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No. 348:
Coming of the Camera

Today, the camera makes us wonder where reality ends. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I once heard a music history professor ask, "Why should I go to the concert tomorrow? I have three records of the program. I'd rather hear any one of them." The musicians who heard about the remark wanted to kill him. So did I.

Yet under his question lurks an issue that's part and parcel of modern technology. Where does the real thing end and imitation begin? Is the music on this station real or imitation!

The Industrial Revolution first raised the question by stamping out the things that human hands once made -- one at a time. Was a mass-produced china plate or a factory-made shirt the real thing or imitation? But the question was never more explicit than it was in the early days of photography.

At first the new cameras made art look outmoded, in the blink of a lens. Then another invention, the stereopticon, brought photo realism into every living room. You looked through its lenses at two photos of the same thing, on a stiff card. The 3-D image was electrifying. We had two stereopticons in our living room. And a basket was filled with cards. We could see war scenes, ancient ruins, Holland, even my grandfather's house.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote this about photography:

Form is henceforth divorced from matter. ... Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, ... and that is all we want of it. [Then you can pull the thing] down or burn it up as you please.

Holmes said that much with his tongue in his cheek. Later he cut closer to the bone of truth when he talked about the stereopticon. It transports us, he said, into a "dream-like exaltation of the faculties" that leaves the body behind.

Author Miles Orvell sees Holmes playing counterpoint to a great cultural shift. We'd just begun to embrace the synthetic realities that're woven into life today -- in movies, in television, even in the computer.

At first, photography teetered between documentation and a new art medium. It mixed reality and fantasy. We find Bible scenes and mythology, pictures that're half-drawing/half-photograph. We even see attempts to photograph ghosts.

Photography finally passed beyond imitation. It became the new arbiter of reality. But today we're so immersed in synthetic products and synthetic experience that we've stopped thinking about the difference. The tactile pleasures -- of music, of football -- are, one by one, turned into synthetic experience. Many seem richer than reality. We've reached the point where, in Holmes's words, form is so divorced from reality that the image of the real thing becomes the new reality of our age.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Orvell, M., Photography and the Artifice of Realism. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, Chapter 3.