For some time I have felt drawn to what some might consider to be an unreasonably broad definition of photography. More and more I feel that photography is not a narrowly definable technical activity revolving around lenses or light sensitive materials, but an interior desire to see the world in a particular way, portioned, segmented, framed. Thinking in this way, photography existed long before Niépce or Talbot, in devices like the Claude glass, and camera obscura, technologies which made possible a new way of seeing, with recording as a secondary function or output of that.
I recently visited a little exhibition at the British Museum of early nineteenth century camera obscura drawings of ancient Greek ruins by Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi, which tempted me to apply a similarly broad view to one particular branch of photography, photojournalism. It’s hard to pin down an accepted date or period for the emergence of this photographic genre I suppose because the definition of the practice is so unclear, now more than ever. Still I was struck by the many similarities between the activities of these two artists and the stated aims of many photojournalists working today.
For example Dodwell and Pomardi’s aspiration to show something unseen to a distant audience. The Napoleonic wars that were on-going at the time made traveling on the grand tour difficult, even dangerous, for English gentlemen who would previously have seen ancient Europe at first hand. The two artists were providing the next best thing, images of these sites that could be consumed from afar. I began to wonder, are these drawings that different from that of photographers who brave war zones and unstable places to bring home photographs of sites that would otherwise not be seen? Almost irresistibly images from Simon Norfolk’s excellent Chronotopia came to mind as I viewed these drawings.
Or for another example, their aspiration to a documentary truth. Dodwell and Pomardi seem to have encountered a Greece very different from what their classical educations had led them to expect. Instead of the dramatic, exaggerated ruins portrayed by their predecessors like Julien-David Le Roy, Dodwell and Pomardi found a country that had been long occupied by the Ottoman empire, it’s architectural heritage in pieces, often constructed on or over by subsequent empires. Rather than draw what romantic convention dictated and what audiences perhaps expected, the two artists rather remarkably drew what they found, down to the fine details of the uniforms of Turkish garrisons and imperial officials.
Dodwell and Pomardi’s drawings also fulfilled a campaigning function, much as many photojournalists might hope their work would do today. By depicting a Greece that was not a proud romantic fantasy but a shattered and occupied vassal state, they helped to generate awareness and support for the growing pan-Hellenist movement. In this sense their art work can be seen as political, awakening a sense of a Greek national identity and right to self-determination in the mind of their influential British audiences, ultimately leading to the 1821 Greek war of independence in which the intervention of Britain and other European states proved key to a Greek victory.
Also like many photojournalists visiting foreign lands, Dodwell and Pomardi were strangers, tourists in both senses of the word. Their encounters with locals were unequal, their position privileged in multiple ways. One quote in the exhibition reflects this, Dodwell recounts that when while demonstrating the camera obscura to a Turkish officer, the man saw some of his soldiers through the device and exclaimed ‘that if I chose I might take away the temple and all the stones in the citadel, but that he would never allow me to conjure his soldiers into my box’.
And lastly like many photojournalists including one imagines, those working today, the context in which Dodwell and Pomardi’s work now finds itself used and in which it becomes interesting is radically different from that in which it was made, in two senses. First in that the two artists apparently never had any intention of allowing the drawings on display to be seen, they were meant to be preparatory images for making engravings, not works of art in their own right. With more and more journalistic photography migrating from newspapers on to gallery walls and album covers, context is clearly as important as ever. Second in that viewed today, it feels impossible to extract these drawings and what they show from the current economic crisis, in the context of which Greece is again variously depicted as a ruined, occupied vassal state.
It’s obviously important to be cautious about engaging in the sort of revisionism that recasts the actors and acts of the past in the features of the present. Equally though the past can inform current activities in interesting ways, and the present is always viewed in some respects in light of what has come before. Seeing photojournalism simply as a practice which occurred spontaneously in response to the invention of cameras seems too simplistic, and fails to take account of existing fine art techniques and documentary traditions that almost certainly informed it.