Look at a photograph from the 1800’s. Most likely, you’re studying a posed portrait of either a single person or a group of people. Everyone in the portrait seems restrained; they are all looking straight into the camera, with little to no smile. The photograph is straightforward; it is meant to be either just a portrait of a person, or a family photo. Now, look at a modern-day photograph, preferably one taken within the last twenty years or so. Is the subject even identifiable? Can you tell what’s going on in the photograph? Is the subject of the photograph human, an inanimate object, or an animal? Is the photograph true? These questions highlight the main differences between older photography from the 1800’s, and the new photography of today.

In the 1800’s, two forms of photography were prevalent: documentary photography and portraiture. Mathew Brady's shots of wartime, for example, documented the dark aftermath of a battle from the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady's photograph of the Battle of Antietam, September 17th, 1862

The photographs which Brady produced are truthful, showing what war really looked like. The meanings of the photographs are straightforward in that they were intended to show the public that war is not all it is cracked up to be.

One contemporary photographer with unique work is Stephen Althouse, who takes photographs of objects against black backgrounds.
Axe with Braille-1080 .jpg
"Axe with Braille"- Stephen Althouse
"Book"- Stephen Althouse
"Book" (detail)- Stephen Althouse

Althouse's work contains a touch of mystery, and the meaning of his pieces is almost impossible to decipher. However, one thing is common in all of his photographs that does give a bit of insight into his work: the objects Althouse photographs have Braille written on them. Braille, being the written language of blind persons, alludes to blindness in Althouse's photographs. The use of Braille in Althouse's work visually expresses his view of human existence, in that he believes humans stumble through life as if in the dark, not knowing where they are going. Althouse also claims that blindness is analogous to what he feels when he is experiencing an absence of creativity. The pitch-black, unknown surroundings of Althouse's subjects within his photographs further push the feelings of darkness, blindness, and insecurity.

Another contemporary photographer who works with mystery in his photographs is Gregory Crewdson, whose photographs can be described as very theatrical, dramatic, and sometimes confusing. Each image produced by Crewdson is set up in such a way that it seems to tell a story; however, he does not create the photographs to tell a story. Crewdson believes that photographs are frozen in time and there is no before or after of a photograph, no narrative. Instead, Crewdson expects the viewers of his photographs to become engaged and be a part of the art; he wants them to come up with their own narrative rather than wonder what the artist intended the narrative to be.
Gregory Crewdson.

This photograph of Crewdson's, at first glance, looks elaborate. The detail, from the way the lighting catches the emotional faces of the subjects yet still leaves the rest of the photograph in darkness, down to the little pieces of grass on the girl's back, makes the viewer's mind flood with questions. Is the girl in lingerie the daughter of the woman standing next to the car? Why does the girl look ashamed, and the two women in/near the car disappointed? Is it because the girl is almost naked and covered in grass, or is it because of something completely different?

Typically, modern photographs take a lot longer to plan out and create than photographs of the 1800's. Photographers like Gregory Crewdson heavily stage and plan their photographs. When Crewdson scouts for locations for his photographs, and finds a place he thinks might work, he keeps going back to it again and again. Crewdson compares his actions to dating someone in order to find out if they're "the one". When and if Crewdson comes up with an idea while “dating” his location, he will then take the next steps necessary in the process to creating his photograph. Crewdson's habits are a perfect example of just how much planning can be used to make a single photograph.

Even though modern photography exists, older forms of art haven't been forgotten. The work of Hendrik Kerstens calls upon the looks of seventeenth century paintings, such as Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring". Kerstens takes portraits of his daughter, Paula, who happens to resemble the girl in Vermeer's painting. However, these portraits are made modern and different with the addition of objects other than hats placed on top the model's head. Kerstens, with his work, takes the formal studio portrait and gives it a new twist with these unusual objects. The resulting photographs may not even have a particular meaning; the objects atop the model's head create a point of interest and add a modern flair to portraiture that makes these images enjoyable.
"Girl with a Pearl Earring"- (painting) Johannes Vermeer, 1665
"Aluminum"- Hendrik Kerstens
"Book"- Hendrik Kerstens

With the invention of programs like Photoshop, the art of photography has grown in possibilities and also become less truthful. Many photographs these days, especially portraits, are processed and edited through photoshop, whether it is to remove blemishes, change hair color, or add an alien spaceship into the sky. Earlier on, photographs used to be considered the most truthful art form, but now, is the least truthful. Ulric Collette, a French photographer, depends on the use of photoshop to splice together his photographs of relatives that look alike, a series he calls "Portraits Génétiques (Genetic Portraits)".
"Frères: Éric, 39 ans & Dany, 31 ans (Brothers: Eric, 39 years and Dany, 31 years)"- Ulric Collette
"Sœurs: Anne-Sophie, 19 ans & Pascale, 16 ans (Sisters: Anne-Sophie, 19 years and Pascale, 16 years)"- Ulric Collette

In Ulric Collette's portrait "Frères: Éric, 39 ans & Dany, 31 ans", Collette has taken photographs of two brothers (not twins) and photoshopped their faces together to show how they look alike. The two brothers pictured in the photograph are eight years apart in age, however, Collette's work shows us that they could easily be mistaken for twins. If the hair of the brothers was symmetrical on both sides, this photoshopped photograph would look like a single person and not two brothers. The same goes for Collette's portrait "Sœurs: Anne-Sophie, 19 ans & Pascale, 16 ans", except that the photograph already looks like a single person, and not two teenage sisters. Without being told that the portrait was of two people and photoshopped together to create one person, a viewer would probably mistake this photograph for an actual person. Effectively, Collette changes the purpose of traditional portraits, and uses them to show the power of human genetics.

One photographer from the 1800's is an exception to traditional portraiture and is considered an early barrier-breaker, Henry Whittier Frees, who lived from 1879 to 1953. Frees photographed cats dressed and posed like humans, pioneering the photographic phenomenon the internet now calls "LOLcats". Frees got the cats to pose the way he needed them to by dressing them in stiff clothing that helped keep the cats still. He then placed the cats in scenes which humans would generally be in on everyday occasions.
Henry Whittier Frees.
Henry Whittier Frees.

There is controversy surrounding the method in which Frees posed the cats in his photographs, though, with some believing that the cats were in fact not alive, but dead and stuffed.

Clearly, photography has evolved since the 1800's. Traditional, formal portraits and documentary photography are still two types of photography practiced today, however, non-traditional portraits, photographs without human subjects, and photographs depicting strange scenes now exist and are extremely common. Photography used to be the only completely truthful art form, unable to be altered, but the invention of Photoshop and other similar programs have made the photographic possibilities endless. Noses can be removed, faces can be swapped, and backgrounds can be changed. Surreal, dream-like photographs engage and confuse their viewers. Photography has come a long way from what it was in the 1800's, and for the better. And let's not forget about the invention of underwater photography!

Websites/Works Cited and photograph sources