Smithsonian

Curator's Page

An Interview with Merry Foresta, Senior Curator for Photography at the Smithsonian

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?

One 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 picture experience.

What do you mean by picture experience?

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 real world?

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.