Photography and Civic Engagement

So Many Cameras, So Many Issues

by Holly Stuart Hughes

Photo of Kim Beil, Ph.D.

Kim Beil, Ph.D.

Kim Beil, Ph.D., is an art historian who teaches at Stanford University. Her book, Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography (Stanford University Press, 2020) tracks 50 stylistic trends in the medium since the 19th century. Much of her research was drawn from vintage how-to manuals. Beil has also written about photography and climate change for The Atlantic, on screenshots for The Believer, about Google streetview for Cabinet, and most recently, for The New York Times, about hiking 50 miles to track down a little-known Ansel Adams photograph in the High Sierra. She also writes about contemporary art and artists for Artforum, Art in America, BOMB, and Photograph magazines. 

What are the most significant technological developments that made it possible for almost everyone to own a photograph, and for almost everyone to make a photograph?

Those were two separate moments, separated by almost two generations. You would think it would be paper photography and the positive/negative process that made it possible for people to own photographs. We think of paper as cheap. But in the U.S., it was actually the tintype. Tintypes were made on thin metal sheets. When the process was patented in 1856, they were described as “ferrotypes,” in reference to their iron content. Tin was associated with thin, cheap materials, and tintype photographs quickly took on that derogatory moniker. 

Tintypes could be easily sent through the mail, which was important in the Civil War years. They could be as cheap as 75 cents or $1 for a dozen tintypes. To put that in context, the average daily wage for a man working on a farm in New York in that period was just about a dollar. A tintype was a quarter of the cost of a carte-de-visite. The prices were radically different in the North versus the South during the Civil War, because in the South there were blockades that restricted access to materials. 

The release of the Kodak Number 1 in 1888 is what I’d pinpoint as the major shift when amateurs could start making photographs. It was not inexpensive—about $25—but what was transformative was that Kodak sold it with an actual roll of film inside that could take 100 pictures. Then you would send the whole camera, with the roll of film, back to Eastman Kodak for processing. You didn’t have to have a darkroom. 

© Frances Benjamin Johnston, “Kodak Creates a Sensation.” Between 1890 and 1900. Library of Congress, Johnston (Frances Benjamin) Collection. The advent of the Kodak Number 1 in 1888 made photography accessible to amateurs, who no longer needed a darkroom. 

Photography moves one step closer to being widely accessible in 1900 when the Kodak Brownie was released. A Brownie was only $1, and a roll of film could be purchased for 15 cents. In their first year of production, there were 150,000 cameras sold, which is more than all of the cameras Kodak had sold since the original Kodak’s first decade. 

What was the cultural or societal impact of all these cameras?

One of the most important changes is the notion of privacy—the question of who has a right to their own image. When the first Kodak was released in 1888, there were editorials describing all the people on the trains heading to the beach with a Kodak around their necks. Where people previously had a sense they could comport themselves differently at a sports event or tourist destination, suddenly your image could travel without you and without your permission. There was a famous case brought before the courts involving a woman whose image was taken and used to advertise products without her consent. There was a lot of concern about how one should be represented in public, especially for women.

“Suddenly your image could travel without you and without your permission."

In your book, you note stylistic choices photographers have made to make their images look artlessness or authentic. What are some of the techniques photographers have used to make their images read as “honest”?

Framing is the first thing that comes to mind. For more than 100 years, how-to guides had admonished amateurs to always check the corners of the frame, warning photographers to look out for their subjects’ feet and the top of their heads lest they be cut off by the frame. 

In the early days of Kodak cameras, that was nearly impossible, because they didn’t have lens-based viewfinders. Even in the early days of candids, first named in 1929, photographers were careful to frame subjects well. Photographs that weren’t framed as they were supposed to be—with subjects either centered or carefully placed by the rule of thirds, not cropped in awkward places—these would have been considered failures. By appropriating those mistakes as a deliberate style, photographers were suggesting their work was made without much forethought. That translates to creating the impression that their work was unplanned and therefore authentic. Starting in the 1960s, you’ve got tilted horizons and people deliberately cropped. You get motion blur and grainy film in the 1960s. Those had all been markers of amateurism. 

Why are we looking for authenticity? Photography doesn’t always promise the truth, and there are certainly different types of truth in different contexts and different time periods. If you look back at early examples of what we now call documentary photography, say, Jacob Riis, we know that his photos were posed, and they were posed in very particular ways, but they were meant to show a truth. One of the National Press Photographers Association’s codes of conduct is that you can’t interfere in a scene. You don’t pose your subject. But that was something that wasn’t considered valid in the earlier days of photography. I think our standards or expectations for what photographs reveal have changed over time.

It’s fascinating to me to realize that many readers of contemporary press photographs don’t know that. And they blindly trust other photographs made without that standard of conduct, like pictures you might see on social media or photos made for nonstandard press outlets. These don’t really follow the same rules. It’s incumbent on us as viewers to know what the rules are, so that we know what kinds of images to trust. 

Photographer unknown. Spread from Arthur A. Goldsmith, How to Take Better Pictures (New York, Arco Publishing, 1957). Chopped-off heads, blur, and light streaks were “the mark of a rank beginner” according to this 1957 guide. 

You’ve looked at hundreds of how-to manuals and photography guides. Can you describe the racial and gender assumptions you found?

It’s obvious that the readers of how-to manuals during the 19th and most of the 20th century were thought to be men, educated white men. There were definitely women and people of color making pictures, though, even in photography’s earliest years. Women made up 3 percent of working daguerreotypists from 1840 to 1860 in the U.S. During the same time, we have records of about 20 Black men daguerreotypists. Those are really small numbers compared to about 8700 photographers total who were known to be working across the country during those 20 years.

The guidebooks also assumed portrait sitters to be white. We can see in the thousands of remaining images that there were many, many, many people of color who sat for portraits. Still, in all of those turn-of-the-century guides that I’ve read, I’ve never read a description of how to beautifully and accurately photograph sitters who had skin tones outside the very narrow range defined as “white.” Even people with so-called ruddy complexions or freckles were considered “problems” to be fixed because the chemicals were not designed to record those skin tones accurately. I think it’s a sign of systemic racism that the photo industry considered people with white skin the desired customers and ignored the needs of other photographers and other sitters.

“In all of those turn-of-the-century guides that I’ve read, I’ve never read a description of how to beautifully and accurately photograph sitters who had skin tones outside the very narrow range defined as ‘white.’"

© Augustus Washington, “Urias A. McGill, half length portrait.” Circa 1854-1855. Library of Congress. Augustus Washington was one of the most prominent Black daguerreotypists in the U.S. before he emigrated to Liberia in 1853. 

The issue hasn’t completely gone away, either. You can see it continue to the present with digital camera sensors. Many of them are still less sensitive to people with darker skin. The Google Pixel has made this the focus of its marketing over the past couple of years. They’ve employed Black photographers to create training sets of their images for the algorithms. These photographers also consult on the way the camera processes images of people with various skin tones. What we judge as a “natural” or “accurate” representation changes over these many years. One could have set out to make “natural” represent a different “normal” than the early film companies and even later digital camera designers chose. 

You’ve written recently about the inadequacy of camera technology to capture environmental problems, from England’s 19th-century smog to recent effects of climate change. What got you interested in this issue? 

I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and I’ve often been struck by how the pictures on my phone look uncannily good in certain locations. It’s great at capturing a particular quality of sunset at a particular beach. It always reminds me that iPhone designers live here and conduct research nearby. It makes me wonder about other regions or conditions not as accessible to them.

On September 9, 2020, the Bay Area suddenly looked different, and the iPhone couldn’t capture it. Wildfires were burning north and south of the city. The smoke was trapped above a layer of clouds and it created a bright orange sky all day. People hadn’t seen anything like it. It was really startling and felt apocalyptic. Of course, people ran outside to take pictures, and the iPhone would correct the sky to make it look either like a sunset or like a regular day. It took some playing around with filters to properly record the sky as a dark, dirty orange, not a bright sunset.

As an historian of photography, I’m interested in what is photographed and how it looks in photographs, because I know that we’ll turn to these photos in the future to aid our arguments or supplement our memories. 

So, I had been increasingly thinking about what environmental situations are preserved and archived. In the online archive of California, a quick search reveals that there are thousands more images of floods than drought. Though we have a huge archive on the impact of drought during the Great Depression, still, most of these local California archives have dramatic pictures of floods. Drought is hard to picture. It’s hard to picture the absence of something.

I think writing about photography and climate change came out of having this experience and being unsure about whether or how it’ll be preserved in memory. 

Accessible tools and platforms now allow the wide distribution of images and, as you write, “the circumvention of traditional gatekeepers.” You seem to suggest that social media has created a lot of sameness in both photographic styles and photographic subject matter.

I guess I’m ambivalent about it. You get a new fad, then everyone jumps on it, and something that seemed new gets old very quickly. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking photos that are all the same, because that’s how we communicate. This kind of photography is a form of communication, and one of the goals is to participate in a conversation with the people you identify with or want to communicate with. You do that through the choices of what you photograph and how you photograph it.

I’ve heard a lot of concern that the proliferation of photography has ruined something fundamental about our interactions in space. It sounds like many other versions of technophobia that we’ve gone through for centuries. I think photography is a way to focus our attention. Taking a photo doesn’t mean you’re not involved in the moment or that you’re only thinking about posting to social media. It’s a way of saying: Hey this moment matters. Even if it’s only a split second, you’re thinking about the beauty or surprise or the tragedy of the moment through your camera. I think we should figure out how to use that attention and maybe even to celebrate it.

“Taking a photo doesn’t mean you’re not involved in the moment or that you’re only thinking about posting to social media. It’s a way of saying: Hey this moment matters.” 

To clarify my ambivalence, I do see it as incredibly positive when you think of breaking down barriers and allowing people to see themselves in pictures if they, or people like them, have been historically excluded from visual media or represented only by others. There are also important examples of citizen journalism in the past few years where onlookers documented horrific abuses of power by police. The fact that people were able and willing to make those photos or videos on the street has played a major role in shaping public opinion and making police brutality more widely known and condemned. But we should be clear that accessibility can have negative impacts, too, such as young girls feeling the pressure to conform to standards of beauty that they see in pictures online. There’s not just one answer to whether greater accessibility to image-making and image-sharing technology has been good or bad. 


• Beil, Kim. Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography. Stanford University Press, 2020.
• Beil, Kim. “Photography Has Gotten Climate Change Wrong from the Start,” The Atlantic. November 27, 2020. 
• Beil, Kim. “Why We Remember Floods and Forget Droughts," The Atlantic. July 17, 2022.

The opening spread of Kim Beil’s book Good Pictures shows the cover of How to Make Good Pictures, published by Eastman Kodak, 1933. 

This interview was conducted by Holly Stuart Hughes, Independent Editor, Writer & Grant Consultant, Former Editor-in-Chief, PDN, in March 2023.