World Photo Day: The Gift

by Adam Bell, co-editor of Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts

This guest post is part of a series for World Photo Day. Some of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of photography-related topics will share stories throughout the day. We hope these personal glimpses into their work will inspire a broad community of readers. Follow along throughout the day for more.

Established in 2009 and first celebrated in 2010, World Photography Day marks the anniversary of the French government’s purchase, introduction, and “gift” of the daguerreotype process to the world in 1839. While the move by the French government catapulted the daguerreotype into widespread use throughout the world, it was by no means the first or only photographic process—Nicèphore Nièpce had perfected a similar process in the late 1820s, and both Hippolyte Bayard and Henry Fox Talbot invented similar but different photographic processes around the same time as Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in the late-1830s. The complex and multiple origins of photography highlight one of the medium’s enduring qualities—its mercurial nature.

From the wet-plate to the negative to the digital sensor, photography has always been dependent on shifting technologies, but remains rooted in the lens. Well into the 21st century, when we speak about photography we simultaneously mean traditional analog processes, but must also include Instagram, Snapchat, Photoshop, and a host of other emergent digital technologies. Since it’s invention, the shifting technological nature of the medium has caused countless practitioners, critics, and thinkers to forecast its demise or irrelevance, but it is also the medium’s greatest strength. It has allowed the medium to evolve, adapt, and expand in extraordinary ways. The desire to image the world is deeply rooting in our human nature and no technological shift is going to alter that need or desire.

While the press typically focuses on the increasing number of photographs taken or sensational stories of selfie-sticks run amok, there are more profound changes afoot that shape the way we see, experience, and understand the world through lens-based imagery. As Trevor Paglen has recently noted, we live in a world of machine-seeing and seeing-machines where the majority of images are made for and by machines. CCTV cameras track our movements, drones image us from above, and computers scan our images for data. This does not detract from the joys of photography, but it presents a new challenge. It’s never been enough to take a good picture, which is hard enough. We must not only learn how to contend with the onslaught of images we view and make everyday, but must also understanding how the images we make and consume are analyzed, shared, and used by algorithms, companies, and governments both for and against us. World Photography Day is a moment to celebrate the pleasures and joys of the lens-based arts, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the ways this incredible gift, bequeathed 176 years ago, has continued to transform our lives in new and incredible ways.

9780520284692_BellTraubAdam Bell is a photographer and writer. Coeditor of The Education of a Photographer, he has written for numerous publications, including Afterimage, The Brooklyn Rail, The Art Book Review, FOAM Magazine, photo-eye, and Paper Journal. He is currently on staff and faculty in the MFA Photography, Video, and Related Media Department, School of Visual Arts.