The Process and Value of Photography – J. Peterson

The Process and Value of Photography

Jessica Peterson

History of Visual Communications


The paper begins with a brief explanation of the origins of photography and how Joseph Niepce, the first photographer, came about creating images onto a screen. I explain the camera obscura and its inspiration for early photography. Next, I elaborated on the cultural wealth and commodities of photography and how it affected communication and documentations. I also explore Walter Benjamin’s suggestions of breaking down the walls between artist and audience. Lastly, I described two contrasting photographs of American landscapes that communicated messages visually instead of with captions. In the conclusion, I question the facts of photography, as modernly it has progressed to a more questionable art.

Prior to photography, images were laboriously carved into wooden stamps before being pressed onto pieces of parchment. In 1826, the first photograph was taken by Joseph Niepce. The concept of photography came from the camera obscura; a darkened box with a small aperture in the side. The light would travel through this lens and be projected onto the opposite side to form a picture of the object outside. Niepce put a pewter plate in the camera obscura and washed it in lavender oil to capture an image. In 1833, after Niepce died of a stroke, Louis Daguerre continued his work on silver coated copper that had been iodized and exposed to the light coming through the lens. It was then exposed to mercury and fixed with a salt bath. Areas of the image that were not exposed to light appeared black; the areas exposed to light varied in density based on the brightness of light.

Though photography was limited because of the process of developing directly after taking the picture, it became public in 1888 when George Eastman invented the Kodak camera. Now ordinary people could preserve images from their lives. Unfortunately this forced earlier retirements for the skilled craftsmen who originally would transfer artist designs to printing plates.  However this did reduce costs since the engravings would take weeks and the Kodak would take a couple of hours. Photography provided new quicker and cheaper means of accurately recording history. Photos also formed new means of communication, for example American pioneers sending pictures back east inspired migratory bursts to the west.

As such, the cultural wealth of photography exploded. Photographers like Eadweard Muybridge captured the backdrops of places like Yosemite and Alaska. The western landscapes of America attracted the settlers in the east. Experiences were recorded with the Kodak cameras and memories were captured to pass down the generations, enriching family trees. Photography captured factual scenes and experiences, so illustrators became free to explore fantasy and fiction, expanding American literature.

Early photography also became a key precedent to photojournalism and illustrated newspapers. The production of newspapers and authenticity of them grew and now information could be shared freely and inexpensively with the public. Rare works of art could now be replicated and documented to display to those who were not rich enough to own the original. It was the advent to mass culture and politics.

Reproducing photography in mass amounts became the next challenge. Copying the photographs diminished the authenticity of the original photograph. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Revolution”, Walter Benjamin says “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” The sense of traditional artwork, for example the rare works on display in galleries owned by the elite, was disintegrated now that the common people would view it at their own will.

Playing off of that statement, Benjamin theorized that the barrier between the art and the audience would be worn down. “What we must demand from the photographer is the ability to put such a caption beneath his picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value.” Benjamin suggested that the audience become a part of the art, experiencing it first-hand instead being told what the photograph was about. The photograph should be “art enough” that it could convey its own message without the pretty words underneath.

Photographers such as Ansel Adams and Robert Adams captured scenes of American landscapes. Photos such as Ansel’s 1942 Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park and Robert’s 1973 Burning Oil Sludge North of Denver portray contrasting images of American landscapes. Evening, McDonald Lake is a serene capture of the natural beauty of a lake and its reflection. Burning Oil Sludge is a dark suggestion of the destruction civilization has upon the land’s natural beauty. The photos are art in themselves; that they do not require captions to understand the feelings that emit from their scenes.

Photography has become a modern illustration of scenes, experiences, and memories that can be shared with the world. In order to preserve traditional authenticity, photography needs to convey messages visually stunning without words to describe what the artist wants the viewer to experience. Photography captured factual scenes and started the graphic design and motion-picture movement. However, combining the three arts, photography has progressed to fictional, fantasy, and sometimes questionable scenes.


Kazis, R. (1977). Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2012). Ansel adams. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2012). Robert adams (photographer). Retrieved from



One comment

  1. Jessica –
    Good paper and well written. Good process of thought. However you are very minimal in your conclusion. Is it valuable or not? I understand the concept of value is very subjective but we need to discuss it. I also see that you reference Benjamin but to no conclusion it seems. Good effort for 80% of the paper but it does fall a bit short.

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