April 07, 2012

Photography: that'll never catch on!

You may have guessed by now that I'm rereading Oliver Twist. I just came across a fantastic piece of commentary by Mrs Bedwin. Oliver has just been taken in by Mr Brownlow and lying in his bed is drawn towards the picture of a beautiful woman on the wall. Mrs Bedwin, when she realises says this:

Ah, said the old lady, painters always make ladies out prettier than they are, or they wouldn't get any custom, child. The man that invented the machine for taking likenesses might have knwon that would never succeed, its a deal too honest. A deal' said the old lady, laughing heartily at her own acuteness.

Mrs Bedwin is not stupid- but she is wrong, so why?

I think and this is a guess its to do with memory. I take a photograph to capture a moment- that's what say the facebook timeline thing is really doing, its showing moments of people's lives back to them. Now there are good reasons to take a photograph to memorise a situation- we want a record of our lives- to recall the girl we loved, the child as it grew, the experience of graduating or marrying or receiving a qualification. Its important we do this for ourselves and accuracy of memory is part of the reason to do it- the picture would just not be as good- I want to see the thing in itself, not the picture that some artist drew. As someone interested in history, I find this even more- I love looking in biographies of people in the 19th and 20th Centuries at their photographs, just to see what they really looked like and capture the expression of their face in my mind. This sense of accuracy is what makes Mrs Bedwin wrong- she is right people are concerned about their looks and what has changed now is that the standard of accuracy has become the photograph. This means that someone who sells their beauty- they must capture that beauty on a lens.

However the fact people get their photos retouched regularly tells us that Mrs Bedwin is not that wrong- photos may have caught on, but people are concerned enough about their looks to try and fool the camera.

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