An Interview with Merry Foresta, Senior Curator for Photography at the
You've written that the camera changed the ways that
people in the nineteenth century saw the world - that it broke down distances, as
the telegraph did. Do you think, then, that the world itself changed as a
result of photography?
of photography's functions was to communicate information about other places
and other cultures. The world did change. Photography made the world
smaller. But a question remains: Did it also create distances between
people? Pictures could be used as a substitute for travel. And that's another
kettle of fish, because there are differences between real experience and
What do you mean by
In real life, experiences are
one-to-one - between ourselves and the world. When we look at an image, we have
to take into account a point of view not our own. We have to consider who made
the picture, and why. It's important to know how to read images. We need to
know that there is information beyond the photograph's frame.
You've written, too, that photography changed the way
people looked at themselves.
Individual identity became a
great value in the nineteenth century, and photography might have had a large
part in this. When you have a picture made, you have to ask yourself: How do
I want people to see me? How do I want to be shown for posterity? People in
daguerreotypes look so grim. The long exposure time had a lot to do with
this - you had to hold still. But I think we see something else - people taking
the importance of this new technology very seriously. As the century went on,
there was more familiarity with the camera. We see people posing themselves in
bolder and bolder ways.
When photography was
invented, artists, writers, and scientists all speculated about what effect the
camera would have. I think none of them could have guessed the extent to which
photography became part of daily life.
Do you see communications
technology bringing similar transformations in our time?
The digital camera, the
camera phone, the Internet - they all bring up this idea of the balance between
the pictured world and the real world. With the Internet, we can gain access
to almost any piece of information almost immediately. But again: Does this
expand our reach, or does it encourage us to stay home and not experience the
I think about this a lot here
on the National Mall. Often I see a parent taking a digital picture and then
the family gathers around to look at the picture of the scene that's right
there in real life. Sometimes we are too busy looking at the pictured world
to be fully in the moment.
Computer technology, like the
camera in the nineteenth century, is an incredible tool for the dissemination
of knowledge. It remains to be seen how much it will be a tool for
creativity. It is only tool. It is only what we make of it.