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The Power of a Picture: How Photography Has Shaped Society

When placed within the context of all of human history, the invention of photography may seem like a tiny drop in the bucket. Though, if it is merely a drop, it must be a drop as heavy as lead, for all the ripples it’s created.

Compared to other methods of documentation — painting, writing, the oral tradition — photography, at less than 200 years old, is still in its infancy. Yet, during this momentary blip on the human timeline, photography has shaped our world in ways we can hardly comprehend.

Take a moment to consider: when did you last see a photo, and what was it of? Since you’re reading this piece well into the 21st century, and on the internet to boot, I can say with confidence that it was probably an ad.

Photography has a way of conveying feelings and ideas that’s fairly unique to the medium. It can be used to make all kinds of things seem very enticing. As such, it’s revolutionized the way businesses promote themselves and their products to the public. Most of us likely see hundreds — if not thousands — of examples of advertising photography every day.

We interact with the work of advertising photographers constantly, and are swayed to buy this or try that. So, on a micro level, photography plays a massive role in molding our individual habits as consumers. But how else are we affected by photography?

Zoom out.

Now you’re thinking about photography as a form of personal expression. A way to make a statement. You’re thinking about fine art photography.

When photography was first introduced to the art world, many felt it was less valid than long-established art forms, like painting and sculpture. But, thanks to the persistence and talent of pioneering fine art photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, photography was eventually accepted as a legitimate and laudable medium.

Some even believe that the invention of photography was a catalyst for artistic movements like modernism. The theory (or the very simplified version of it, anyway) supposes that since photographers had cornered the market on producing the most lifelike images possible, many painters abandoned realism and embraced the abstract.

Since its invention, photography has had a huge impact on the realm of art, and art has always deeply influenced culture. And so, by the transitive property, photography has played a key role in shaping our culture. Like all art forms, photography can inform our opinions, values, and perceptions of the world at large. But that’s not all.

Zoom out once more.

The most extraordinary side effect of photography is, arguably, the way it has altered our relationship with both time and space.

I have seen a perfect likeness of someone who was dead long before I was born. I have seen exact depictions of places I will never visit and events I didn’t witness.

These statements would sound absurd to a person born merely three centuries ago, yet they can be spoken truthfully by nearly everyone in this modern age.

By giving us easily accessible windows into very nearly everywhere, photography has made the world a much smaller place. Nothing seems so distant when you can summon up perfectly accurate images to view whenever you please.

In addition to advancing globalization, photography has irrevocably altered our collective historical memory. Before photography, we had stories, written accounts, and artistic renderings of past events, none of which were reliably objective, and all of which were most likely to feature the rich and powerful.

Now we have photographs, which can provide honest, impartial documentation of history — and are frequently centered on common folks. The past feels much closer, and far less mythical when you can look at a picture that shows ordinary people, not so different from us, going about their business in the 40s or the 20s or the 1890s.

Everything in life, from the daily minutiae of buying groceries or choosing a laundry detergent to the much larger picture — how we view our place in the cosmos — is touched by photography. It has shaped society in more ways than we can count.

If you are interested in photography, or are in need of a photographer, check out the work of Michael Grecco. Grecco is a noted advertising photographer, fine art photographer, and celebrity photographer, among other things. There’s nothing he can’t do from behind a camera. For more information on Grecco’s photography services, call (310) 452-4461 or email info@grecco.com.