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  • Ana Savković

Photography - The Face of Society

The New York Public Library

1937 - Daughter of Mexican field laborer. Near Chandler, Arizona. Photographer - Dorothea Lange

Source: Unsplash, downloaded (04.01.2021.)

What is the correlation between the development of photography and changes in social structures? To what extent does photography as a form of artistic expression reflect the current state of society and what is its role and value in the modern world? In order to determine the answers to these questions, its beginnings and development path must be studied. Photography and Society written by Gisèle Freund (1908-2000), a respected French photographer and photojournalist of German descent (1908-2000), thoroughly introduces the reader to the history of photography and the social circumstances in which it was created and developed.

Freund had an impressive career. She was one of the most prominent photographers in Europe. She is best known for her documentary photography and portraits of writers and artists. She was born into a wealthy Jewish family, and from her father, who himself expressed an interest in photography, she received her first camera as a gift and later a Leica camera as a graduation gift. In fact, Freund's main contribution to photography includes the use of the Leica camera for documentary reportage. She studied sociology and art history in Germany but after Hitler's rise to power she fled to France with the German philosopher, writer and translator Walter Benjamin because of her socialist views and Jewish origins and continued her studies at the Sorbonne. In 1936, the publication of Freund's photojournalistic work "Northern England", which showed the effects of depression in England, in Life made her internationally known and marked the beginning of her collaboration with the famous magazine.

In 1938, she photographed Irish writer James Joyce for his upcoming book Finnegans Wake. In 1939, she photographed the English writer Virginia Woolf. In 1942, she emigrated to Argentina and five years later signed a contract with the Magnum agency as an associate for Latin America. She photographed the first lady of Argentina, Eva Peron, and after moving to Mexico she became friends with painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. During her career, she has done over eighty photojournalism assignments, primarily for Life and Time, but also for Du, The Sunday Times, Vu, Picture Post, Weekly Illustrated and Paris-Match magazine, among others. She devoted herself to writing about photography since the 1960s and her reputation as a prominent portrait photographer continued to grow, while today she is considered one of the best portrait photographers of the twentieth century. In 1977 she became the president of the French Association of Photographers and in 1983 she was awarded the highest medal for artistic work in France. In 1991, she became the first photographer to be honored with a retrospective at the Musée National d'Art Moderne. In addition to Joyce and Woolf, she has photographed Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Andre Breton, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Robert Lowell, Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Henry Matisse, Man Ray and many others. In her book, Freund systematically deals with the theme of photography through history; from its inception and predecessors to its establishment in various levels of society and industry, the influence it had on visual arts and vice versa. It also touches on the controversy over whether photography is art or not, analyzes the role of photography as a means of reproduction of works of art, photography in the press and mass media, as an instrument of politics and a means of manipulation, as a means of artistic expression... With every new page the reader acquires a clearer picture of the power and influence photography has as and its socio-historical significance. It becomes clear that the history of photography is actually the history of the development of self-awareness of individuals in various social strata and the history of technological and economic development of society. From its very beginnings, photography, i.e. its predecessors, have been correlated with the social processes of time. The emergence of the forerunner of photographic portraits is closely connected with the stage of social development and the rise of "broader strata towards greater political and social importance". Ordering portraits was a symbolic act by which members of the "emerging social class" marked their rise and expressed their need for self-expression. French portrait painters in the eighteenth century had a demanding job to satisfy a clientele who had a desire to “idealize their face”. Portrait miniatures in the form of a lid for a powder box or pendant, met the requirements of the era and meant that an individual could always carry pictures of absent loved ones and were in vogue in aristocratic circles. The rising bourgeoisie thus succeeded in trying to express its “cult of the individual,” and this art became lucrative as it became increasingly popular. The miniatures were followed by silhouettes, more precisely images of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single colour, usually black, with its edges matching the outline of the subject. Then came the physionotrace, a new technique that combined two different types of portraits - silhouettes and engravings and was quickly accepted and spread. Due to the new technique, the portrait was available to a large part of citizen classes, but it still did not fully correspond to the wishes of the bourgeois middle classes and the masses. Freund states that physionotrace has nothing to do with the discovery of photography but that it can be considered its ideological predecessor. Photography was invented in 1824 and its inventor was Nicéphore Niépce. His method was perfected by the painter and inventor of daguerreotype (the first practically applicable photographic procedure for obtaining a permanent image) painter Louis Daguerre with the help of his invention - diorama, a type of stage display in which the impression of movement, sunset and the like is achieved by applying transparent materials painted on both sides and lighting from different sides. Niépce died in poverty and his work, in which he invested his efforts and resources, remained unknown during his lifetime. Daguerre entered into an agreement with Niépce's son to share the invention of photography. The French state bought the invention in 1893 and declared it public. Daguerre and Niépce's son were granted a life annuity. Daguerreotype was initially available only to the wealthier bourgeoisie, the technical process needed more refinement, but interest in photography did not abate and due to its economic importance, efforts were made to improve technology and make production cheaper. After the technical improvements, the daguerreotype started disappearing and the history of photography started beginning. But another “problem” arose, as the technique evolved the artistic value of the photographs decreased. Some of the first famous "photographer-artists", whose works had obvious artistic value, were Felix Tournachon Nadar, Carjat who made the famous portrait of the poet Charles Baudelaire, Robinson, David Octavius Hill, Gustave Le Gray with whom this development path came to its end. Then the "photographer-artists" gave way to commercial photographers/photographers of the craft or they themselves began to put their earnings above quality. The French photographer Disdéri realized that photography was available only to the rich due to its high price, and in order for it to become a lucrative photographic craft, he introduced a radical change and thus brought photography closer to a wide circle of consumers. He reduced the portrait and introduced a business card-sized portrait, which allowed him to charge for his photos at a lower price. New techniques continued to be developed in accordance with the needs of society, retouching was invented which made it possible to remove from the photograph everything that could bother the client. But satisfying the taste of the clientele reduced the artistic quality of the photographs and the question of the artistic value of the photographs was the subject of controversy and confrontation. The public debated whether photography was a form of art or just a mechanical work, its influence on art was questioned and most artists did not acknowledge the "dignity of art" to photography. Photography as a means of reproducing a work of art also provoked divided views, but the technique of reproduction grew and the postcard industry emerged from it. Photography appeared in print in the nineteenth century and its application in this way changed the vision of the world to the masses. It brought it closer to them while at the same time it became a powerful means of manipulation. Individuals in charge and media owners could use photography for the purpose of manipulating public opinion, but on the other hand it could also serve as a means of social criticism. An example of the latter is Jacob A. Riis, a social reformer, journalist and photographer who backed up his articles on the difficult living conditions of immigrants in slums in New York with photographs. Sociologist and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine published photos of children from the lowest classes working in factories and fields and living in slums, and these photos caused a change in child labor laws. In that case photography was used as a means in the struggle to improve the living conditions of members of the lower classes of society. Hine used his camera as an instrument for encouraging social reform.

After photography came into everyday use in the press, the profession of professional photo reporter was created, and when the photographs themselves became news, photojournalism was born. It originated in Germany and the arrival of the Leica camera opened the door to the development of modern photojournalism. Because of Hitler’s coming to power, many individuals who created modern photojournalism in Germany had to emigrate abroad where they had a decisive influence on the transformation of the illustrated press in France, England, and the United States. Hitler also recognized the importance of photography and its effect on public opinion. His official photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, photographed the Nazi leader in various poses because that way Hitler was able to study his movements and gestures and choose the most effective ones for his future speeches. Hoffmann's photographs were a significant part of Hitler's propaganda campaign in which he presented himself and the Nazi party as a significant phenomenon. In this case, photography was used as a political instrument and as such is a powerful weapon for manipulating the masses, especially if it is accompanied by a suggestive text.

The first issue of Life appeared on November 23, 1936. This successful American magazine consisted entirely of photographs and became the most important in the world in its genre. Freund states that Life managed to popularize science, provide insight into unknown worlds and contribute to the knowledge of art, but that the world presented on the pages of the magazine was "a pseudo-world that instilled false hope in the masses". In the example of the Life magazine, we can see the double impact that photography has on society, it broadens the horizons, but at the same time it directs the gaze exclusively to the reality it wants to show. The mass media, of which photographs are an integral part, continue to do so today. Freund also touches on the topic of the paparazzi and the boulevard/yellow journalism, which is just as popular today as it was at its beginning. Much of what attracts readers to this type of newspaper, apart from sensationalist headlines, is photographs of public figures in private moments.

Technological development has revolutionized the way photographs are taken and over time the way photographs are perceived has changed. Today, they are exhibited in photo galleries and viewed as works of art, there are museums dedicated to photography, fairs, festivals, photography is taught in schools and universities... In fact, its development path and the full circle it has made from its inception to the present day are quite interesting. Started as a means of “self-representation,” photography since its beginning has become a powerful industry while today much of its power again lies in its use as a means of self-representation. The mass media still use it as a tool for manipulation while various social classes continue to use it as a means of self-representation. It could be said that the use of photography in these segments has not changed in the slightest. The socio-economic importance of photography in society is evidenced by the fact that in the modern world it has become an indispensable means of presenting individuals, companies, brands, interest groups, various campaigns, political messages, etc. In the world of social networks photography has become an external tool for (self) validation, taking photographs has become a form of addiction and retouching reality is almost the rule.

Trough deeper analysis of history of photography it becomes transparent how photography and society are undeniably connected, one furthering and reflecting the progress of other and vice versa. What also becomes clear is the immense and expanding role photography has in the modern world and various social spheres. But has the value and credibility of photography been devalued by its excessive use and "misuse"? The answer is no, because of those photographs that do not compromise their artistic and documentary value by manipulating reality. The ones that depict the harsh reality that takes place away from the lights of the virtual stage where retouched footage has taken the lead - photographs of tortured faces from the fringes of society, anxious footages representing the truth that develops and hides in the dark chambers of the world, the truth society does not want to see nor advertise. These photographs were and remain the most honest depictions of the state of society and its greatest critics. In fact they are the true face of society. When we see such a photograph, we know that we are standing in the presence of an undeniable and ruthless truth that defiantly and relentlessly looks back at us and asks us in the most simple yet deeply effective way - what have you done to help?

Source: Fotografija i društvo (Freund, G. (1981.) Fotografija i društvo, prev. M. Mayer, Zagreb: Grafički zavod Hrvatske).


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