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2.1 • What is Photography—Part 1
Working on mythtories
In the Preface post, I asked the reader to answer three seemingly simple questions, one of which was to define the word ‘photography’—without consulting any reference materials. If you chose to accept the challenge and abided by the no-reference rule, you crafted a definition based on your personal knowledge or present sense of the concept.
If I now say you can check your definition against what you could find online, what search prompt would you use? Perhaps:
what is photography
what is the definition of photography
For the first, you would likely come up with a mixed bag of dictionary definitions and squibs from galleries, photography-themed magazine sites, and probably some sites of online “experts” whose real expertise is knowing how to game SEO algorithms to get on the first page of results. Not definitive; not very helpful.
For the second, you probably noticed that at least half of the results were the same returned for the first.
Did you make assumptions that whatever you read was “correct”?
“History” is not a thing that exists, needing only to be discovered. Histories are narratives created by human conceptions, therefore riddled with all of the frailties of human nature, not the least of which is the modern propensity of attention spans measured in seconds. People want, expect, and accept quickly read, easily digested answers to complex questions.
Let’s try again by being a bit more focused and producing another search prompt:
who invented photography
The question seems quite normal but is an example of simple questions about complex topics seeking quick answers that is guaranteed to return results that perpetuate a continuous mythical state of unresolved ambiguity. Plug that into your favorite search engine and you will see results from many different sources, many with the appearance of being authoritative, declaring different answers as fact, often with dates that do not coincide. What results are facts, and which are myths or a mix?
Let’s try another, more constrained prompt that hopefully provides more uniform and decisive returns:
who created|invented|coined the word photography
I entered that exact prompt, and .45 seconds later, the engine responded with this outsized response in massive text across the top of the page:
And every other hit on my long results page said the same thing. Have you ever seen another question/answer combo with a unanimous response? This result must be settled truth. There is no mythic ambiguity here!
Here are some facts:
• It is true that he used the word “photography” in the title of his presentation paper and that the paper was presented on that date.
• The word appears exactly one time: in the title. A few references I found stated the phrase “picture obtained by photography” appears in the paper. It does not.
• The phrase “photographic processes” appears twice and “photographic transfer” once in his short presentation.
As we have seen, Herschel is widely credited with coining and first-use of the word “photography.” This has been stated and restated a staggering number of times. But others have championed alternative contenders. Their arguments are based on distances separating those working in the field and the pace of communication methods of the day. Add overtones of personal, professional, and national honor regarding pride of place and primacy—as well as positioning for the later potential of personal or national financial enhancement—and you have the makings of a first-rate who-done-it (first) thriller. All this contentiousness made for an intriguing rabbit-hole investigation into who deserves the honor of claiming primacy.
Based on my investigation, which involved at least 30 hours of work, I will state that Herschel did not create this neologism.1 My statement is based on documentary and anecdotal evidence, some of which was not known until decades after the reported and ossified certainty that he coined the word. There is also a logical component that gives credence to my independent conclusions (of which I am not alone). None of this precludes additional evidence from being found in the future that would scramble the story again, but this is not likely.
Welcome to the horrible wonders, blunders, myths, and pathology of historiography!2
My confidence level is equally high that the word was coined somewhere in the date range from 1833, up to, but not including, when Herschel presented his paper. I have my own opinion on who was first, but for reasons I will give a few paragraphs from now, I will keep to myself.3
I have spent hundreds of hours digging into the voluminous material that constitutes “the history of photography,” and spending a significant amount of cash to access selected primary source material critical to forming and substantiating some of my conclusion. Yes, this is a disease!4
I collected, sifted, arranged, and evaluated a huge amount of alleged facts, factoids, and figures; articles, papers, theses, documents, annals, commentaries, and histories. I started this core series of posts almost 8 months ago, expecting to complete them in about two. I have stopped and started rewriting from scratch no less than 10 times due to finding new material or having debates with myself over the evidence gathered and conclusions drawn across the component parts of this series, which were being written simultaneously. There were days when I thought my head would explode, and others when I hoped it would.
Before I went completely insane, I “hit the wall” and mentally “shut down.”5
Once I stopped running down rabbit holes chasing down mythtories, I came to the following conclusions:
• I was successfully validating what needed to be validated, invalidating and correcting what wasn’t.
• I realized that attempting to prove who did what, when, and how in excruciating exactitude with 99.999% surety of the facts, was not only not possible, but not necessary for the purpose of this and likely any other project. Getting the minutiae of these details perfectly accurate is not important for our purposes.6
But starting with the next post in the series, I intend to delve into what is.
A neologism is a newly coined word or expression. Speaking of which, I hereby claim as mine, the creation of “mythtory” and all derivatives as of the publication date of this post. That ought to fund my retirement!
…and a problem with online research. Notice that the query asked specifically about the coining of the word photography. What it returned was a response using the word photograph. While the two words are related, they are not the same and do not mean the same thing.
Search engines as we have known and used them are among the earliest uses of AI technologies, whether we realize that or not. This kind of error happens frequently and contributes to lexical errors and degradation of our knowledge base. By now we have all read about numerous kinds of errors produced by AI-based products, including so-called “hallucinations” of fabricated responses and content. Keep this in the back of your mind as search engines and almost any form of digital product rush to embrace and announce their inclusion of AI tech. I will have more examples and more to say on such things in due course.
It might be correct to say that Herscel was the first to introduce the word in an anglicized form.
If you aren’t going to opt for a paid subscription to this project, at least have the decency to hold a telethon!
In the movie War Games when, just before launching missiles to start WWIII, Joshua realizes the futility of it all and stands down from launching, appearing to be frozen, contemplating what to do next.
I just happened to catch the last 20 minutes of the movie the night I was coming to the same conclusion on my early history research. Validation signs that you have reached the point of reasonable satisficing can come from surprising places!
But that doesn’t mean being sloppy about the details is. There is way too much created-in-ten-minute content out there that is pure garbage. AI will worsen this, especially as AI chatbots begin ingesting, re-synthesizing, and regurgitating their hallucinations on top of the already poor content that has been crawled.
••The original image of Herschel was by Julia Margaret Cameron in April 1867 and is in the public domain. I cropped it for a better proportional fit and edited it to enhance detail. The text is mine. The image-text combination was composed as a single image since Substck does not do text wrapping as of its publication date and is © 2023 Len Romanick/Infonomena LLC.