Photography’s eye

Unknown photographer, probably 1930s. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Réka Szentirmay. (back)

Photography has a complex relationship with its subject. It was the first medium that derived its imagery from the physical world around us, rather than the artist´s imagination. When portraying a person, that also meant that the person in question was physically confronted with the apparatus. The camera looked the subject in the eye, or vice versa. 

However, it has finally been accepted that a photograph is not necessarily an objective representation of what it faced in the world. Even in the early days of photography, manipulation of the final image was practise in many ways. When portrait photography became more widespread in the early 1900s, photographers already employed photoshop-avant-la-lettre by giving subjects some healthy rosy cheeks or reducing a waist.  

Looking into photography’s eye and being confronted with the (objective?) result, a representation of the self, can be scary. It lays bare parts of ourselves that we might not always be happy to see. Looking at yourself from an outside perspective is alienating in itself, but the camera can also emphasize what you might consider your flaws. Some culture critics have even described photography as stealing (part of) the soul of the portrayed. 

Another aspect of photography is that it eternalizes something that occurs at a specific moment in time in a permanent image, thereby emphasizing it. This moment might otherwise have been fleeting, but because it was seen by photography’s eye, it gains meaning. As a result, it might also be seen by a much bigger audience. A photograph can circulate for way longer, in different places, among far more people. 

To quote General Hammond in Stargate SG-1 S07E17, “cameras don’t just record things. They change what they record just by being there”. When photography just emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, this was true because the technique was new. This both intrigued and was met with suspicion. People were not yet sure how this medium worked. Nowadays, most of us are very much aware of the power of the photographic image and how easy it is to manipulate. This makes us suspicious as to why an image is taken. And because photography’s eye has become smaller and smaller over time, we are also always weary if our image is taken without us knowing. 

The camera, photography’s eye, can be a torturous instrument. It can turn the private into the obscene; force its subjects to perform a role in front of the lens, to show a better version of themselves. This is very much the case nowadays with social media. Vloggers, bloggers and influencers are creating a perfect online life through images, which perhaps blurs the boundaries between fiction and real life a little too much. An example is the mommy blog, in which parents document their children’s whole lives to share with their followers, and the world. These children cannot yet give their formal consent and are sucked into this world involuntarily. If they grow up with the constant presence of photography’s eye, will they ever know what is real and what is for the show? Will they know who they are when not in front of a camera? Or will photography really steal their souls? 

Tired of looking at my backside? Check out my front!

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