Britain in Focus: A Photographic History

Britain in Focus: A Photographic History aired on BBC 4 on Monday 6th March 2017 as part of the BBC’s Photography season. This episode, the first in a series of three, explores the history of photography in the 19th century. The programme explored the development of science and art along side the British economy.

Eamonn McCabe explores the position of photographers at this time, and the challenges, both through ‘technology’ and support that they faced. Photography is something that in today’s age, we take for granted as something that is accessible to most. Photography is something that is all around us, in the media, in advertising, in the home and in our literature. However, everything must start somewhere.

Theoretically, photography, in both film and digital forms is painting with light. The photographer possesses a tool, the camera, which is used to capture the light and produce an image – the photograph. From a nation predominantly dictated by the painting, this development by scientists was not embraced in the early years.

In the first episode, McCabe explores the pioneers of photography in Britain, and how photography was initially deemed a science. The programme mainly focused on the male photographer, reflecting visions of the time. I found this particularly interesting. The programme explored how this advancement of science in the 19th century made photography develop from a scientific process, seen in the works of Roger Fenton to artistic masterpieces that mimicked the framing and principles of painting, shown by Julia Margaret Cameron. Without the fundamental advances in photography that were shown in this episode, we would possibly not be where we are today regarding photography.

In the second episode, McCabe explored the 20th century and how the photograph was now becoming more accessible to the masses. The photograph was firstly used in the studio, making it easy for the glass plate to be developed, but with the invention of the roll of film and mass printing, it made photography the key means of recording events, both in the home and by the media. The episode explored works by the media and Kristina Broom to increase the moral of soldiers, and artists like Cecil Beaton who developed fine art photography. Without the pioneers in the documentary and fine art genre it’s puzzling to think what we would be photographing today and if we even would be categorizing it as such.

The final episode explored the late 20th century up until the present day, looking into the sport photography industry, and the use of photography to react to disasters and industrialisation and the accessibility of photography to everyone. The episode explored pioneers such as John Hinde’s postcards, showing Photography’s ability to be manipulated in order to persuade. The documentary greats such as John Bulmer, Martin Parr and Vanley Burke were explored, showing the use of photography to respond to political and social anguish.

Although particularly biased, McCabe produced an interesting account of Britain’s history of photography. The programme triggers the thought that we take photography for granted, as it dominates our lives now – as so many men and women devoted their time to create such a brilliant trade which has now became such a large factor of my life.

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