China Power of Photography, 2006 PDF
Written by Vicki Goldberg   


Published under permission: Abbeville Press, Fine Arts & Illustrated Books


Photography was a powerhouse medium from the date of its birth in 1839 and was already on steroids and flexing its muscles when it was barely out of its teens. In 1860, Mathew Brady took a photograph that proved the medium had the power to affect events. His earliest portrait of Abraham Lincoln was the first photograph in history that influenced the election of a nation’s President, and it did so because of a change in the distribution of photographs.



Mathew Brady:Mathew Brady

Abraham Lincoln, 1860











Brady took this picture the day that Lincoln arrived in New York from his home in the middle of America to seek the Republican nomination for President. Almost no one in the east of America knew much about Lincoln or had seen a photograph of him, but he was rumored to be very ugly. He was uncommonly tall and awkward, and his dark skin was heavily lined. His opponents sang a song that ended, “Don’t, for God’s sake, show his picture.” A politician’s face was extremely important then, for Americans firmly believed that a man’s face revealed everything about his character.







Brady pulled Lincoln’s collar up to make his neck look shorter, posed him to look serious, dignified and wise, and retouched the lines of his face. He gave Lincoln a good character and made him look presidential.


Later that day, Lincoln spoke at the Cooper Institute in New York. He was a charismatic speaker; a listener once said, “While I had thought Lincoln the homeliest man I ever saw, he was the handsomest man I ever listened to in a speech.” After the Cooper Institute speech, one reporter said he was the greatest man since St. Paul. Lincoln later said, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.”


The photograph worked because it could be, in effect, mass reproduced and widely distributed. By 1860, photographic negatives had pushed aside the unreproducible daguerreotype, and the recently invented visiting card photograph was tiny and cheap. Everyone wanted to know what the greatest man since St. Paul looked like, and tens of thousands of Brady’s photograph were sold in inexpensive versions. Magazines printed engraved copies of it too, and a lithographic company, Currier and Ives, copied the image. They reversed it, cropped it, and colored the image -- a lot of changes, but lithographic copies of photographs were often what people saw, because small prints could be bought for as little as 20 cents.





The tintype came along at about the same time, and the Lincoln photograph was made into tintype buttons, the first campaign buttons ever to appear on men’s lapels – the predecessors of Mao buttons.

Because of Brady’s photograph, voters really knew what a candidate looked like for the first time. In effect, photography was creating celebrity. At the same time it created the emphasis on appearance that today makes a candidate who looks good on television have a better chance at winning than one who does not. Already in 1868, a magazine wrote that “The advantages which a handsome candidate…has over his competitors are … infinitely greater than they could have been before the invention of photography.”

----- Photography registers all kinds of appearance, and its potential for surveillance was established way back in the 19th century. Police photography began almost when photography did, in the 1840s, and surveillance really came into its own with the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. When the Prussians defeated France, the French government agreed to let them occupy Paris for 48 hours, but Parisians were so bitter about this that they rebelled and established the Commune, the first socialist government in history. The French government then laid siege to its own capital city. During the siege of Paris, the Communards, proud of their cause, posed for photographs.



Braquehais: Communards


Here is a group portrait of Communards, eager to have a memento of their rebellion. After the French government  defeated them, the police commandeered any photographs they could find, distributed copies to railroad stations and ports to prevent escapes, and imprisoned and even executed men they identified from the pictures.




Photographs were thus proved to be highly useful to the state for identification and control of its citizens. That such pictures may be imprecise was probably not conceded at the time by the authorities. Men can change their appearance many ways, most easily by growing beards and moustaches or shaving them off; it is quite possible that some people in the pictures managed to escape and that other, innocent men too closely resembled someone in the pictures and were unjustly condemned.





The usefulness of surveillance depends on the accuracy of interpretation. When aerial photographs of ballistic missile installations in Cuba were taken in 1962 and threatened nuclear war, one American military advisor said they were really pictures of baseball fields. Back in the 19th century, people believed utterly in the truthfulness of photography and didn’t question interpretations. Now we believe photographs lie. And at one point, even the 19th century wasn’t so sure about that.



Edweard Muybridge:

Running Horse



Running HorseWhen Muybridge’s camera arrested the motions of a galloping horse in 1878, it proved that thousands of years of art had been sorely mistaken. Horses did indeed, as some had conjectured, have all four legs off the ground at one time, not before and behind the body like a rocking horse, as artists had always showed them, but gathered under the belly. This bit of news was shocking. Muybridge proved that what people thought they knew because it was what their eyes saw was not true at all.

A leading art magazine remarked, “To the great surprise of photographers and of all those who saw these prints, the attitudes are, for the most part, not only disgraceful but of a false and impossible appearance.” Horses weren’t supposed to look like Muybridge’s photographs. They were supposed to look the way painters had always shown them. Muybridge’s photographs revealed that perception depends heavily on representation; we see what we have seen before, what we have been taught to believe, what we think we know. Photography was already changing the nature of perception.

The pictures provoked an artistic quarrel between knowledge and vision.



Thomas Eakins

Bronze (of a horse) & The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand, (painting)



EakinsWhen Thomas Eakins painted a carriage pulled by four horses, people objected that the wheel didn’t look like it was moving, because no one could see the spokes of a moving wheel clearly. The photographs depicted facts so perfectly that realism no longer looked very real, so maybe the camera wasn’t so truthful after all. Rodin said, “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop.” Rodin, among others, thought it preferable for art to look truthful to experience than to be truthful to fact, but Muybridge’s achievement had driven a wedge into the very definition of truth, long before we decided that photographs were liars anyway.










Muybridge devised a way to project his still images so rapidly that it looked like the horse was running across the screen; he has been called the father of the motion picture. Movies and movie stills always worked together, and at least once they had a great and even a measurable impact. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert both won Oscars for their starring roles in the 1934 comedy, It Happened One Night. Colbert played a rebellious heiress running away from her rich father, Gable a reporter who joins her because he hopes to get a story. One night they’re forced by lack of money to share a motel room, but in this more delicate era, Gable divides the room by hanging a blanket on a rope.


Both of them stubbornly insist on the same side of the curtain. She won’t budge, so Gable decides to give her a lesson in how a man gets undressed. First he takes off his jacket – he’s demonstrating -- then his tie, then his shirt. Then he takes off his shoes, his socks. When he’s wearing nothing but trousers and doesn’t show any signs of stopping, she zips as fast as she can to the other side of the curtain.


Gable became a major star and sex symbol with this movie. Women swooned over him, so American men copied everything about him. Men who had been clean shaven suddenly sported moustaches. They went out and bought the kind of jacket, sweater and hat he wore, and they wore their trench coats as he did, with the belts tied rather than buckled. He simply set men’s fashions.


In 1934, American men all wore undershirts, but when Gable took off his shirt in the motel, he wasn’t wearing one. If Gable didn’t wear an undershirt, then obviously undershirts were not truly masculine. Men stopped wearing them. Sales of undershirts reportedly plunged by 75 percent. Undershirt manufacturers complained to Hollywood that they were going bankrupt, at a time when the country was in a deep Depression. So in 1939, Hollywood made a movie in which Gable took off his shirt and was revealed to be wearing – you can probably guess -- an undershirt.


Gable and Norma Shearer:

Idiot's Delight



That movie was Idiot's delight, with Gable and Norma Shearer. The movie wasn't that good, so I'm not sure that the undershirt industry entirely recovered.


Cinema and fan magazines and the new photographic magazines like Life in the 1930s heightened photography’s power to create celebrity, influence fashion, fads, and behavior, and make a dent in the nation’s pocketbook.


News photographs also got a big boost from the increasing dominance of the visual media. The Vietnam war has been called the first television war, but it is recalled all over the globe in the form of still images rather than television clips.


Eddie Adams:

General Loan Executing a Vietcong Suspect

February 1, 1968


Eddie AdamsThe Tet offensive began on January 30, 1968. Major American and allied military bases were attacked. So were South Vietnamese cities and towns, even Saigon, which was presumed safe, even the American embassy there. This picture and others were shown on television the next evening, and the day after that Adams's picture appeared on front pages across America and was reprinted and shown on TV across the world. Then two American networks showed film of this execution and distributed the film to foreign news organizations. The film on the American station ABC stopped the moment before the shooting and resumed with images of the dead man on the ground. The station inserted this photograph into the pause.


The Tet offensive was shocking to Americans, and many think it was the turning point in the country’s support of the war. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong attack came after months of an extensive public relations campaign by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to convince the nation that we were finally winning the war. When the first bulletins on Tet came over the wire, Walter Cronkite, the most highly respected television anchor in America, exclaimed, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war.” Then came a gruesome image of a man having his brains blown out on the front page, an image that was horribly fascinating, that depicted a killing that went against all our democratic principles and laws, and that also told Americans in one small frame that our government had been lying about the war. The executioner, who was the highest ranking police officer in South Vietnam, killed his prisoner without a trial. The photograph, which quickly became a lasting symbol of everything that was wrong with the war, seemed to say that we were supporting a government that wasn’t worth fighting for.


One of President Johnson’s speech writers and confidants said later: “I watched the invasion of the American embassy compound, and the terrible sight of General Loan killing the Vietcong captive. You got a sense of the awfulness, the endlessness, of the war and, though it sounds naïve, the unethical quality of a war in which a prisoner is shot at point-blank range.” He was not alone. Anti-war demonstrations increased dramatically. Approval of the President fell fast and far, and two months after Tet he announced that he would not run again. This was not, of course, because of a single photograph, but that photograph came to symbolize the horrors and uselessness of the war and the lies of our leaders.





Even our views of our place in the universe have been affected by photographs. In the 1960s, some people were worried about the damage we were doing to the earth with pesticides and the threat of nuclear war, but little was being done about it. Then at Christmastime of 1968, three American astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission orbited the moon and sent back images of earth on live television that looked “like a sort of large misshapen basketball that kept bouncing around and sometimes off the screens back here.” After they returned to earth, NASA released still photographs they had taken, including one of earthrise taken on Christmas eve.


William Anders


December 24, 1968


earthriseWilliam Anders, the astronaut who took this picture, said “Let me assure you that, rather than a massive giant, [the earth] should be thought of as [a] fragile Christmas-tree ball which we should handle with considerable care.” It was as if we had looked in a mirror for the first time and discovered that we were rare, beautiful, and dangerously vulnerable. This picture and others from space were published all over our newly small earth. It was stunning to think of our home as a minor planet adrift in a great void, and yet this photograph showed that the moon was dead and earth alive. Suddenly in America a mass ecological movement began among young people, and the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970.


An English scientist named James Lovelock finally had backing for his theory, which he called the Gaia hypothesis, that Earth itself was a living being, kept alive by the constant interactions of every part of the organism, from rocks to oceans to air. The recent emphasis on global warming stems from the realization of the interdependence of all parts and all events on the planet, a realization that was made vivid and inescapable by photographs from space.




Text abbreviated from:

The Power of Photography: How Photographs Changed Our Lives

by Vicki Golberg (Abbeville Press, 1993)




Photography today is at a very peculiar juncture. There are more photographs around, in more media, than ever before. In 1998, it was estimated that an American saw about 11,000 images a day, a number that surely has only increased. The internet is just one more place to see pictures of every sort, as well as one immensely more efficient way to distribute them. Obviously no one can take in that many images, much less remember them all. The overabundance of images is impossible to process, so people stop looking. They learn how to skim photographs as they know how to skim texts, and they know without being taught how to slide their eyes across a picture without really seeing it. It is harder than ever to make a memorable photograph that will make people stop and really look. So the question arises: can photographs still have real power? Yes they can. They do.


Digitization has convinced everyone that photographs lie, but there are classes of photos that everyone still believes. When a photograph proves that a horse won by a nose, we believe it and give that horse a prize. When an X-ray shows a tumor in the brain, we believe it too, and an operation follows.


And there are classes of photographs that gain power partly by being so plentiful, so that individual pictures may seldom make much difference but the sheer weight of large numbers sending the same message over and over exerts a heavy influence. I think primarily of advertising photography, including television commercials, billboards, pop-up ads on the net. In America, at least, and presumably in capitalist countries generally, advertisements set many cultural scenarios: what’s cool, what’s sexy, what’s healthy, what’s good looking, masculine or feminine, what’s prestigious.


More meaningfully still, they do exactly what they are meant to do: they create an atmosphere of desire and a strong urge to consume. Advertising is necessary in economies where production outstrips necessity; people must be encouraged to buy things they do not absolutely need. The photographs feature beautiful people in beautiful homes leading beautiful lives. Ordinary items are turned into compelling, even fetishistic objects by the power of the camera. Even though we know that ads lie and exaggerate, their constant repetition stirs up vague discontents, envy, and hopes, and whatever they advertise the real message is the same: BUY IT -- so these photographs are vital to the manufacture of one major product of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century: consumerism.


Another class of photographs that wields a strong influence as a class rather than as single images is the class of astronomical photographs. These have been thrilling since the first pictures of the moon were taken in the nineteenth century, but the Hubble telescope, Chandra, the X-ray telescope, radio telescopes and the power of digital imagery sent across millions of miles of space have for some time been changing our view of the universe.


Earth was already relegated to a minor position in the cosmos by the Apollo 8 photographs, but now we have a true window into the solar system and so far beyond that we have come surprisingly close to the beginning of it all.





That has created religious controversies, philosophical inquiries and spiritual yearnings that I think must have amplified the mystique surrounding the turn of the millenium.





The world is breathless to know if there is the possibility that life existed on Mars or elsewhere, a riddle at the heart of humanity’s view of itself. When the first successful fly-by of Mars took place in 1965 and the first photographs of that planet came back, some wag said that one word would have been worth a thousand pictures.


Some individual pictures taken back on our planet still have the power to move minds and spur actions.


9/11: SEPTEMBER 11, 2001


The pictures of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, stirred horror and sympathy across most of the world.


Very few images of the current war in Iraq will be remembered, no matter how wonderfully they were composed or how urgent the action they depicted, but some amateur pictures taken with cell phones surely will be. The Abu Ghraib photographs, made by soldiers who participated in the abuse, have been seen by millions upon millions and become instantly recognizable icons of the most unholy sort.



Lynndie England

Man on Leash

Man on Leash











Abu GhraibHooded Prisoner

Hooded Prisoner



Their effect hinges on two elements: the content of the pictures, and digitization. The content has entirely discredited the moral stance of the United States, bred hatred for it in millions of hearts and served as the excuse for if not the cause of any number of attacks on Americans in Iraq. But the power of these photographs to influence many minds stems from digitization. Digitization of cameras, mass ownership of such cameras, including cell phone cameras, wide ownership of scanners and access to the net have made it easy to put photographs of anything and everything onto the web, so that a culture has grown up that says that just about whatever you do is worth photographing and sharing with your friends or even with untold numbers of people you will never know.


Soldiers now can have tiny cameras and take pictures on the spot, pictures by amateurs with no training but with access to places that professional photojournalists do not have. These pictures can reach friends, families, or immense publics without ever being censored by the military or by editors, essentially a new phenomenon in the history of war photography. The secret of their power is in the distribution network. It is immense, uncontrolled, and largely uncontrollable.


This distribution network has spawned other changes in war photography. “Live” coverage of deadly scenes in “real time” is one, but I’m thinking particularly of the videos and stills or frame grabs of terrorist beheadings of kidnapped prisoners. These images have a dual purpose: to strike terror into the hearts of the kidnappers’ enemies, and to recruit combatants to the terrorist cause. They have been quite successful in both purposes. In the past, I believe that pictures of wartime brutality – pictures of World War II concentration camp victims, for instance, even Eddie Adams’s picture of General Loan executing a suspect -- have chiefly been used and been read as evidence that people who committed such atrocities are evil and are enemies. Yet here we have the paradox that photographs of brutality on our side, such as the Abu Ghraib pictures, make recruitment more difficult, while photographs of brutality on the other side have aided recruitment and are thought to have provoked additional beheadings by convincing some that Islam can become great again via terrorism.





manipulated picture of explosion

August, 2006





The issue of manipulating digital photographs is also a major issue. This photograph of an explosion in Beirut during the war ini Lebanon last August was digitally doctored by the photographer to increase and darken the smoke, making the damage to the city look even worse than it was. The Los Angeles Times printed the photograph without realizing it had been manipulated. When that was pointed out, the paper fired the photographer. The care that news organizations take to assure the public that the photographs tell the truth is itself an acknowledgement that photographs, which were already powerful in the 19th century and exerted that power across the twentieth, continue to do so in the 21st century.



Vicki Goldberg©2006
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