This topic for the Forum came out of the discovery of Foster Huntington’s The Burning House. This posed on-line the question, ‘If your house were on fire, what would you take with you?’ Ninety one per cent of those replying included photographs in the bundle of what they would rush to gather up. A survey by the Association of British Insurers found that photographs formed the second most important category, after money and credit cards. These results led us to ask: ‘How did people see themselves before photography?’ and ‘How does photography shape image and identity?’
Before photography the earliest sense of identity of self and past generations was shaped by legends, stories, rituals, inscriptions and records. These would be complemented and reinforced by keepsakes, souvenirs, autographs and cards. If you were wealthy enough you might have a mirror; and for the select few there were drawings and painted portraits.
Photography changed that forever. Daguerre captured a figure on a plate in 1838-39; Robert Cornelius took the first photographic self-portrait in 1839; and by 1840 portrait studios were springing up in Europe and America. The first portraits were formal, rigid and unsmiling, due to both the long exposures required and the subject’s apprehensions about the novel process. People dressed for the occasion, projecting an image of respectability, of how they wanted to be seen. The carte de visite, an albumen print pasted on a pre-printed card, was invented by Louis Dodero in 1851; and ‘Cardomania’ followed its use by Napoleon III 1859. With improvements to the speed and convenience of photography, and changing social attitudes, portraiture became much more informal and moved out of the studio.
For the purposes of government, employers and many other organisations photographs now define who we are. Alphonse Bertillon invented the modern mug shot in 1888; and photo passports were first introduced in Germany in 1915. Many of us carry driving licenses and bus passes bearing photographs.
Photographs tell our stories: birth, school, birthdays, family gatherings, graduation, marriage and so on. In doing so they can become records of fashions and social change – trips to the studio and dressing for Confirmation and first communion are rarities today. They record our holidays – days when the sun always shone and we were happy – and encapsulate generations of social, economic and technological change. In this country we don’t use photography to tell the story of death; it is much more common in continental Europe and other Catholic countries. However, funeral photography is increasingly being offered. Photography is used to record and to tell our stories regardless of race and class.
We probably all have photographs of ourselves that we like and, consciously or not, they reflect how we see ourselves in terms of gender, age, race, class, character and environment. Increasingly, if we don’t like what we see we can be younger, slimmer ideals through the wonders of Photoshop. Unfortunately we are not always in control of our image. Even formal photographs can be unflattering, or we may be caught unawares or we may be the victims of embarrassing moments – all the sort of pictures that delight the media and satisfy our sense of schadenfreude. The inability to control our image might be related to the suggested belief that photography steals souls, but this may be more a case of scopophobia, an anxiety disorder, the fear of being seen or stared at by others
The use of photography on social media takes the idea of self-image and identity to the extreme, exemplified in the selfie. Pictures that people post on-line of themselves presumably reflect how they are happy to be seen – or maybe they act for the camera in a momentary lapse in self-awareness. We can see their individual and group identities. Pictures of other subjects they post – hobbies, interests and places visited – also reveal much about them.
Our roots are important to our image and identity. A photograph of an ancestor helps us to get a feeling for that person and where we have come from; when we don’t have a picture that link is lost and the history become hazy. But photographs can trick us. When we see pictures from our early years do we remember the events or only think we do because the photograph has made it appear real to us. And does the photograph become a kind of talisman, which seems to show a sort of truth, but only asks, ‘Who was I? Who am I?’ We are faced with the partiality of photography.
Partial of not it’s the best thing we have. To go back to the beginning – it may not be just your house that’s on fire when you grab those fragments of your identity and history. (Photos of refugees and migrants are scattered on a beach at the island of Lesbos on 22 October 2015, John Liakos. From ‘The Itinerary’ project at the Alison Richard Building, 2018)