The first major television history of the most influential art form in the world, this landmark series explores the key events and the key images that have marked the development of photography. At the heart of the series is a quest to understand what makes a truly great photograph. What is it that makes a photograph by Nan Goldin or Henri Cartier Bresson stand out among the millions of others taken by all of us every single day?
The Genius of Photography examines the evolution of photography in its wider context: social, political, economic, technological and artistic. It also brings a critical perspective and a strong aesthetic sense to the subject. Beginning with the earliest days of the photograph in the 1840s and ending with an examination of the state of photography today and the effect that the ‘digital revolution’ will have, the series challenges not only how we look at a photograph but what it is in a physical sense. It examines all the different genres of photography from landscape and portraiture to news and reportage. It also tells the great stories behind many of the world’s most iconic photographs and reveals the extraordinary characters — from Louis Daguerre and Cindy Sherman, Paul Strand and Robert Capa — who have made and defined this art form.
Telling the stories behind the world’s greatest photographs and photographers, the series takes us from the achievements of the first photographers to the acceptance of photography as a credible medium; from its adoption as an essential household possession to the impact and possibilities of the digital world.
And, with interviews with some of the world’s greatest living photographers including William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, William Klein, Martin Parr, Sally Mann, Robert Adams, Juergen Teller, Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall, it seeks to understand what makes a truly great photograph.
In six comprehensive episodes The Genius of Photography chronicles this magical, unpredictable and democratic medium that has transformed the way we see ourselves and our lives.
Winner of the Royal Television Society Arts Award 2007.
Wall to Wall Media Ltd Production for BBC
Part 1: Fixing the Shadows
Fixing the Shadows tells the story of the birth of photography itself and the profound question that it raised, and which has never been satisfactorily answered: what is photography for? Detailing the rival methods of the pioneers Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre for ‘fixing the shadows’ in 1839, the programme examines how photography took its place alongside other new technologies like the railway and telegraph, paving the way for the practical application of what had previously been an abstract idea.
It describes how pioneer photographers like the portraitist Nadar asserted the status of photography as an art only for this status to be transformed by the Kodak revolution, which put the camera into the hands of the masses who unlocked its potential for surreality, randomness and surprise. Finally it examines the case of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, the schoolboy photographer who demonstrated the true genius of photography in the hands of the amateur.
Includes interviews with Chuck Close and David Byrne.
Part 2: Documents for Artists
In the decades following the First World War, photography was the central medium of the age. “Anyone who fails to understand photography”, said the Hungarian artist and photographer Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, “will be one of the illiterates of the future”. Precise, objective, rational and apparently machine-like, it was used to promote the radical utopia of the Soviet Union and to bring order and clarity to the chaos of Weimar Germany.
But while some prized photography for its ability to objective documents others were using it to explore the irrational, the subjective and the surreal, photography’s natural language. The Genius of Photography – Documents for Artists examines in detail the work of some of the greatest and most influential modern photographers: Alexander Rodchenko, August Sander, Man Ray, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans and Bill Brandt.
With contributions from Martin Parr, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joel Meyerowitz and Mark Haworth-Booth.
Part 3: Right Time, Right Place
“Being in the right place at the right time”; “the decisive moment”; “getting in close” — in the popular imagination this is photography at its best, a medium that makes us eyewitnesses to the moments when history is made. But just how good is photography at making sense of what it records? Is getting in close always better than standing back, and just how decisive are the moments that photographers risk their necks to capture?
Set against the backdrop of the Second World War and its aftermath, The Genius of Photography – Right Place, Right Time examines how photographers dealt with dramatic and tragic events like D-Day, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and the questions their often extraordinary pictures raise about history as seen through the viewfinder.
With contributions from Magnum legends Philip Jones Griffiths and Susan Meiselas, soldier-lensman Tony Vaccaro, 9/11 photographer Joel Meyerowitz, and broadcaster Jon Snow.
Part 4: Paper Movies
The American photographer Garry Winogrand said that he took photographs to “see what the world looked like photographed”. Photographers have always had this as their mission statement, but the three decades from the late 1950’s onwards was the real golden age of the photographic journey.
The Genius of Photography – Paper Movies relives the journeys that produced some of the most acclaimed paper movies. The programme takes a fascinating look at Robert Frank’s odyssey through 50s America, William Klein’s grainy street dramas on the sidewalks of New York, Garry Winogrand’s charting of the human comedy in Central Park Zoo, Tony Ray Jones’s dissection eccentricity at the English seaside, and finally, William Eggleston’s guide to Memphis and the American South.
Episode four of the series also examines the arrival of colour as a credible medium for serious photographers, as controversial at the time as Dylan going electric.
Contributors include legendary photographers like William Klein, William Eggleston, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, Martin Parr and artist Ed Ruscha.
Part 5: We are Family
Having conquered the street and the road, photographers approached the final frontier: the family and the self. The Genius of Photography – We are Family is about what happens when photography translates personal relationships into photographic ones, when strangers, celebrities, lovers and children get fed to the camera. It’s also about what happens when photographers turn their cameras on themselves—what they choose to reveal, and just what they try to conceal.
The chronological heartland of the programme is the me decades of the 1970’s and the 1980’s. From Diane Arbus’s freaks to Richard Avedon’s confrontations with celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, from the confessional diaries of Larry Clark and Araki, to the uncomfortably intimate family portraits of Sally Mann and Richard Billingham, the series takes a photographic journey into some of the most intriguing ideas of the photographic self, including an unforgettable encounter as Nan Goldin photographs Joey the transsexual.
Part 6: Snap Judgements
The final programme, The Genius of Photography – Snap Judgements, asks what a photograph is worth these days. One answer is $2.9m, the record-breaking price achieved by an Edward Steichen print auctioned at Sotheby’s in February 2006. The other answer is around 1/29th billionth of that figure based on the calculation that some 29 billion photographs will be taken in 2006 by phone cameras alone, as well as the impact of digital post-production techniques that make anything possible, and the rediscovery of techniques which are taking photography back to the 19th century. Photography has never been so valuable and so ubiquitous.
From America to China and on to Africa, the programme examines how the business of being a photographer has been changed by the market’s sudden interest in what was once the poor relation of the art world.