Sunday, July 12, 2015

Yesterday's Pictures

At Kottke, this item wonders about what the earliest birth date might be for a person to have been photographed. Those kinds of images began to be taken in the mid 19th century, and a couple of centenarians living in those days are among the candidates.

The writer notes that these people, in their own younger days, would have heard stories from people alive during major events like the English Civil War and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Which means that technologically, people living today are only one degree removed from things that happened more than 350 years ago through the technology of photography.

On the other hand, we can see just what a tiny slice of human history is available to documentation through some of our most ubiquitous record-keeping techniques. We tend to accept things as real when we can see images of them, and many folks have probably teased their friends' claims of achievements with the phrase "Pictures or it didn't happen!" But we've only been able to capture images mechanically, free of the interpretive effect of artistic vision, for less than 200 years (and of course Photoshop and magazine covers remind us that artistic and other visions can still influence the images produced).

The pharaoh Narmer (sometimes called Menes) unified upper and lower Egypt under one rule and made it a single nation, and he did this before 3000 BC, more than twenty-five times as long ago as the earliest photographs were taken. We may know a lot less about Narmer and his work than we do about modern figures of whom we have images, video and recordings, but he was just as real. And though much more removed from us in years and much less documented he is probably a lot more consequential to human history than, say, anyone named Trump.

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