Photography in the age of modernity

Since its creation, there have been many “distinctive ways in which the camera frames and presents the world” (National Gallery of Art, 2017.Online). I feel the same can be said for those behind and in front of the camera. The way in which this tool is used and manipulated to put its subjects in a certain “frame” and “present” them in a certain manner and attitude originally aided in the creation of specific ‘identities’ and stereotypes in the 19th century which, in turn, played its part in the revolutionary evolution of the western mind set leading to influential historical events that shaped the world as we know it today.


“Constructing identity literally involves life experiences, relationships and connections, a solid mental or emotional stamp on a human. Constructing identity figuratively involves metaphorical or symbolical representation of thoughts or emotions in an expressive way, creating a conceptual, visual representation.” (2011: 1) The latter of these is true to identity development stemmed from the camera in the western 19th century. At this time, the photograph allowed people to create a specific identity for themselves from what they depicted in a photograph as well as specific identities for those depicted in photographs around them. Julia Espinosa explains this as she writes, “in this case of self-encounter mediated by photography, the physical persistence of the photographic image challenges one’s own temporal self-interpretation and narrative contextualization … it therefore impacts self-perception and individual concepts of identity.” (Espinosa, 2010: Online). It allowed people to make up their own mind about those that were pictured as, obviously, a picture does not come with a back story but merely lets you decipher it on your own. As well as this, people believed what they were told, as Christopher Herbert writes in his book, “Culture and anomie: Ethnographic imagination in the 19th century” that, “The collective feeling of the community … is to some extent spontaneously created by its members but, is to a much larger extent the opinion imposed on them or prescribed for them” (Herbert, 1991:40)  and from this we can see how the ‘imposition’ or ‘prescription’ of the “collective feeling” which might well be their perception of each other’s identities came before the spontaneity of the ‘members’ own thoughts. Which, was triggered by the camera and its products being used as a vehicle for this frame of mind.


This frame of mind is termed as modernity; a modern way of thinking and working. Herbert goes on to describe what I believe to be the perfect depiction of the characteristics of modernity, he writes, “the one which conceives society or culture not, say, as an expression of imminent natural, divine or sociological order, but as an artificial restraint imposed by necessity upon volatile, uncontrollably self-multiplying individual impulses and desires which in a state of unimpaired freedom, could any such state exist, would act without limit” (1991: 35) It is the last words there that are the director of modernity, “without limit”. People looked at themselves in this mirroring device that is the camera and both in the technological advancement of its creation and in the new way they could now see themselves, saw opportunity. It is because of this that mentally, they removed the limitations on themselves. It is important to note the significance of it being a mental limitation and not a physical one as one could say the capability of this new way of thinking and working was always there but it was the age of enlightenment that brought it about.



From this new mind set and the creation of certain identities formed the unfortunate occurrence of stereotypes. As I have shown I believe Herbert is correct in his discussion about the ‘collective feeling’ created by “some” of the members in the community to decipher their own collective opinion, he is also correct in saying that “to a much larger extent [is] the opinion imposed on them or prescribed for them”. I revisit this point as it is important to realize the significance of the camera and mass produced photograph as being used as a ‘weapon’ for the British in the late 19th century to achieve colonization.


The production of photographs made the world smaller in a sense that it brought exotic and unfamiliar places closer to home. The “More immediate connection with people and places removed by geographical distance and time” (Sandweiss, 2002: Online). As a result of this, stereotypical ideologies grew and as easily as the camera was used to ‘open’ people’s minds and aid in creating a mindset that propelled their prosperity in a moral and ethical way, it was just as easily used to manipulate and blind the people from seeing past their own good will, as the reader can discover for themselves when reading Herbert’s continuation on ethnography: “it is manifest in the way in which a pioneering missionary ethnographers acted also, impelled by imperative religious duty, as the bringers of European discipline and European concepts of legality to “chaotic and freakish” primitive peoples” (1991:43-44). The stereotypical bias that is displayed here is example of the capability of manipulation through photographs alone and the identity they created for African people when, in fact, the identity portrayed does not belong to the subject being photographed at all but rather, a made up one created by the photographer. This illustrates the impact and power that the person using the ‘weapon’ that is the camera beholds. It is significant too, that the subject of the photograph has no control as Herbert tells us, “man is a slave to imagery which is inscribed upon him and which he is bound to reflect” (1991:31) this is true for both sides of the camera, so to speak. The subject has no control over what is being depicted and the receiver of the photograph cannot influence what they receive, this is summarized succinctly by Herbert, “in a strange way, he is both wholly uncontrolled and at the same time wholly determined by symbolic mirrorings” (1991:31).


It is Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse who illustrates colonialism and the use of the camera for us, “colonial conquests were usually justified by portrayals of Africans as savage warriors, which circulated in magazines. Once colonies were established, these images of brutal warriors gradually made way for a new stereotype of impulsive childlike Africans.” (2011: Online). It is here we see how modernity, while created the change in the world that we today believe propelled into the modern future, it was driven by an ambition that did not care for the collateral damage in getting there and that speaks for the characteristics of the mindset that came about in the age of modernity, “we learn little about Africa and much about the prevailing European attitudes at the time” (2011: Online). Not only did we see these images come out of Africa but, as you can see in Fig.1 they were also produced in India and all the colonies. While today, Fig.1 tells a story of culture, ethnicity and an unforgiving pride, in the time of modernity this image would only depict all that I have spoken about in this discussion.


In conclusion, from this discussion I have discovered the ambitious and brutal yet propelling force that was the mind set in the age of modernity and the use of the camera and specifically portraiture photographs that were used to confirm and create identities. “Not only the ideas and the codified values but even the “emotional nature” of the members of a given society is a product of all ancestral activates” (Herbert, 1991: 40). Looking at this quote from Herbert’s book, we see that the (while not quite ancestral) “ancestral activates” that occurred in the age of modernity have shaped and made the world as we know it today how it is.




FIG. 1. G.E. Dobson, Group of five young Andamanmese women, 1872. [online image].














word count:  1311 words




National Gallery of art. 2017. The Nineteenth Century: The invention of photography. [Online]


[Accessed 25 September]


Dowling, S.J. 2011. “Constructing Identity Identity Construction.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 1.


Herbert, C. 1991. Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic imagination in the nineteenth century. The university of Chicago Press: Chicago.


Espinosa, J. 2010. The advent of myself as other: Photography, memory and identity creation.



[Accessed 14 October]


Sandweiss, A.M. 2002. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Photography in the nineteenth century.



[Accessed 25 September]


Pieterse, J.N. 2011. BBC – History – British history in depth: stereotypical representations.



[Accessed 14 October]


FIG. 1. G.E. Dobson, Group of five young Andamanmese women, 1872. [online image]


[Accessed 15 October]






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