Camera obscura

Design - Hugh Aldersey-Williams on cameras and their lies

The police no longer go about in horse-drawn black marias or blow silver whistles. Why, then, was it decided that the ideal symbol to be comprehended at speed to represent a camera would be the upright rectangular outline of a contraption of a similar vintage? None of the relevant agencies seem able to account for this iconographic curiosity, which usually appears with a secondary sign offering the explanatory caption, "Police speed cameras".

If it were not a recent innovation, or if there were a strong folk memory of what cameras used to look like - both of which apply in the case of the outline of a steam train which is still used to denote a level crossing - the logic would be clear. But cameras have changed, if more in outward appearance than in their hidden potential. It is exactly 100 years since Charles Eastman punctured the pretensions of the art of photography when he commissioned Frank Brownell to design the first cheap camera for his company, Kodak. The Box Brownie cost a dollar. It really was a box, too, a flat-sided black cube made of cardboard and wood. The cameras were "so simple, they can be easily operated by any school boy or girl", according to the advertisements. They were sold at a loss in order to boost sales of film - six exposures for 15 cents - which was where the company could make a profit.

The Kodak company went on to become one of the first clients of the new band of "industrial designers", former stage-set designers and advertising men who saw that American manufacturers could use some help in making their products more attractive. Walter Dorwin Teague created the Baby Brownie in 1934, its plastic casing impressed with vertical striations like the Rockefeller Center, and a little later a horizontally banded model, both clearly influenced by the streamlined architecture of Raymond Hood. Later, Polaroid cameras by Henry Dreyfuss offered all-American instant gratification. For the European market, Kenneth Grange of Pentagram designed the Instamatic cameras of the 1960s and 1970s.

The design of the cheapest cameras has always been distinguished by its rejection of the precision engineering aesthetic so important to the serious amateur. The trend continues today with the reprehensible "innovation" of disposable cameras, which have shed even the fake leather skin of the Box Brownie in exchange for boxes printed with garish colour graphics. The cardboard construction is no longer disguised, but is used to signify disposability - a hundred years ago, nobody would think of disposing of the camera after one use. The cameras now cost even less in relation to the price of film than they did in 1900.

C P Scott observed of television: "The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it." It is the same here: the Greek art of photography is executed with Latin apparatus, a camera. The etymological dislocation is not what matters. The classical roots of both terms betray the aspiration that its inventors had for their medium. Unlike television, photography was invented by its users. The first photographers wanted gallery exhibitions like those of watercolourists, and it was not long before photography began to be taught in art schools.

Yet, despite these pretensions, there has always been a sense that here is an art that anybody can try. The advent of the cheap camera enabled ordinary people to set about proving the case. The holiday snap was born. With a Kodak, you could return from holiday in Tahiti unashamed that you were no Gauguin. Professional photographers still suffer from art envy, of course. Did you notice, for example, how the photographer arranged the picture that appeared on many newspaper front pages of the penitent Jeffrey Archer, his wife and their pet in the cosy domestic interior of their Grantchester kitchen as a pastiche of Jan van Eyck's portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife?

The split is still more pronounced in the newer technologies used to produce moving images. A film is an artifice, but a home video is the apotheosis of naive art. The reason for the innocent results of casual photography is clear: they are achieved by not looking. Tourist photography has become a substitute for actually seeing the sights. This crucial difference begins to explain why popular photography is not art, and why, too, it approaches a simpler kind of truth. Indeed, our familiar experience of ingenuously recording what we see may be the principal reason why we still cling to the pathetic belief that the camera never lies. The video camera is still more easily believed to be the faithful recorder of events, freed as its operator is from the one decision that must still be made by the photographer - when to press the shutter and clamp an artificial frame around a scene.

This is now changing. Digital cameras and the computers required to manipulate the images they produce are still fairly expensive. When the prices fall, photography for all will be a matter of how good a liar you are. It is a short progression from Stalin ordering that Trotsky be erased from the photocall on Lenin's tomb to eliminating the mother-in-law or ex-boyfriend. When this happens, we will learn to doubt the veracity even of the images that our friends show us, and in turn we will know never to trust the images printed in the papers and on advertisement hoardings. These are the dying days of truth.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - Caprice