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The History of Landscape Photography Essay Sample

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The History of Landscape Photography Essay Sample


In his catalogue, Weston Naef termed the period between 1860 and 1885 the “golden age of photography” and characterized the photographs produced during this early period as works of art. His essay on “Landscape Consciousness” related developments in American landscape painting and the natural sciences to the emergence of landscape photography. Moreover he singled out the work of several photographers for extended formal analysis in the tradition of most art historical publications (201-218). After some historical background on American landscape photography in 19th century, brief discussion and criticism, the paper further turns to the works of prominent American landscape photographers of the 19th century: Carleton E. Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson. Finally, some conclusive remarks are presented.

Historical Background

At the same time that photographic technologies progressed to the point of allowing for “field” work, the United States government began to survey the West in order to determine the potential resources these lands held. Photographic documentation quickly proved indispensable in this survey process, and photography became the voice through which the world learned of the unique topologies of the West. While photography was invented in the late 1830’s, the immediate uses of the medium were overwhelmingly focused on portraiture. Aside from the huge demand for portraits, there was also a technical reason for the limited number of landscape daguerreotypes: the unwieldy and dangerous daguerreotype process greatly inhibited any attempt to move photography out of the studio (Current).

Another limitation was the small size of the daguerreotype image. Since daguerreotypes became light sensitive by exposing the photographic plates to toxic mercury vapors, the use of large plates and the subsequent increase in vapors required to sensitize them simply exposed the photographer to too much danger. The small images (2 3/4” x 3 3/4“), although detailed, were limited in their ability to convey a sense of space. A further limitation on the daguerreotype’s landscape capabilities was the inability to reproduce the image. Since daguerreotypes were a one of kind positive image, their ability to communicate to a mass audience was restricted (Mitchell).

With the invention of the collodion or “wet plate” process, field photography became a realistic possibility although still a complicated and laborious ordeal. The collodion process used glass plates coated with a layer of collodion, a mixture of gum cotton dissolved in ether. The plate was made light sensitive by dipping it in a liquid solution of silver-nitrate. The difficult part of the process was that the plate had to be exposed and processed before it dried or it lost its light-sensitive properties. As a result, plate preparation had to be done immediately prior to exposure and then quickly processed. This necessitated taking a “darkroom” into the field, usually in the form of a wagon or tent (Mitchell).

The other advantage offered by the collodion process was its reproductibility. The collodion process produced a negative that could then be used to make any number of prints. Since enlargement processes had not yet been developed, the prints were “contact” prints—made simply by laying the glass negative on top of or in contact with the printing paper, then exposing the materials to sunlight. The most common form of printing paper used was made by coating the paper with an emulsion made largely from egg whites (albumen). The paper was then made light sensitive by dipping it in a silver nitrate solution (Hyde).

The resulting prints were capable of rendering very sharp detail that comes close to rivaling the sharpness of today’s materials. Since the prints were made by contact printing rather than enlargement, the reproduction from negative to print was a direct one-to-one ratio. If a high quality camera lens was used to make the negative, the prints were capable of showing more detail than the unaided human eye could perceive. It is possible to examine some of these early photographs with a magnifying glass and see yet more detail (Hyde).

The ability to mass produce photographs opened the way for another photographic technology, the stereograph, to flourish. The stereograph was not new to photography, but daguerreotypes, with their brightly reflective surfaces, were not well suited for stereoscopic viewing. Similarly, calotypes—made from paper negatives and primitive printing papers—lacked the necessary fidelity to produce satisfactory three-dimensional effects. Albumen prints, however, provided excellent results and stereographs quickly became an important form of entertainment (Current). Millions of stereographic photographs were sold in the three decades following the invention of the collodion process, thus providing a huge market for photographs. Since the binocular, three-dimensional effects did not lend themselves well to the closer visual studies of the studio such as in a portrait photograph, photographers turned their cameras to scenic photography. This helped to greatly increase the interest and commercial demand for landscape photographs (Mitchell).

American Landscape Photography: 1860-1885

Following the Civil War, many of the nation’s energies became focused on the West. During this period, the Western landscape became a popular subject matter for artists and photographers. Prior to the war, photography had been well established in what few larger settlements there were in the West, but as Karen Current has noted, the land was seldom even conceived of as subject matter (17). There were technological limitations in the photographic medium that were factors in excluding landscape as photographic subject. Another potential cause may have resulted from what Anne Farrar Hyde has classified as a rhetorical dilemma.

In her book An American Vision, Hyde identifies in early literary and pictorial representations of the West a failure of European rhetorics to describe a place so vastly different from the European and Eastern American landscapes as well as a place so different from the aesthetic ideals of the picturesque. Unlike painting, photography was incapable of making either of these rhetorical transformations. Limited in subject matter to the West that was actually before the camera, photographers found little that reinforced these European rhetorics. Many of the early, more successful landscape photographs were the result of photographers deliberately seeking out those places in the West that more closely resembled these European ideals.

Another limiting factor in the development of landscape photography of the West was the limited commercial development of the West prior to the Civil War. Prior to the expansion of the railroads into the West, much of the region was geographically remote, environmentally inhospitable, and subject to the control of indigenous populations who were less than receptive to intrusions from European-Americans. The commercial expansion into the West through the discovery of gold in California and the construction of the intercontinental railroad coincided with the technological improvements in the photographic medium.

W.J.T. Mitchell has noted the close historical relationship between the rise of landscape representations and the imperialist movements with in both Eastern and Western cultures. The parallel rise of landscape photography with the rise of the ideology of Manifest Destiny gives strong support to his argument that landscape as a pictorial medium has a inherent connection to imperialism.   The government-sponsored imperial mechanisms of scientific and military surveys of the regions as well as the government subsidized westward expansion of the railroad lines employed photography as a part of their public relations efforts.

Photographers who turned to the landscape as subject matter, did so in a variety of employments, each offering a different rhetorical context. In addition to the government’s use of photography in the surveys of the West, several industries employed photographers to express their interest as well. The railroads were the largest of the private employers but photographers also worked with the timber and mining industries, civic governments, geologists, cartographers, and lawyers. Numerous photographers also worked speculatively with the intention of selling scenic views of the West, usually in the form of stereographs (Mitchell).

Perhaps the greatest influence these rhetorical contexts had on landscape photography of the West was in the choice of subject matter. Commercial interest, primarily mining industries, found photography to be an important means of documenting their operations. This documentation was critical to securing capital from investors in the East and Europe. These interests would lead photographers to work in parts of the West that offered no picturesque possibilities.

The railroads also used photography to promote the West through real estate development and as a tourist attraction. Firstly, photography emphasized the technological feats of expanding the railways into the West. These photographs show the technological conquest of a harsh environments as the railroad literally penetrates the landscape. Second, photography sought to display the agricultural potential in order to attract new migration to the area. Not surprisingly, these photographs excluded much of the West as photographic subject matter, most notably the vast dry regions of the Great Basin. Finally, photographs served as souvenirs for travelers. These forerunners to the picture postcard recorded many of the more striking landscape features travelers saw from the train on their journeys westward (Hyde).

Carleton Watkins

Watkins’ early landscape photographs demonstrate his major concern with vantage point. When describing in court how he picked his viewpoint for the photograph, Watkins replied that he had sought the vantage point that would give the “best view” (Palmquist 9).  A common Watkins solution to this problem was to situate the camera at a high vantage point from a distant perspective, which provided a broad overview of the terrain. This approach, which is found in both these earliest landscapes as well as in his later more mature work, very well may have been influenced by the rhetorical context of these early works. Charged with depicting boundaries, Watkins had to develop a means of demonstrating the spatial relationships between topographical elements within the picture frame. His concern for these spatial relations of pictorial elements continued when he shifted to more primordial landscape subjects.

Many of his earliest Yosemite photographs are taken from the valley floor, a point of view that lends itself more easily to the picturesque tradition since the camera views the majestic mountain walls of the valley from the tranquility of the meadows and riverbeds below. These pictures usually feature a major geological formation as a central subject, framed within the pastoral setting of the valley floor. In some photographs, the use of the foreground as a framing device dominates the overall picture to the point that it is difficult to imagine any scientific context or motive in the making of the photograph. In River View Down the Valley, Yosemite (Palmquist 17), the calm waters of the Merced River in the foreground reflect the distant Cathedral Rock. Tall pines in the middle-ground frame the cliffs in the background.

River View Down the Valley, El Capitan, 1872

Other photographs offer a balance between the picturesque foreground and the sublimity of mountains in the distance as in El Capitan (Palmquist 18). Here the obvious subject of El Capitan is compositionally balanced by the Merced River and a small stand of tall trees. While these photographs clearly meet the expectations of an audience well versed in the picturesque, they also can act as documentary evidence, and Watkins’ awareness of this is indicated in his titles of the photographs, which are place or mountain names with such cartographic information as mountain and waterfall heights included. These early views also share a similarity with his earlier legal documentary landscapes, taking a broad encompassing view that emphasizes the relationship between large landscape elements within their larger geographical context Although clearly in the business of making ”beautiful pictures,” Watkins always maintains an attempt to situate the beautiful as a specific place within real geographic coordinates (Palmquist 18).

Watkins’ commitment to documenting place is more apparent in the photographs made from his later trips to Yosemite. The pastoral setting of the valley floor is increasingly set aside for views from higher vantage points. Here, he attempts to offer the “First” view of the valley as well as the “Best General” view of the valley (Naef 16-19). These views from the tops of mountains attempt to place Yosemite Valley itself within in the context of the Sierras and to place the major features of Yosemite— Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome—within the context of the entire valley. When exhibited on walls or in a book, the Yosemite photographs were sequenced as a tour through the valley, showing the high approach to the valley before moving down to the valley floor (Palmquist 18).

This approach to landscape-as-place can be seen in Watkins cityscapes and industrial work as well. In these views, he attempts to situate a mine or city within the geography of land. Here again he usually takes a higher vantage point, and he often relies on a sequence of views joined together to create a sweeping panorama revealing specifically how Virginia City, Nevada, for example, is situated in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains (Palmquist 55). In this panorama, no particular element is given a higher status than other elements. The mining operations in the foreground, the city in the middle ground, and the mountains in the background all share equal pictorial roles. This is achieved by the high and distant vantage point.

Panorama of Virginia City, Nevada, 1976

The distant vantage point creates an emotional distance to the subject as well. Watkins’ consistent treatment of the landscape, whether it be a scene of a boomtown situated between mountains, an open-pit mine, or the lush Yosemite Valley situated between sheer granite walls, creates an ethos of objectivity. In each case, Watkins seeks a pictorial solution that will best show his subject within the broader context of the land. Thus the Yosemite photographs when viewed as but one part of the larger body of Watkins’ other landscape work reveal a continuing exploration of the camera’s landscape potentials. At Yosemite, he would return to specific locations to remake a photograph with a different angle of light or a slight adjustment in the point of view. As his work evolved, he treated the landscape more and more as a relationship of geometric planes and forms anticipating the modernist photography of the twentieth century. Watkins seemed to be more concerned with refining the landscape potentials of the medium rather than focusing on any particular subject (Palmquist).

Watkin’s consistent treatment of subjects as but an element of a larger landscape can easily be viewed as a harmonization of these subjects with nature, a view which would place Watkins well within the progressivist rhetorics of his times. When the subject is the beautiful waterfalls of Yosemite, the photographs can easily be interpreted as romantic, picturesque depictions of nature. When the subject shifts to a broader view of the Yosemite Valley as a whole, they can be interpreted as evidence to the claims of scientific materialism. His industrial landscapes can offer competing claims as well: evidence and endorsement of the industrial conquest and submission of nature; a pastoral inclusion of industry and nature in harmony; a contrast between the curved forms of nature and geometrically linear forms of humanity; and an invitation to exploit nature (Hyde).

Timothy O’Sullivan

O’Sullivan is the only one who made no attempt to market himself or his photographs. Virtually all of his photographs were made while he worked directly and indirectly for the government documenting first the Civil War and then scientific surveys that ranged from the Great Basin to Panama. The nineteenth-century use of these photographs was almost exclusively limited to scientific reports. O’Sullivan’s rhetoric of landscape reveals a clearly defined scientific ethos of objectivity. This ethos is developed further by his inclusion of the scientific activities of the survey team within the landscapes photographed. If landscape photography is an act of imperialism, O’Sullivan claims the West as the domain of the scientist.

Some of O’Sullivan’s photographs made in the Great Basin for icing’s survey appear to support Catastrophism concept (Horan 169). A photograph of volcanic slabs in the Trinity Mountains of Nevada  shows sharp vertical shafts of rock thrusted skyward (Horan 182). The abundance of the near perfectly rectangular lines side by side creates a visual rhythm than suggests vertical motion. The photograph, which lacks a traditional foreground, middleground, background, dimensionally bears little resemblance to traditional landscape conventions, thus pointing to a greater emphasis upon science than aesthetics.

A photograph of tufa domes that rise above the surface of Pyramid Lake similarly demonstrates a vertical motion of geometric forms with the domes seemingly reaching for the sky like plant forms growing towards the light (Horan 187). This photograph also serves as a good illustration of how O’Sullivan’s photographs can take on a new aesthetic meaning when removed from the context of a scientific report The still waters of the lake nearly merge into the sky at the horizon line, and the light tonality of the water and sky in comparison to the rock forms can give the illusion that the forms are floating in space.

Aesthetically the scene is reminiscent of Japanese landscapes in which the details of the background are not rendered. Implying an artistic motive for this aestheticism, however, is flawed since the effects are the result of the limitations of the photographic processes of the time. The waters are calm because of the long time-exposure, which eliminates any details of waves or water movement. The light tonalities of the water and sky are the result of the film’s extreme sensitivity to the blue spectrums of light (Trachtenberg 117).

Photographs of geological formations dominate the O’Sullivan’s work for the survey. Plant forms are never the focal point of the images although the limited vegetation of the Great Basin region certainly is a contributing factor to this observation. The one exception to the emphasis on geology is the emphasis on survey activities. Even in photographs showing no humans, O’Sullivan frequently includes pieces of survey or photographic equipment in the scene. The frequency of this practice causes Alan Tractenberg to conclude that it “suggests a deliberate practice” (130). In some cases the equipment helps to demonstrate scale as in the photograph of the volcanic slabs mentioned above. The inclusion of a box for plate preparations reveals the slabs to be of a smaller scale than first inspection suggest.

Some photographs directly document the activities of survey scientist. In one such photograph, a survey member sits before a tent with a pocket watch in hand. Before him are “astronomical observation” instruments (Horan 189). Another scene at Shoshone Falls shows a camp set up with team members using survey instruments to record the site.

Numerous photographs include the photographer’s darkroom, a converted ambulance wagon. Easily the most famous of these photographs is Sand Dunes, Carson Desert (Trachtenberg 159). In this photograph, large sand dunes dominate, filling almost all of the frame. Right of center in the scene is O’Sullivan’s darkroom wagon and mule team. The wagon demonstrates scale, but it also asserts a relationship between the human presence of the survey team and the desert landscape.

Joel Snyder, however, has challenged this assumed role of human figures and proposes that these figures “function most often as indices of a precarious and frightful relationship between explorer and the object of exploration” (195). Snyder sees O’Sullivan’s photographs serving not as documentation of the Western territories but as a documentation of the domain of the scientific expert. Such a hostile environment can only be understood and ultimately managed by the scientific expert.

Trachtenberg echoes this sentiment but suggests a more complex impact: “the photographer shows that the picture is indeed a picture, not the real thing or scene itself, and at the same time says that the photographer was really there, placing the terrain within the context of actuality” (131). In essence, the presence of instruments in the photographs acts an additional “sign” of the veracity of the photograph. The instruments and the inclusion of surveyors and their accompanying activities also contextualizes the photographs as “survey” photographs (163).

Trachtenberg also argues that the inclusion of the instruments of photography in the photographs make an argument for photography’s place within the scientific processes of observation. The inclusion of photographic equipment alongside survey instruments “suggests a commonality of purpose accepted by geologist and photographers alike” (132). Such a self awareness could even hint that O’Sullivan sought to control potential meanings of the landscapes. These landscapes were not to be confused with the picturesque, stereoscopic views so popular among the public.

William Henry Jackson

During the nineteenth century Americans began to turn to the Western landscape with its ancient geological revelations as a cultural heritage (Hyde 10). West had such geological wonders as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. William Henry Jackson demonstrated a genius for tapping into these cultural yearnings as he brought the public pictures of an exotic West full of geological surprises and oddities and also a wilderness that affirmed the mythical man of the Western frontier. With a photographic career that spanned seventy-five years, Jackson, according to his biographer Peter Hales, “became a powerful progenitor of the changes in the American conception of the West and of landscape in general” (7).

As with Watkins, there has been a tendency in criticism of Jackson’s work to simply label his landscapes as extensions of the picturesque and sublime traditions in art While Jackson as entrepreneur would probably have had little qualms with tapping into such economically fruitful genres, and while his later work clearly draws from the styles of these genres, his subject matter often failed to be as malleable for the camera as it was for the paintbrush. Most of the landscapes made during his work along the railroads didn’t fit the well ordered and controlled nature found in picturesque painting. Despite his years of sketching, he had no formal training in art, and his approach to composition in his early work generally reveals this. Instead of tapping into the picturesque conventions, Jackson capitalized on what he saw as a tremendous opportunity to fulfill the ever growing interest the West held for the postwar public.

Jackson was not content to merely document what he found in the West. His early work shows an attempt to provide the public with what they believed the West to be. His photograph of two “Indians” reveals his desire to satisfy the public’s curiosity and expectations about the plains Indians who were being cast into the cultural role of foil for the heroics of the Western frontiersman (Hales 29). Here two Native Americans from a reservation are posed with the expected props of a bow and a pistol. Virtually all of Jackson’s Indian portraits show the subject with some form of weaponry or with some form of ceremonial garb. As is characteristic of Native American portraits of the period, neither man smiles, but both maintain stern expressions while the seated man stares into the camera with a threatening grimace. Jackson satisfied the public’s curiosity while reinforcing cultural expectations. These early photographs demonstrate Jackson’s keen understanding of the Eastern audience’s expectations in the Western landscape.

Many of the railroad photographs celebrated a theme of the triumph of technology over the inhospitable environment. Jackson frequently photographed train stations, railroad trestles, and cuts and tunnels made through rocky hillsides. In Dale Creek Bridge, a dominating foreground of huge boulders and a solid rock hill lead into the view of the bridge spanning a small canyon (Hales 60). The foreground highlights difficult elements of the landscape that railroad engineers had to deal with. The understated emergence of a bridge from the backside of the rock hill indicates a human triumph over nature.

Dale Creek Bridge American, 1885

In this photograph, the very raw elements of the Western landscape are given a pictorial balance by the presence of technology as if to suggest that technology completes what is incomplete in the primordial landscape. As Hales notes, Jackson inscribed cultural attitudes in these photographs: ‘lie was able to present the West as awesome, symbol of an infinitude, and omnipotence beyond and above it, while at the same time announcing man’s presence in the same sphere, unthreatened … nature could be passed through, appreciated, even exploited, without concomitant diminishment of the power it represented” (58).

Jackson’s photographs of the region continued with his theme of the explorer as hero and frontman for the Eastern audience. However, faced with a different landscape than the prairies and mountains he had photographed in the previous expedition, his view shifted from the sweeping panoramas made from a high vantage point to landscapes viewed from a closer proximity. This shift was necessary to adequately reveal the unique geological features of the region, in Mud Geyser in Action, for example, the camera is situated immediately before the bubbling mud and trees just beyond the geyser hiding the horizon (Hales 104).

The view is closer and more intimate. In White Mountain Hot Springs Group of Upper Basins, the photograph appears more like earlier work such as the Badlands with a human figure below camera level gazing up the spring and the far distant mountains (Hales 125). Unlike the Badlands photograph, however, the foreground is closer. The result for many viewers is a more intimate experience of actually being there. The landscape is not distant and remote, but immediate and thus available.

In the years following the Yellowstone survey, subsequent ones primarily focused on the Colorado Rockies. By far his most famous image of this period, or even of his entire career, was his 1873 photograph Mountain of the Holy Cross (Hales 133). Jackson had heard of the snowfield on the side of a mountain that resembled the Christian cross and spent much of 1873 searching for it. His photograph of it is not a strong composition, and the large rocks in the foreground obscure the scale of the mountain itself working against any suggestion of the sublime. Immediately in the center of the photograph, however, is the snow cross, offering all that was needed in the photograph to tap into a host of nationalist rhetorics arising from the religiously oriented ideology of Manifest Destiny. To fully succeed in connecting with this rhetoric, however, required mat Jackson retouch the print to clarify and complete the cross. In later years, Jackson would reduce the image from a rectangle to an oval, and eventually, he would hand paint a river and waterfall into the scene.

Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1973

This example offers a good evidence of how Jackson’s landscape photographs acted as a rhetoric. Unlike Watkins who had a continual concern for documentation of place, Jackson sought to fulfill the public’s mythical conceptions of the West. He offers the West as an adventurous wonderland ultimately available of consumption having been conquered by the heroics of explorers such as himself (Hyde).

Jackson’s photographs dearly present the West as a near infinite commodity for exploitation in which the presence of man and his technologies do not present a great threat. The immensity of the West presented in his photographs demonstrate no sense of limitations, and yet Jackson was aware himself that he had to work harder and harder through the years to find the wilderness of the West since civilization had encroached so thoroughly into the region that it bore little resemblance to the West he first saw on the early surveys.


The landscape photographs of the West have played a pivotal role in the development of photographic landscape aesthetics. In fact, there was a time when landscape photographers from the East were not fully accepted artistically until they had made a pilgrimage to the West. Then, the battle for the lands of the West has long been at the forefront of the environmental debate. With so much of the West held as public lands, the question of how to use these lands has fueled persistent debate between preservationists, conservationists, and developers. Finally, the West has played a pivotal role in the development of our national culture. As Anne Hyde has noted, the West “forced Americans to come up with new standards and descriptive strategies independent from powerful European ideals.” This process ultimately “helped forge a particularly American culture” (9). Landscape photography has played an important role in the development of these “descriptive strategies” as well as the development of this culture and ultimately its conceptions of landscape and nature.

Shortly thereafter, following the conclusion of the Civil War, the exploration and expansion into the American West began in an ever escalating series of events that would greatly influence the development of the territory.  The United States government in both its civilian and military capacities began several exploratory surveys of the Western territories. The railroad companies also sought the ways to attract more people to the West. These surveys sought to map the territory and scientifically explore the potential uses for the lands. The use of photographers to document the findings of these surveys quickly became commonplace. The resulting photographs were employed not only for scientific documentation of geological observations, or advertising purposes, but also to encourage further exploration and exploitation of the Western lands. These photographs offered the American public its first views of the Western lands, and as such, were instrumental in helping to define the West and its potentials.

The photographs of Watkins and Jackson played a crucial role in the preservation of the environment. Both of these photographers were also very popular and influential during their time, and their work played an important role in the ways the popular culture of their period came to perceive the landscape photography and the West.  As mentioned earlier, O’Sullivan was not popular or influential during his lifetime, but his work has been an important influence on twentieth-century landscape photography, but his work also offers a strong contrast to the approaches to landscape found in Watkins and Jackson.

Works Cited

Current, Karen. Photography and the Old West. New York: Harry N. Abrams and Amon Carter Museum, 1978.

Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1988.

Horan, James D. Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1966.

Hyde, Anne Farrar. An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culure. 1820-1920. New York: New York UP, 1990.

Mitchell, W. J. T., ed. Landscape and Power. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1994.

Naef, Weston and James Wood. Era of Exploration, The Rise of Landscape Photography in The American West, 1860-1885. New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1975.

Palmquist, Peter E. Carleton E. Watkins. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1983.

Snyder, Joel.  “Picturing Vision.” Critical Inquiry VI (1980): 499-526.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs. New York: Mil and Wang, 1989.

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