Visual Studies 01: Assignment 4

David Whitaker

Student Number: C2017V020

Visual Studies 01: Assignment 4









Modernism and












This essay will discuss the effect of photography on modernism and how it changed the world forever. It will display specific examples of how photography affected the mind state of the population as well as its developments in science, fashion and history.


In the 19th century, the world was changing at a faster rate than ever. The scientific world was producing theories and discoveries that changed the way people looked at the world. The mind state of the civilised population was changing, embracing new ideas and becoming more aware of the world. This was the change to modernism, where people focused less on religion and placed higher emphasis on science and the material world.


Liz Van Robbroek has written that Modernists adopted the idea that the universe could be rationalized and explained by universal laws: “The quintessentially modernist outlook proposes a knowledgeable universe with stable laws that can be apprehended by the senses and codified into a universal system of knowledge by the subject’s rational conscious. This objective knowledge can then be represented by means of a reliable, stable, neutral and value-free language which bears an uncomplicated and direct relationship to the ‘real‘ world.” (van Robbroek 2006: 34-35).


With the growth of Modernism came many new discoveries and many inventions grew from these discoveries. Photography was born in 1839 when Louis Daguerre and Joseph Nicéphone Niépce developed the daguerreotype, which used silvered copper plates to record real-life images for the first time (Moore: 2011). The process of photography was refined over time and in 1952 a new method was brought into practice, the collodion positive commonly known as the ambrotype. By 1957 an ambrotype photograph cost 1 shilling. Because this was so much cheaper than hiring an artist to capture a portrait with oil paints, many more people could afford to have portraits, or family photographs. This meant that the general populace could capture memories in a lasting format, and have a real to life representation of ones self or ones family. Having photographs available to the public also brought science and technology into the lives of everyday folk. This made people feel like they were living in a changing and improving world full of exciting new things, and this is an important part of modernism as a mind state.


In fig.4 and fig.5 We see a comparison. Fig.4 Shows a oil painting most likely commissioned by a wealthy family showing the family, dressed smartly and in a classy setting beautifully painted. This painting would have been an expensive commission, and would never have been affordable for the middle and lower class. In fig. 5 we see a photograph, taken near the end of the 19th century by Horace Warne. The photograph depicts a family who are clearly not wealthy (easily deduced by the setting and the state of the families shoes and clothes). This photograph achieves the same effect as an expensive oil painting, it captures the family and gives them a lasting memory and family artefact. The fact that photographs like this were available to the middle and lower class meant that the upper class had one less superiority and the common folk began to feel as if they were not as far below the wealthy as was previously asserted.


In the 1850’s photography was used to document new and major events. This was a big step for modernism because it brought real life images of far off happenings into the homes of people in completely different areas and countries. This caused the expansion of the minds of people who viewed these images. They were confronted with proof that there was a big wide world out there, far beyond their own horizons. This exciting world was brought to their doorsteps with stereoscopic view cards of foreign locations and events. As stated by Serena Covkin: ” Photographers began to produce stereoscopic view cards, which could be produced on a mass scale and came close to displaying a three-dimensional image. These became wildly popular.”(Covkin s.a: Online)


Of course not all of the events occurring in foreign lands were good. War photographs brought home the shocking reality of conflict to people far removed from any violence and removed any naivety from the population. In fig.1 we see an image captioned “A Harvest of Death”. In this image corpses are photographed littering the field of a battle in Gettysburg, Washington 1863. In 1965 Helmut Gernsheim wrote: “No other medium can bring life and reality so close as does photography and it is in the fields of reportage and documentation that photography’s most important contribution lies in modern times. The reportage photographer makes us eye-witnesses of events as the happen, and forces us to realize, with a power never before contemplated, the strife and life, the hope and despair, the humanity and inhumanity, of the world in which we find ourselves participants whether we like it or not.” (Gernsheim 1965: 238). While written a century after the first usage of photography in reportage, it expresses clearly the power of photography in reporting and spreading of news.



In fig.2 we see an Austrian father posing for a photograph with his daughters. The photograph does not show a standard family portrait but a quirky and whimsical staging. The father poses with a whip, with his daughters attached to leashes, clearly in imitation of either a horse and carriage or a sled team where the daughters take the place of the labouring animals. This photograph was taken circa 1867 and may seem ordinary to any modern day observer but what it tells us is that by then people were so used to the idea and method of photography that they were coming up with new and creative ways to use it, further than simply capturing a moment.


Photography had further uses in the use of historians and naturalists. For centuries zoologists, botanists other forms of scientist used hand drawn diagrams and representation of animals, structures and plants. This was an inaccurate way to pass on knowledge and very imprecise as the scientist drawing the illustrations often failed to capture important details due to human error or the fact that they had seen the subject in the distance and could not study it adequately. The use of photography in scientific fields meant that researches could portray their subjects exactly as the appear in real life. This brought a great degree of detail and authenticity to their work. This would help unify the scientific community. In fig.3 we see photographs by Rinehart of Native Americans in traditional settings and outfits. These are important documentations of a culture which at the time seemed to be being swamped and eliminated by western culture.


An hindrance of the spread and development of modernity was the language barrier between populations of different races and nationalities.The development of photography helped bridge that gap. The saying  “A picture is worth a thousand words“ is a big understatement because when two people who have no way to communicate clearly look at a photograph they cannot help but see the same thing.


Photography also had a big impact on the fashion of the world. Suddenly outfits and attires could be shard with many more people via photographs than could ever see the garments in person. Lady Clementina Hawarden is considered the first fashion photographer (Dave Walker 2012: Online). She photographed her daughters wearing fashionable dresses and in various poses and arrangements. One of her photographs where a mirror was artfully used can be see in fig.6. She exhibited her work at the Photographic Society of London and was awarded the Society’s silver medal in 1863 and 1864.


It is clear that photography has had a huge effect on the world and that it had a great influence on the spread and development of modernism. It has heavily influenced the world of science, the mentality of everyday people and the documentation of events and history.


Word Count: 1334


























Fig 1



Incidents of the War. A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July, 1863. Washington, D.C. : published by Philp & Solomons, 1865.


















Fig 2



English: “An Austrian father poses with a whip and leads a team of ‘horses’, his daughters, in a photographer’s studio. Vienna, Austria-Hungary.”

circa 1867–1880























Fig 3




Rinehart and Muhr photographed American Indians at the Indian Congress in a studio on the Exposition grounds with an 8 x 10 glass-negative camera with a German lens. Platinum prints were produced to achieve the broad range of tonal values that medium afforded









Fig 4



Fig 5



Horace Warne, taken near the end of the 19th century



Fig 6


Lady Clementina Hawarden circa 1860.



























Covkin, S. s.a. Photography and History The American Civil War. [Online]


[Accessed 15th October 2017]


Gernsheim, H & Gernsheim, A. 1965. Gernsheim. Concise History of photography Part 2. Thames and Hudson.


Moore, J. 2011. Family photos: what’s the history? [Online]


[Accessed 15th October 2017]


van Robbroek, L. 2006. Modernism as Discursive Paradigm in South African Writing on Modern Black Art. Chapter 2.2 Modernist Discourse.


Walker, D. 2012. The first fashion photographer: Clementina, Lady Hawarden. [Online]


[Accessed on 16th October 2017]





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