography always an account of changing tech - nologies? Martin Gasser suggests that this history is more complicated (Gasser 1992). Considering German, French, British and American publications written between 1839 and 1939, he identifies three emphases: first, what is termed ‘the priority debate’; second, histories of the development of pho - tography written primarily as handbooks detailing methods and techniques and also potential uses for photography; third, histories of the photograph as image. It is worth noting that it is the proliferation of material in the second of these categories which has led to the false assumption that the first hundred years of publication were largely devoted to technologies and techniques. Aside

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