THE MEANING OF PHOTOGRAPHY
by C.B. Neblette, Dean
College of Graphic Arts and Photography
Rochester Institute of Technology
for Prof. Bagby's Class, R.I.T., April 10, 1968
I would like for the next half hour to explore with you the meaning of the word photography. I presume that most of you know that the word itself is from two Creek words PHOS, meaning LIGHT, and GRAPHS to WRITE. A few of you may even know that the word was coined by the English scientist, Sir John Herschell (who also, by the way, discovered hypo as a fixing agent) and that he used the word photography in a paper "The Art of Photography" before the Royal Society on March 14, 1839.
Now in Herschel1's day there was not the distinction between light and radiant energy that we make today. Today we must define photography as a process of writing with radiant energy. Please note that the definition makes no distinction in the actual process used. The definition includes chemical processes, for example, silver halides, ferric salts, etc., and electrophotographic processes, such as Xerography and recording on magnetic tape. Also note that it includes blue printing, photolithography, oscillographic tracings, x-rays --a ny process of making a record of radiant energy.
But photography is more than a process. It is a hobby, an industry, a profession, a scientific instrument, a copying process, and an art medium. It is the applications of photography, not the process, that make it important. How then do we define it? To many this is no problem. Photography is a means of communication. This, I find, is accepted as the final, definitive, answer in academic circles. Photography is means of communication whether it is a news picture, an advertising illustration, a motion picture, or television film.
Photography is often defined, or perhaps I should say classified, as one of the graphic arts. Here, at R.I.T., for example, we have the College of Graphic Arts and Photography. Now there are many definitions of the graphic arts but no matter which you choose, I doubt that you can include many, if any at all, of the scientific applications of photography.
In scientific circles there has been considerable discussion of photography as an imaging process. There is a move underway in the Institute of Physics to list photography under Imaging Processes and it was recently suggested that a new magazine of applied photography be titled IMAGING. The final choice was Phototechnology.
I prefer to think of photography as an information system, or if you prefer an information technology. By this I mean a system, or a technology, for collecting, storing and communicating information. The difficulty with defining photography as a means of communication is that it is incomplete. To communicate is to transfer information. Photography does more than communicate, it collects information and it stores it as well.
The aerial photographer on a reconnaissance flight, collects information, stores it in film and print for a read-out by photointerpreters. The casual snapshot collects information, stores it, and communicates when the print is studied. Speech -- still our most important means of communication -- does not collect or store information. It is a means of communication only. Printing stores and communicates but does not of itself collect information. Photography obviously is more than a means of communication. Obviously to define it as visual communication is even less adequate.
I think it is time that some institution of higher learning gave thought to a College of Information Technology. There are numerous colleges of communication but none of information technology which includes communication but also the technology of collecting, organizing and storing information. Here at R.I.T. we already have two areas of Information Technology -- Photography and Printing. Other areas might be library science, computer technology, radio and television.
But to photographers, whether portrait, commercial, illus- trative or news, photography if communication and I would like now to talk about photography as communication. The process of communication involves a subject, a means of communication and an audience. When we speak we must have something to say-- a subject. We communicate this by sound in the form of words, to an audience which hears and understands the words we use. I want to suggest to you that if you expect to be a photographer, and not a technician only, you are involved in the communication process and your success will depend on how well you understand, and apply the three areas of communication to the photographs you make.
The first requirement of communication is to know your subject. You would not attempt to write a paper on a subject you know nothing about. You will not photograph architecture or fashions intelligently without an understanding of architecture or fashions. And unless you are fascinated by people you will never be a great portrait photographer. News photography, if it is to be more than the conventional cliches, must be based on psychology -- on the search for what will be of interest to the public -- a public which consists of human beings with emotional responses that you must know and use.
Both the planned picture and the picture that captures the decisive moment are alike in that the photographer must know what he wants to say about the subject. In one case he deliberately plans a visual presentation to convey his idea; in the other he must have the capacity to recognize the moment when his picture appears.
It is not easy to decide what is to be said. Why do we crop pictures? To get rid of the unessential, the extraneous. But is it there because we couldn't avoid it or because we didn't realize that it was unnecessary, - confusing - , when we made the picture. How many times do we collect in one picture everything relating to the real subject in the hope that we can find it later by cropping the print?
Making a photograph and writing a paper are parallel problems in communication. When you write a paper you choose the subject before you start, You limit the subject, exclude what you do not need to say, and you write it to communicate your ideas to the reader -- a particular reader like your teacher or a group like your fellow students.
As a means of communication, photography is a tool. But it is not a tool like pencil and paper. It is a tool as language is a tool. A good writer chooses the right words, the right style For his purpose. The photographer must employ the visual resources of his medium for the same purpose and with the same expertness.
Those who think of photography as communication are sometimes prone to make light of competence in photographic technique. But technique is important. The writer who would write great literature must know how to write; the composer who would write a symphony must know the instruments of the orchestra, the fundamentals of harmony and orchestration before he can compose. Genius is not only in the thought -- the message; it is also in the way that thought is communicated. A great theme can -- and often does -- disappear in poor writing or poor orchestration.
And, finally, the audience. Unless he must, the reader will read, or look at, only what is interesting. Interest is in the subject or in the visual impact. In other words, pictures must be informative and interesting. The story we have to tell must be told in an interesting way. The trouble with so many photographs is that they are so commonplace, so obvious. The photographer has neglected a cardinal requirement of communication and that is the attention of the reader.
Yes, photography is communication. Great photographers are great because they speak eloquently. They use their medium as a composer uses his instruments or a writer clothes his thought in words and phrases. They are masters not only of the technique of photography, For one brief moment, at least, they are masters of the eyes and mind of another human being!