In The Essay: The Five Photographs That (You Didn’t Know) Changed Everything, experts in photographic history reveal the significance of five images dating from the 19th century – from an 1866 photo of a butcher taken in Australia that reformed British law, to an aerial image that changed the spaces we live in.
Here, writing for History Extra, five experts explore the little-known photographs that transformed the fields of medicine, architecture, astronomy, law and cultural history.
1) Anna Bertha’s hand by Kelley Wilder, De Montfort University
X-ray images have become so much a feature of our daily lives that we don’t really think of them as photographs. And there is one that changed everything, revolutionising the way we practise medicine, archaeology and astronomy. And when the first X-ray was produced, it was shocking and quite unfathomable.
Step into the shoes of Anna Bertha Röntgen, the first X-ray subject: in her husband’s university laboratory she placed her hand between covered tube and a paper-wrapped photographic glass plate. Little did she know it was about to become the most famous hand in physics.
Conrad Wilhelm Röntgen took the X-ray photograph of Anna’s hand on 22 December 1895. Instead of the blacks and whites of modern X-rays, the skeleton is picked out in browns, but it clearly shows how the rays penetrate the soft tissue to show the bones.
Until the X-ray came along, doctors could only see what was going on inside their patients by taking the drastic step of cutting them open. X-ray promised to change all that. Less than a year after Dr John Macintyre had verified Röntgen’s findings he opened an X-ray unit at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary – the first of what we today call the ‘radiology department’.
But the real excitement around the announcement of X-ray photography was around the striptease and titillation it appeared to promise. Newspapers railed against the revolting indecency of the X-ray. Humorous poems were written, like this one that appeared in Electrical Review in April 1896:
The Roentgen Rays, the Roentgen Rays,
What is this craze?
The Town’s ablaze with the new phase of X-ray’s ways.
I’m full of daze, Shock and amaze,
I hear they’ll gaze Thro’ cloak and gown – and even stays,
These naughty, naughty Roentgen Rays.
Today we associate X-ray photographs more with the contents of our baggage than with our bones. But both are seen in terms defined by a picture taken 120 years ago – the X-ray photograph of Anna Bertha’s hand.
Kelley Wilder is reader in photographic history at De Montfort University, Leicester.
This episode of The Essay aired on Monday 16 February. To listen on BBC iPlayer, click here.
2) The Nebula in Orion by Omar Nasim, the University of Kent
This photograph defied the imagination, and raised questions not just about the size of the universe, but about the very origins of humanity.
M42 was the first celestial nebula [an interstellar cloud comprising dust, helium, hydrogen and other ionized gases] ever to be photographed. It was taken by Dr Henry Draper, a New York amateur astronomer, on 30 September 1880. The photograph is made up of many shades of grey, with dark black regions in the margins, and bright, white splotches, especially near the middle. The grey patches are gaseous material; the black regions, space; and the bright white spots are over-exposed stars. The photograph has a misty, spectral character, and the more you look, the more you see.
Draper’s photograph was special because it showed, in the words of late 19th-century scientists, ‘cosmic dust’, ‘primordial matter’ – the formless materials out of which suns and planets are spun. It was a picture of deep space and deep time, showing the raw materials that formed our solar system.
In From Nebula to Man, published in 1905, the author Henry Knipe argued that if nebulous material constituted the earth, then human beings too must be composed of the same. Yes, the nebulae were conceived as part of an evolutionary worldview. At the end of the 18th century, some people believed that the many different shapes nebulae took represented different stages in their evolution.
Draper’s photograph changed everything – firstly by showing how one could practically picture vast celestial objects. Secondly, by placing human beings in a much larger universal history. He provided us with the first portrait of ourselves in another place and another time.
Omar Nasim is a history lecturer at the University of Kent.
This episode of The Essay aired on Tuesday 17 February. To listen on BBC iPlayer, click here.
3) The Dogon by Jeanne Haffner, Harvard University
How do we know to make connections between society and space? Is it instinctual, or is it a product of history? I believe it’s the latter, and this bird’s-eye photograph of the Dogon tribe working their fields in Mali, taken by the French Africanist Marcel Griaule in the mid-1930s, explains how.
At first glance, it’s unremarkable: there’s no dramatic event being portrayed, and it’s not even artistic. The photo is black and white, and gives a bird’s-eye perspective of African farmers in their fields. The focus of the photograph is the shape of their agricultural fields as seen from above, and the perspective means we can see how the land’s been divided up, resulting in a kind of checkerboard pattern – rather like a patchwork quilt.
Griaule had learned about aerial photography while serving as an aerial reconnaissance officer during the First World War. After the war, he used the skills he’d learned in his studies – taking photographs while flying over ethnic regions, and combining the information he gleaned from them with an analysis of objects found on the ground. Griaule came to believe that aerial photographs were essential to his fieldwork; they yielded information about local culture that he couldn’t get in any other way.
The group that caught Griaule’s attention was the ethnic group, the Dogon. He noticed that the checkerboard pattern featured in his photograph was reproduced everywhere in their villages. He concluded that it served to tie the various spheres of Dogon life together within the group’s unconscious. And, despite their poverty, this sense of connection between the individual and the group made the people happy.
Inspired by the Dogon, architects and urban sociologists started to call for more humanistic approaches to the built environment. Today, they continue to directly influence trends in urban planning and architecture, with the importance of people feeling connected to their environment being widely acknowledged: low-rise dwellings are preferred to high-rise, pedestrian and bike-friendly spaces are increasingly accommodated, and an appreciation of history and memory are invoked. Of course, these efforts aren’t always successful, but no planner today would deny the need to create a sense of place, even if they may debate how best to do it.
The lesson Griaule learned from this photo is as relevant now as it was in the 1930s. It might be easy to literally see the whole picture from above, but we will always need to be challenged if we are going to spot what really matters in our human story on the ground.
Jeanne Haffner is a lecturer in the Department of History and Science at Harvard University.
This episode of The Essay aired on Wednesday 18 February. To listen on BBC iPlayer, click here.
4) The Broom cottages by Elizabeth Edwards, De Montfort University
A few years ago, Wikipedia launched Wiki Loves Monuments to encourage amateur photographers to upload their images of heritage sites. Now an annual competition, it is part of a global project that has attracted more than a million image uploads.
But the idea of asking people to take pictures of historical places and buildings isn’t new. It emerged in the late 19th century, when photography was catching on as a hobby, and when ideas were also developing about what Britain’s shared cultural heritage might look like.
The photograph featured here stands for a mass of such photographs. It was taken in 1885 in Broom, a village on the Warwickshire/Worcestershire border. It shows a row of humble cottages: a mass of old timbers, messy thatched roofs and flaking plaster. It has flat grey/brown tones, and was taken with a large wooden and brass camera using glass negative – about 6 by 8 inches in size. It’s an ordinary-looking photograph that hides its real significance: the idea that such a building was worth recording for posterity. An everyday structure, yet part of the nation’s history.
The photograph was taken by a man called William Jerome Harrison, a Midlands schoolmaster who believed in the power of photography, to create a systematic record that could give us a “true picture of the present”. The appeal of the Broom cottages was not they were old and picturesque, but that they were typical of the area in their style and in the materials used to build them. They carried with them the experiences and activities of past generations. This was their fascination, and the photograph was a document of it all.
What I think makes this photograph a game-changer is that it represents a self-conscious effort to bring these cottages into the fold of what we now recognise as ‘architectural and cultural heritage’.
Harrison was passionate about how photography and history might join forces. He urged amateur photographers everywhere to follow his example and to record ancient buildings, churches, houses, customs, landscapes, and events. In this digital age we take sharing photographs completely for granted, but sharing was key to Harrison’s pioneering agenda. Amateur photographers were encouraged not to hoard their photographs but to deposit prints in local libraries and museums where they could be organised and stored for everybody’s benefit. History could belong to everyone.
Elizabeth Edwards is a research professor of photographic history at De Montfort University, Leicester.
This episode of The Essay aired on Thursday 19 February. To listen on BBC iPlayer, click here.
5) The Tichborne Claimant by Jennifer Tucker, Wesleyan University
Sometimes, a photograph comes along that really gets people talking. It might not be an award-winning photo of a dramatic event, or a portrait of a famous figure. It might not even be beautiful or well composed. But sometimes even a mundane photograph can have a powerful and lasting historical impact.
This is the story of one such photograph – a picture that not only changed the life of the man it showed, but also set in motion the longest and most expensive trial in British legal history, and sparked a national debate over the role of photography as evidence in a court of law.
The photo was taken in 1866 in the Australian town of Wagga Wagga. It depicts a middle-aged man sitting on a bench with his back against a rough wooden fence, his hands clasped together in his lap. He is wearing working clothes typical of his occupation as a stockman and butcher, his expression is slightly worried, his brows furrowed.
The man was living under the alias ‘Tom Castro’, though he was born as Arthur Orton in the East End of London. He emigrated to Australia in 1852 to start a new life. He had the photo taken after he noticed an advertisement placed by a missing persons agency in Sydney seeking the whereabouts of one Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to an English fortune, who had disappeared off the coast of Brazil 10 years before. The advert was placed by his mother, Dowager Lady Henriette Tichborne. Orton wrote to her informing her that he was her long lost son.
She requested “positive proof”, hence the photograph. The picture convinced Lady Tichborne that it was indeed her son. With her financial support, Orton sailed to Europe. Empowered by her money (which he enjoyed until she died around a year later), he launched an inheritance claim against the rest of the Tichborne family.
To try to settle the question of the claimant’s identity, the court ordered lawyers on both sides to travel to South America and Australia to gather testimony. They interviewed shepherds, cattle rustlers and female domestic servants. Some recognised the person in the Wagga photo as Tom Castro (Orton’s alias), and some did not. Their testimony was inconclusive.
Eventually the claimant failed to convince the jury that he was Sir Roger Tichborne, and his suit was denied. He was then tried for perjury in the Court of the Queen’s Bench. The jury’s verdict finally came down in March 1874: guilty. Orton was sentenced to 14 years hard labour – breaking stones in Dartmoor.
But his story does not end with his sentencing. The Tichborne claimant had become a popular symbol that generated a mass movement calling for his release. Admittedly it was a rather bizarre democratic campaign: a working class movement aimed at restoring a man to the aristocracy. Yet it became a rallying point, channelling grievances from a myriad of reform groups, and it sowed the seeds of political and social transformations that would bear fruit in the progress of organised labour, feminism, and a other urban, legal and democratic reforms.
This photograph makes us wonder: is photography a tool of empowerment, or of surveillance and control? Can it be used to establish truth from fiction? These questions are still with us today, and they were presented to us for the first time in an 1863 photograph of a slaughterman from Wagga Wagga.
Jennifer Tucker is associate professor of history and science in society at Wesleyan University, USA.
This episode of The Essay will air on Friday 20 February, and will soon be available on BBC iPlayer. To listen, click here.