I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but it seems as if the “history of photography” emerged as a genre around five years of photography’s introduction (c. 1844). Most of the early histories were focused on technological progress (who did what first) and were filled with bickering regarding each country’s preeminence as the “innovator” in photography. Perhaps the logical fruit of that mode of historical research was Josef Eder’s History of Photography (c. 1897), which traces photography’s technological roots to ancient Greece.
The arc of internet histories seems much the same. After enough ink has been spilled over the “innovations” then the social and aesthetic aspects start to come to the fore. In photography, Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography (1937) weaves the technical changes into the fabric of art history, trimming the “ancient” roots used in the account to a minimum. The book centers on North America and Europe, primarily the US. Newhall is impressive, but narrow in his story—photographs are the centerpiece, and practices of consumption and circulation are not given much weight, nor are the “economics” of photography as a business. Art for Art’s sake wins the day.
What struck me recently though is the marked difference between the “first” social histories of photography. Gisele Freund’s Photography and Society claims primacy although it wasn’t published in English until 1980—the first part of the book was her doctoral dissertation (in sociology) presented to the Sorbonne in 1936.
For Freund, the portrait best exemplified the social significance of photography, because photographic portraits (and the practices surrounding them) were part of larger economic and aesthetic currents. Freund stops short of declaring that photography initiated these changes and carefully points out the reluctance of the artistic community to embrace the new medium as the paradigm of perfect realism. There is a “spirit” operating at some remove, oddly estranged from the technology itself.
Freund writes with a degree of optimism about the technology, however. She shares this “hopefulness” with her old friend Walter Benjamin—both of them swim against the current of Adorno and Horkheimer in search of a positive, productive take on technology. Such positivism is anomalous in European histories; it is the order of the day among the American photo-historians.
Robert Taft’s Photography and the American Scene is motivated by a completely different agenda. What drew Taft (a chemist, not a sociologist) to write his 1938 history is remarkable:
For some years I have been interested in the history of photography from a purely technical standpoint—a field in which there are several excellent handbooks. Over six years ago, in reading an account of the explorations of Freemont, the question arose in my mind as to the first use of photography in the exploration of the West. I found no ready reference to which I could turn for information. I then began the accumulation of facts which as it grew, gradually evolved into a history of American photography. (vii)
The “hook” for Taft was not the “economic and social impact” cited by Freund, but rather the use of photography by wandering explorers. It seems to be a relatively clear case of an interest in theoria (in its original sense of political pilgrimage) over aesthesis. Freunds “sociality” always turns back to aesthetics, while Taft’s leads somewhere else entirely. Taft is concerned with the use of photography to generate knowledge.