The photographs of Ansel Adams can be considered impersonal—that of the ideal observer. One example of this is the black and white depiction of the Moon and Half Dome (1960). The individual is not actively engaged with the surroundings at all, but assumes a more passive role given the distance from the subject. Looking at the angle, the sunlight reflected from the rock is contrasted with the moon overhead. Given the relative lightness of the sky, it was obviously taken during the day. The snow on the ground and the interaction of light and shadow illustrates the majesty of nature—a majesty that does not necessarily require a human observer. Robert Franks, on the other hand, takes an approach he characterizes as friendly, “[denying] that picture-taking is in any way an aggressive act”(p. 123). In the Americans, he photographs a black and white road in New Mexico stretching out to infinity (1956). The light reflecting off the road contrasting with the darkness on the sides illustrates the clear path the traveler must take to his ultimate destination. The road is the only manmade structure in the photograph—an instrument that renders the world smaller as travel is quicker. At the same time, it speaks of the vast emptiness of the desert road. An expanse of land that could easily overcomes the spirit. Sontag mentions the “Photography is the paradigm of an inherently equivocal connection between self and world—its version of the ideology of realism sometimes dictating an effacement of the self in relation to the world, sometimes authorizing an aggressive relation to the world which celebrate the self”(p. 123). This photograph clearly expresses it by the use of the traveler’s vantage point, and what a journey looks like to him.
For the general public, photography is one of the most effective mediums of communication, to show, rather than tell a story. No matter what level of education the viewer attains, the nature of a photo is such that it etches itself on the mind in a rather powerful way. It is something that can be seen easily; one does not have to be literate in politics or letters in order to understand its emotional significance and the sheer reality it conveys. Also, photography is unrivalled in its ability to capture discrete portions of “real time.” Susan Sontag mentions that the camera neither judges nor describes the subject…there is a certain lack of emotion in the photographic process…a form of a detachment if you will. One example she submits for consideration is the comment of Sander, a German photographer, “’It is not my intention either to criticize or describe these people.’ Sander’s complicity with everybody also means a distance from everybody. A cretin is photographed in exactly the same dispassionate way as a bricklayer, a legless World War I veteran like a healthy young soldier in uniform”(p. 61).
Because it is by and large a realistic medium, photography, more than any other art form, has been able to memorialize moments in history in powerful ways, whether or not the events are positive or catastrophic. In modern times, the photograph had replaced painting as an art form and eventually had evolved as an impartial witness to the world of human events, more immediate and more effective than any verbal account. Amazingly, the photograph was never replaced by video, even though the video allows everything to be seen in sequence.
However, with the invention of television in the post-modern era, the video feeds offered on the news would often be quickly forgotten since the human memory operates in a much more photographic manner, confining itself to a certain time or place. The media would often capture the atrocities people inflict on one another every day displaying video feeds of racial skirmishes, international wars, and the smoking ruins of a city besieged by natural disaster. Usually, the station would include a panoramic glance at the surrounding destruction. Many stories like that happen every day at any corner of the globe. Unfortunately, none of it seemed quite real to the witnesses. After the liberation of the death camps in places such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, several photographs were released to the newspapers that would shock people all over the world. Cold, fatigued, and dying slowly of starvation these images showed how badly human beings suffer because of the depravity of the few and the complicity of the majority. These images tend to stay with the viewer for a very long time indeed.
The images in the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection are among the most famous documentary photographs ever produced, chronicling the lives of Americans during the Great Depression and World War II. One of the most famous pieces in this collection was Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” series (1936), showing a destitute 32-year-old woman and her children struggling to survive in a hastily constructed lean-to. This epitomized the hunger and economic desperation many others in the country were experiencing at the time. As a propaganda piece, it helped to encourage voters to grant the government more power to implement large-scale social programs, including giving jobs to the unemployed farmers and tradesmen. Perhaps these photographs were used to incite compassion for one’s fellow citizens and to get everyone thinking of solutions to the national problem. During the 1930’s, there were many photographs showing the apartheid of the American South separate entrances, hotels, drinking fountains and restrooms for “white” and “colored” people. Perhaps it was a jab at the American claim of equality for all, or just the handy work of some curious Yankee tourists. With the FSA photos, the Depression pieces were meant to spur the audience into action (perhaps activism in government?) in highlighting the hardship of people who are very similar in looks and lifestyle to the target audience. The photographs of Southern segregation look more like a National Geographic interests piece, showing the lifestyles of a foreign people. There is greater distance from the subjects, which leaves the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. At the same time, Europeans subscribed to the Photomontage in art and propaganda. Artists such as Salvador Dali and Johannes Baader would place well-known cultural symbols in a collage meant to reach below the conscious mind to convey a particular message. In the case of the Photomontage movement, it was a left-wing, anti-war stance against World War I and fascism. Modern commercials use a sort of moving photo montage to entice customers to buy. The images by themselves make no sense, but when fused and linked to other media such as music, they take on a life of their own. Those working for the government often used these techniques to incite an aimless population such as 1930’s Germany, Russia, and Italy.