The Digital Journalist
"First Seen"
March 2005

by Ron Steinman

That we live in the digital age is undeniable. Digital touches every part of our lives, especially in photography. We should never forget there was a time when digital was beyond anyone's imagination. In 1839, and for many years after, when photography was still new, photojournalists did not exist.

Woodbury and Page
Sultan and Sultana of Solo, Java, c. 1875
Albumen paper print
Collection of the Wilson Centre for Photography
What the camera could do in creative hands was still unknown. Going on the road to take pictures was an unbelievable challenge. Stop and think of the equipment early photographers needed to make a picture. They used very large and cumbersome cameras that looked like a big box, encased in a heavy wooden frame. They used glass plate negatives to fit the square box camera. They brought with them a tent they used as a darkroom, the chemicals needed to develop what was on the plates, and the tanks and baths for washing and fixing the negatives. Then imagine the mule trains or packhorses needed to carry the equipment to the exotic places these pioneering men went.

So, come back in time with me, perhaps as long ago as 165 years. Take a journey with me to Kabul, Algiers, Syria, Egypt, Burma, Turkey, and Kashmir. Visit these and many other exotic locations over the world, at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York and its new exhibit, "First Seen: Photographs of the World's People, 1840-1880." The next time you press the button on your digital camera, whether professional or amateur, think about this exhibit.

Viewing it will help you understand modern photography, and give it context and historical meaning.

The 250 photos in this remarkable exhibition are about faraway places distant in time when the camera was a magical new instrument. Few understood how it worked. Even fewer could afford to own one, let alone use it.

Photography was in its infancy and the people who took pictures were amateurs. But these men saw something in the new device that fascinated them, something that would allow them the chance to stir their creativity in ways they never imagined. Given the opportunity, they bought and provisioned rigs and then went trooping the world in search of what their roving eyes could bring to those who had to stay at home and were not as fortunate as they were.

John P. Nicholas
Madras Boatmen, c. 1860
Albumen paper print
Collection of the Wilson Centre for Photography
Most of the prints are in excellent condition. Some, of course, are not. Those are murky, dark, and soft as expected because of the early, pioneering techniques. The photos these early photographers developed on the road use methods that are long gone: salted paper prints, albumen paper prints, photogravure, heliogravure and daguerreotype. However, these techniques worked exceptionally well for the photographer/technicians who produced them under extremely difficult conditions. Most still sparkle. All intrigue. They draw us in as only masterful photos can. There are portraits of ordinary people in towns and villages, of sultans, rajahs and princes, of slaves, starving people in India, opium smokers, and of peasants in native dress that many still wear today. Though it probably was not intended, these photos have become an important documentary tool that are an unusual record of a world for the most part now gone.

It is important to see this exhibition as much for its history as for its art. Initially, many of these men were official photographers on military expeditions sent to explore, and possibly subdue, what many then considered inferior peoples. Some were on the road with their unwieldy equipment to record the ethnic diversity of an exotic way of life. Art was probably the last thing on their minds. Many thought only of the historic record they were mapping, using photos about a world no one had seen to that moment, and one we will never again see. Others understood the commercial appeal and their photos appeared in albums sold to a public entranced with exotica.

Photography was too new to have developed a formal methodology on how to take pictures. There were no instruction books. There were no classes. Those would only come with time. I wonder if these photographers knew the work of each other. How many of them knew each other personally? Did they exchange ideas about technique? In London or Paris 150 years ago, did they discuss their adventures while sipping ale or mulled wine in their pub or exclusive club? Certainly each must have made many discoveries on their own.

Many years later, once out of the bottle, photography advanced rapidly and meaningfully to become an important part of our lives. Ideas about art and method flowed, and still flow, through intellectual commerce and open exchanges. Now the equipment is so small that were we to bring one of these photographers to this day, they probably would not believe the size of the camera. One they could hold in their hand. The next time you, as a professional or amateur, point and shoot your new digital camera, whether a photojournalist on assignment or at a wedding of a friend, think back to the past and what the early photographers had to do to make a record of what they saw.

John Karl Hillers
Big Navajo, c. 1879
Albumen paper print
Collection of the Wilson Centre for Photography
Times change. Tastes change. Demands of a flourishing profession are different today. In the end what counts is the emotion that we get from viewing these pictures. Ask if I have a favorite and my answer is no. I might have had one or many were I alive when the pictures first appeared, but today the record they leave is more important than their artistic merit. Picking a favorite is a fool's game and unfair to these pioneers. Yet, I must say many of the portraits stand out for me. I believe that if they were taken today, the people would look virtually the same. That is a testament to what is changeless in our world. It is enough that the many portraits, as well as the other carefully composed scenes in the "First Seen" exhibit, endure in a world where too many people have too little time in their busy lives to recognize and take pleasure in the past.

These photographers set the standard for today's photojournalists.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.