Through the Lens: Photography in Focus

Today, June 29th is “National Camera Day”, a fitting time to explore the subject of photography in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB). This week, we welcome Christopher Brown, Archives Engagement Intern at the AAPB, currently pursuing a Masters in History with a focus in Archives. Christopher obtained his BA in Film and is an experienced photographer who would like to share a few programs from the AAPB collection related to photography.

Given the ubiquity of smartphones today, camera technology is readily available to practically everyone. From mundane selfies to fine art, photography is as varied as the individuals who create it. Social media tools such as Instagram allow us to share our lives as never before and pictures are taken today at a rate unthinkable even 20 years ago. From the earliest photograph, created in 1816 by Nicéphore Niépce, to today’s highly sophisticated digital cameras, the practice of photography has seen tremendous change; technologically, artistically, and culturally.

As a photographer and student of both History and Media, I found AAPB’s collection on the subject to be quite interesting. The programs we’ll be exploring today are just a few of the digitized programs contributed to the AAPB from public media organizations from across the country and available online at

It seems appropriate to begin with the history of photography. The series “Invented Here”, produced by WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, NY, aired an episode entitled, “Kodak, Kodachrome, and the Digital Revolution” in 1999. Exploring the substantial developments in photographic technology that occurred there, it begins with George Eastman, founder of the Kodak Company. Based in Rochester, Eastman was instrumental in bringing photography to the masses, transforming it from a complicated and expensive art form, available only to the wealthy, into something the average person could enjoy. Soon Eastman was making millions, due to innovations such as the compact “Brownie” camera and the first roll film, which eventually led to the creation of motion picture film. Kodak was also the first to create the first quality color stock (Kodachrome) and continued as a major player in the industry for the next century.

Kodak, Kodachrome, and the Digital Revolution (WXXI, 1999)

Along with technological changes, photography underwent artistic transformation in the early 20th century. Similar to developments in the fine art world, many photographers shifted focus from realism to abstraction. Others began exploring the emerging field of photojournalism and photography magazines. The advent of the handheld camera opened up a new world of spontaneity and flexibility, leading to the birth of the “snapshot”, and advancements in processing led to surreal and experimental images.

This artistic evolution is explored in an episode of the series “Spectrum Hawai’i”, hosted by Van Deren Coke, Director of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Providing a concise but detailed look at the subject, the piece was broadcast in 1984 on PBS Hawai’i.

Koreans in Hawai’i and Van Deren Coke Photography (PBS Hawai’i, 1984)

Like any other art form, photography has the capacity to shock and offend. One of the most famed and controversial photographers of the mid-20th century was Robert Mapplethorpe, whose artistic portraits offered a blunt and intimate look at humanity. His nudes and depictions of taboo subjects elicited both high praise and controversy during his career.

Mapplethorpe died in Boston in 1989 and the city showcased a controversial exhibit of his work the following year at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Broadcast on WGBH in 1990, Boston’s “Ten O’Clock News” aired footage of the crowd gathered outside the museum, with proponents celebrating the content as an exercise in free speech and protesters labeling it obscene. Overall, the event was a success and this footage displays the positive impact Mapplethorpe’s work had on attendees.

Viewers Opinions of Mapplethorpe (WGBH, 1990)

Photography also serves as a historical and cultural record, preserving moments in time otherwise lost to the ages. In 2006, Wyoming PBS aired a piece about local photographer Sarah Wiles, who spent many years with the Arapahoe tribe of the Wind River Indian Reservation. Beginning her time there as a social worker, she became beloved by the community and was treated like family, even honored with a Native American name. Wiles used her passion and talent for photography to capture their culture and individual lives in a genuine and deeply personal way.  The episode, part of the “Main Street, Wyoming” series, follows her work with the community and contains interviews with Wiles and members of the Arapahoe tribe.

Main Street, Wyoming (Wyoming PBS, 2006)

Innovations in the world of photography continue to evolve and the ease with which we record our lives will only increase. Pondering the advancements since George Eastman began his career in the 1880s, it is difficult to fathom how technology will unfold. Along those lines, we conclude with another look at the series, “Invented Here”, produced by Rochester’s WXXI. The episode begins with the story of Eastman and ends with an examination of modern photography as it was in 1999, when the digital transformation was just underway. Douglas Rea, professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology (a pioneer in digital camera technology), expressed insightful predictions about the future, though he would be astounded to see where we are today, 20 years later.

Kodak, Kodachrome, and the Digital Revolution (WXXI, 1999)

Written by Christopher Brown, Archives Engagement Intern 2019

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