The nature of photography is multifaceted. It is a technological, personal, social, and cultural tool. The definition of photography has many angles too, and will perhaps keep changing with advances in technology, and the way we use photographs.
For example, photographs are generally considered to be a type of reproduction. However, this definition may not be entirely true since we can do more than just duplicate. We can add in extra equipment to change the lens, tease the optics, and even alter the final product if necessary using post-processing software. As a result, we can reduce the number of red eyes in pictures, create artificial bokeh effects, and even transform old black and white photographs into color images.
The practice of photography and related crafts has therefore made a lot of progress from a technical standpoint. This technological progress is linked to a better understanding and implementation of optics (as was seen in the early days of photography). These years of improvements in photographic technology have led us to the present world where we no longer need to draw silhouettes to capture a portrait or have our head held by clamps to keep them stationary during long exposure times.
Some of the present technologies can even observe what the eye cannot see. Infrared (IR) photography and Ultraviolet (UV) photography can explore the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is invisible to us. IR photography first appeared in 1910 and produced unusual colors . UV photography has been used to observe the accustomed world and its contents in a different (quite literally) wavelength. For example, flowers display marks in UV light that do not appear otherwise:
A flower belonging to the Asteraceae group seen in both visible (left) and UV (right) light. The flower looks yellow to a human, a color which completely disappears when seen by some insects . These photographs were taken by Bjorn Roslett, a professional nature photographer.
The psychological impact of pictures makes the study of photography clinically interesting (as was discussed in the later years of photography). Photographs are messengers of information contained in a moment. This is both their advantage (as memory storing devices) and disadvantage (as a misused object).
Another example of the world we cannot see directly: Schlieren photography is a flow visualization technique that uses the temperature dependence of refractive index of air to investigate shock waves. An example is shown above with two projectiles. Source: Initiation of detonation by conical projectiles by Jimmy Verreault, Andrew J. Higgins, McGill University
The moment represented by a picture is meaningful and can hope to be reliable if one has some sort of connection to it and is aware of the seconds (absent from the picture) that succeeded and preceded it. The media, however, often uses visuals in a way that can be misleading and create a bias among the readers before they even read the story. Newspapers and news magazines are information sharing instruments sans opinions. However, displaying a manipulated or out of context image can have a deeply biasing effect. Similarly, sharing a photograph that can go viral in a negative way if taken out of context due to the existing tensions of a place can have disastrous consequences for the subject(s) involved. Therefore, as readers, we have to exercise caution before drawing conclusions from a picture, and as smartphone users, we should consider the ramifications of our actions to avoid any unnecessary outrage.
The use of snapshots to suggest a bias or a simplistic view of people or situations is diametrically opposite to the photography of Albert Kahn, a French philanthropist who in 1909 decided to use the autochrome technique (an early color photographic process) to record human life. His mission was to promote peace and understanding among different cultures. His photography crew visited more than 50 countries in two decades to create The Archives of the Planet, which covered everything including, but not limited to, cultural traditions, religious rituals, and political events. In total, 72,000 images were assembled, making it a significant collection of color photographs representing the many shades of humanity.
We too can use images to attempt at promoting understanding. On the Internet, we use pictures to convey cultural, social, and political situations in the form of memes, which are often used to spread information and awareness with a dash of humor:
The technology of camera meets our social self in snapshots that are taken with the intention of uploading them on social networking websites. The incorporation of cameras into phones and other handheld devices has led to such a drastic number of these self-portraits that they have commanded an official name of Selfie, which was crowned the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 just a few weeks ago.
Taking pictures will probably never become obsolete and will continue to survive in some form or the other because our obsession with the technology and use of photographs continues to drive this field. This age-old passion has so many rich historical, theoretical, and technical aspects that even with a three part article series, we can enjoy only a tiny, unfocused glimpse of the world of photography.