Maybe it’s not so surprising how people are attracted to the technology of photography quicker than it’s ability to see beyond the surface. If you look at Art History in general, it is often the change in technology which ushers in a new way of seeing, so be it with photography as well. Even more so being a medium so closely linked with changing technologies.
But what has really marked changes in culture has always been the change in subject. If we look, even superficially, at the history of Western art, we find the overpowering presence of religious and metaphorical imagery from the fall of the Roman Empire up and through the Renaissance. But take a look at the major changes in culture: the switch at the close of the Middle Ages from a God-centric universe to an Ego-centric one. All of a sudden, religious and mythological metaphors are replaced by human points of view in a general landscape which becomes more and more realistic. From Giotto’s using real facial features instead of stereotypes, from his putting for the first time blue in the sky instead of gold, as was the custom, we have a marked change in subject matter being depicted in a new way.
In photography I’ve noticed the same pattern. Technology has obviously modified content, such as the formally composed images of large format photography to the spontaneous fluidity of small format imagery, but once again, noticing major changes in subject matter are often connected to the cultural shifts in a society more than it’s technical progress. Martin Parr’s photograph of a family having a picnic in front of a garbage can is certainly very different in subject than Dorothea Lange’s vivid testimonial of The Great Depression. Robert Mapplethorpe’s overtly provocative images of gay culture are very different in intent than Weston’s prudish nudes. Even W. Eugene Smith’s poetic virtuosity of the 50’s would never have contemplated Lee Friedlander’s, or any contemporary photographer’s, self-interest as subject.
So in a sense, we can see shifts in culture through shifts in subject, just as we see shifts in style through shifts in technology. Certainly all of this is far less precise a division than what I’m depicting here, but it’s food for thought, or at least, subject to reflection.