History and Photography

Every week I ask a photographer “What photography means to them?” on the A Photographic Life podcast. Before posting the podcast I listen to each episode via my phone, most often when I am in the bathroom getting ready for the day.

My eight-year-old daughter can obviously hear this and last week asked me the question that no one has ever asked me, “Dad” she said “What does photography mean to you?” Without taking a moment to think I responded with one word “History!”

I went on to explain that photography provides evidence that something had happened, how things looked, and how people acted. It may not be objective evidence, but it is a form of evidence and that to me is a fundamental aspect of its reality.

Listening to the photographer Daniel Meadows talk about his personal archive last week I was struck by the importance he placed upon the photographs he owned that documented a place or time. Snapshot images taken at exhibition openings, whilst he was working and where his projects had been undertaken. Images he explained that provided context, proof and providence that in turn gave researchers a deeper understanding of his work and his own personal narrative.

Then I saw these images taken during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps workers and ambulances waiting to receive influenza patients in 1918.Credit...via Library of Congress, via Associated Press
St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps workers and ambulances waiting to receive influenza patients in 1918. Credit: Library of Congress, via Associated Press
influenza-ward-Walter-Reed-Hospital-Washington-DCLibrary of Congress, Washington, D.C. (cph 3a39569)
Influenza ward, Walter Reed Hospital, Washington. D.C.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (cph 3a39569)
1918-1919. An epidemic of Spanish Flu spread around the world. At least 20 million died, although some estimates put the final toll at 50 million. It's estimated that between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of the entire world's population became sick
A couple on the streets of London, 2019. Credit Unknown

It would be impossible to see these photographs and not experience some form of emotional response or sense of déjà vu based on the reality that we are currently living through with the Covid 19 pandemic. Images created 100 years ago that now have a relevance to our lives that only a few months previously they would not have had. Where once they existed as historical evidence out of context of our 21st century lives, now they present an uncomfortable echo of a situation we are having to come to terms with once more.

Photography has the power to do this. It presents powerful evidence of a reality. The face masks on the nurses bearing their stretchers, social distanced from each other with military regulation, the nurse dealing with her patients – benefiting from fresh air, thanks to their beds being placed outside –  similarly adopting a form of basic PPE and the couple on the street wearing metal masks as sharp and considered as their hats, gloves, shoes and coats. Photography presents us with these historical details in graphic clarity allowing us to make direct connections with our own response to a similar global pandemic. These images show us that nothing is new and that our connection to the past is perhaps stronger than we realise, a realisation that evokes a sense of  melancholy and vexation. A mixture of sadness and discomfit.

Just as Daniel Meadows saw the historical importance of his long forgotten images to researchers seeking a deeper understanding of his personal narrative. So, these images offer us a deeper understanding of a global human narrative, not purely due to their evidential nature but because of our lived experience. The way in which we view these images has changed as our lives have moved towards the experience the photographs so clearly document.

It is that shared experience that the most successful photographs are imbued with and it is those photographs that draw me into them. It is that journey into a photograph that keeps me looking at photography. The historical documentation and the shared experience, that’s what photography means to me.

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.




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