L. Fritz Magazine, No. 4, 2018

What if photography had never been invented? An essay by Klaus Honnef

What if German paratroopers in the Second World War had captured British Prime Minister Winston Churchill? Would global history have run a different course? This never was the plan, but the thought inspired British author Jack Higgins to write the successful novel “The Eagle Has Landed” in 1975 and, one year later, John Sturges to make an exciting adventure film that is often repeated on television. “What if…” is science fiction in reverse. Not speculation about the future, but a potential, though never-accomplished change of course in the past. Nothing but game-playing? The intriguing question keeps even serious historians busy. What would the world look like if Nazi Germany had prevailed in the Second World War? Most refuse even to think about it.

What if the likes of Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, along with a few others, had not invented photography in the first half of the 19th century? A world without photography. Hard to imagine. Would it be a different world? A better one, a worse one? Would we know less about the world and its past since the 1840s if the French state had not purchased the patent for the photographic method and transferred it to the public for free disposal? – Less about ourselves and our ancestors, about foreign peoples, countries and their culture? About the macro and micro-cosmos that photographic images have opened up? Pure speculation. Certainly, the rhinoceros carved in wood by Albrecht Dürer based on an eyewitness’s sketch is only similar to a real one. Compared with this animal’s actual appearance, his counterfeit is not correct. On the other hand: Is correct rendering in two-dimensional design in fact realizable, be it with the pen or by photographic means? With the aid of the computer and virtual reality, absolutely.

The world has changed profoundly since the early modern era – entirely without the influence of photography. The graphic representations of exotic animals and plants in the 19th century turned out considerably more accurate than the photographic depictions. Maximum objectivity was the aim, a new category of natural sciences at that time. It was only temporarily the preserve of photography. Likewise, there would be no shortage of portrayals of crimes and horrors that are as brutal as can be if photography did not exist. Particularly as plentiful use of the imagination was made back then, meaning that pictures became powerfully inflated in people’s mind as well.

What perhaps would be non-existent is the oft-conjured flood of images. Really?  […]


[…] the much-conjured “flood of images” would have set in with a delay. It is true that, for a long time, photographic images were believed to be authentic or astonishingly lifelike, as they were felt to be at photography’s début; in particular, they were regarded as being more accurate than the fleeting human gaze. Today, though, one is aware and can see that particular interests guide cameras’ gazes. In these, the social components outweigh the subjective, with the result that present-day attention is turned more on the regime of gazes and less on what images show. Many reveal themselves to the subsequent gaze as condescending, colonialist, chauvinist and racist. The gaze at things is as insightful as the things themselves.

At the same time, visually speaking, photography has lent form and expression to the modern age’s fleeting gaze, which fragmented the world of things and tore it out of familiar contexts. Having said that, initially, technical and socio-cultural reasons compelled it to copy, using its own means, what drawn and painted pictures showed too. Notwithstanding this, it has had a longer-lasting influence on the collective gaze than all visual models before it. This is because it is the medium which, at the moment when the principles of individualism began to assert themselves after the fall of the feudal world order in West and East, represented the state of the art. An image machine acting on its own authority, apparently emotionless, a visual equivalent of the human’s optical perception and, ultimately, an instrument of self-determined image production for all motifs that, just a few decades before, were not even worth picturing and functioned, at best, as mere decoration in the world of images.

All the same, contrary to Walter Benjamin’s well-known claim, photography has aestheticized reality in the long run and equipped the past with a compelling aura. Presumably, in photography’s absence, what has been destroyed would not have been reconstructed – frequently based on photographic images – to such an extravagant degree. […]


Step onto the treacherous ice of speculation, and you risk a fall. In the light of this awareness I venture the hypothesis that the world, if photography had never existed, would be perceived with other gazes – filtered through a different perceptual apparatus; without the cleft between seeing and seen. […]


More L. Fritz No. 4 to follow