An alternative history of photography

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A new publication and exhibition explore and acknowledge the infinite number of answers there are to the seemingly simple question: ‘What is the history of photography?’”

Drawn from the Solander Collection, a research collection founded by Graham Howe and Philip Prodger, The Alternative History of Photography finds new angles and timelines within photography’s broad history by taking diversity and democracy as its organising principles. Featuring obscure photographic works alongside more recognisable images, photography is celebrated as the decentralised and participatory medium that it is. The publication is accompanied by a major exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery of the same title, which runs until 19 February 2023.  

The book’s first section explores previous works of photographic history that lent themselves to shaping a ‘canon’. To discover why an alternative lens is always necessary, author Prodger critiques these earlier surveys as male-dominated, exceptionally white, with a tendency to focus on technical aspects instead of creative expression. He calls for the 21st century to strive for a more perfect vision, one in which diverse practices across Australia to Uzbekistan and from China to Chile are seen with greater clarity.  

The publication’s main section, Plates with Commentary, takes readers on a loose-knit chronological journey starting from the advent of photography. The usual suspects, Henry Fox Talbot and Hippolyte Bayard are joined by less familiar photographers such as the enigmatic Madame Gelot-Sandoz. Extended captions expertly pull specific photographs into focus, explaining how these images stand up to a wider historical narrative. 

 As we cycle through the book, the reality of Prodger’s line “There are an infinite number of answers to the seemingly simple question: ‘What is the history of photography?’” becomes abundantly clear. The collection contains many rarities and ‘firsts’. James Presley Ball’s portrait of a gentleman sitter provides insight into his studio’s operations and political activism. Anthropological images servicing the colonial project are critiqued. A collection box for the Franciscans of Tilburg’s missionary work shows how anonymous photographic portraits were used to re-enforce ideas in the West. Meanwhile, photographer Helen Stuart’s hand-painted, romanticised Portrait of a Maori Woman (1885) is explained as an embodiment of colonisation, as the wāhine’s likeness is obscured and romanticised through painted overlay becoming a European artefact. 

The section tapers off around 1980. This was the year Cable News Network (CNN) was founded, which Prodger explains helped shape the 24-hour news cycle. He argues this changed the medium forever, but “chaotic and exciting, anarchic and attractive,” he writes, “photography is more inclusive than ever”. 

An Alternative History of Photography is published by Prestel and the accompanying exhibition is at The Photographers’ Gallery until 19 February 2023.

Ellie Howard

Ellie Howard is a freelance arts and culture writer, based between Lisbon and London. A graduate of Manchester University and University College London, she writes about material and visual culture. Her chief interests are rooted in popular photography and the photographic boundaries between science and art. Alongside writing, she works as a picture researcher for Atelier Éditions, most recently on the forthcoming publications Beyond the Earth: An Anthology of Human Messages in Deep Space and Cosmic Time and Nudism in a Cold Climate. She has written for Magnum Photos, Photomonitor, BBC Travel, Wallpaper*, Elephant Magazine, Huck, Dazed, and Another.