A Chronology of Photography

A Cultural Timeline From Camera Obscura to Instagram

By Paul Lowe.

Thames & Hudson. 272 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by Reagan Upshaw

There is one art form in which most Americans (and, I suspect, most humans) participate — photography.

In A Chronology of Photography, photojournalist Paul Lowe and his contributors detail the medium’s swift progression, from the purview of the scientists who invented it (noted astronomer John Herschel coined the term photograph in 1839, combining the Greek words for “light” and “drawing”) to its adoption by entrepreneurs, who established thousands of photographic studios to meet the growing demand among members of the middle class for images of themselves, something previously available only to the wealthy. In the decade after its invention, Lowe notes, “photography rapidly established itself as the dominant form of recording the world,” and its dominance has increased ever since, with an estimated 1.3 trillion images taken in 2017 alone.

But there were also artists who used the medium as more than a simple recording device, producing images that can only be termed fine art. Louis Daguerre had been a painter and architect before inventing the photographic process that bears his name; a haunting still life of objects in his studio is the earliest known example of a daguerreotype.

The equipment for early noncommercial photography was generally within the means only of the well-to-do, and a surprising number of practitioners were women. The new craft was deemed as acceptable a pastime among ladies of British society as embroidery and watercolor painting had been for previous generations. Julia Cameron is the best-known female photographer of the period, but titled ladies such as Augusta Crofton Dillon and Clementina Hawarden also made photographs that won notice in exhibitions.

Continuing innovation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries made photography more and more a part of daily life. The invention of processes that allowed images to be reproduced in newspapers without first being engraved made illustrated journalism common. Kodak made its first camera intended for casual use by the middle class in 1888, and its introduction of the Brownie camera in 1900 made it possible for anyone to be a photographer. The advent of 35-millimeter rolls of film and interchangeable lenses for compact cameras such as the Leica made it possible to photograph almost anywhere. The debut of Kodachrome in 1935 set a standard for color photography that would last until 2009 when, overtaken by digital cameras, Kodak announced that it would cease production of the film.

Any survey of a sprawling subject is by its very nature an exercise in editing, and the selection of 320 images to illustrate almost 200 years of photography involves a philosophical question: Should iconic images dominate the discussion, or do relatively unknown photographs have their place? Lowe tries to strike a balance: Famous images such as Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” and John Paul Filo’s photo of a shooting victim at Kent State University are included. Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” is not.

Lowe’s desire to include a significant number of images by women and by photographers from outside what he calls the “Western-centric world” is admirable, but it leads to some curious compromises. Adams is the subject of a thumbnail biography in the text, for example, but is not represented by a single image.

The use of a timeline of world events along the bottom of the page to give the adjacent photographs cultural context is a good idea, but it sometimes leads to juxtapositions that might be hilarious if they weren’t horrifying. The two timeline entries for 1983, for example, inform us that in this year “David Bowie embarks on his Serious Moonlight Tour for his album ’Let’s Dance’ ” and “After the worst drought in history, the death toll in Ethiopia reaches four million.”

Slapdash editing also mars the book. On two pages, we are told the same tale of how Antarctic expedition photographer Herbert Ponting was almost killed when a pod of killer whales broke apart an ice floe on which he had positioned himself. And contrary to what the text states, the U.S. military draft was not introduced in 1969; it had been going on uninterrupted for over 20 years.

But the story the book tells is an interesting one, and its ending chapter has a provocative title: “What is a Photographer?” When anyone with a smartphone can snap and post an image on a worldwide platform, what roles do professionals have? Lowe sees photography becoming less a matter of taking photographs and more one of curating from a glut of images. “As the twenty-first century continues, and the number of images increases exponentially,” he writes, “what becomes increasingly important is not who took the photograph, but how it can be used and to what end.”

Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.