What is photography? A historical comparison of definitions

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An invited 6000-word essay on photography for the three-volume Bloomsbury Encyclopaedia of Visual Culture (Volume: Practices, Sites, Controversies) edited by Barry Sandwell and Martin Hand.

Abstract: The question ‘What is photography?’ while seemingly simple, is, perhaps, impossibly huge. Why should something so familiar, ubiquitous and self-evident prove so elusive to determine? As a technology, practice and media form, photography’s parameters are enormously wide, penetrating a broad range of territories, while its products and outcomes proliferate to a degree that makes them impossible to see as a whole. As the scope of technological and computational possibility becomes so wide and uncertain that researchers now ask, ‘Are you sure you know what a photograph is?’ (Rashed Haq, Wired, 2022), this essay reviews recent attempts to define the form. It looks across recent publications and projects that consider photography’s slippery identity, and it contrasts these with another key period in photography’s conceptualisation: its earliest years. Founding struggles over names and definitions, when photography was new, unfamiliar and still taking shape in the mid-19th century, provide a productive base for comparison with the present-day definitional crisis.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBloomsbury Encyclopaedia of Visual Culture
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 21 Jan 2024

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