I begin teaching the History of Photography again tomorrow. This semester I will once more be returning to the beginnings of the medium through to the mid-Twentieth century and exploring the impact and effect that this strangest of nineteenth century inventions brought to the world.
I first began talking about this relatively specialist history back in 1991. As a young part-time lecturer/postgraduate I was using the books and knowledge I had gathered trying to convey more about my own enthusiasm for the medium as much as technical facts and the onerous weight of history. As a postgraduate I was still trying to negotiate a path through the dark jungle of the past myself. In those days I was probably one of around a dozen people in South Africa teaching this esoteric historical thread. I don't think a year has passed since then when I haven't doubted and reconsidered the tale that I am telling.
History is not immutable, it should not be carried as a great burden to impose on the next generation. Photography should be understood as a clue to history rather than a pure representation of history (but it should always be seen in the context of all history, not as an isolated subject). Perhaps most of all, it should be explored for its relevance to the 'now', to our lives lived today. The photograph can puncture time (it can make the past seem more real, more present) but it is not objective. Like historiography, photography is constructed by the hand of the maker and the inheritor of that information. It is a scene selected (out of millions of options), produced, classified, deleted/stored, interpreted, reimagined. Making a photograph is an attempt to impose a structure on chaos, to develop a structure from a whirling mass.
" ... history is the antithesis of art: and only if history can endure to be transformed into a work of art will it perhaps be able to preserve instincts or even evoke them.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations