Friday, April 15, 2016

Modernity began with 1870s reaction to a Canadian-owned NYC newspaper half-tone

Traditional emphasis on Victorian Era globalization and modernization always focuses on speed - faster travel of things & beings having weight and faster communication of immaterial things : images & ideas.

I think this is totally wrong - it was the shock of the totally new, not merely the faster old, that marked this disruptive process of modernization - and led to the counter-reaction we know as Modernity.

For thousands of years, all manner of people had travelled abroad and then reported back their observations -- in speech, text, drawings & paintings.

Even if they now travelled back from NYC to Southampton in mere days not weeks, this is of no real consequences for ongoing stories - which most news stories usually are.

After all, American southern whites regularly lynching Negroes was an ongoing story for over 100 years - can another account really matter if it is delivered to readers in mid-January 1912 rather than six weeks later in early-March 1912 ?

I argue not.

Instead it was three inventions grouped around photography that was what was shockingly new : photography itself, the halftone newspaper photo and the silent motion picture.

(The latter two - by strange but true coincidence - arriving onto the global  consciousness in the same year, 1895.)

Even if the penny stamp and the telegraph, together with the steam railway, steam ship and steam printing press, hadn't been invented in the 19th century, the photography revolution would still have overthrown the old known certain world.

Because, put simply, mass travel abroad still doesn't exist.

Most poor people in poorer countries have never gone abroad and even most people in richer countries have merely gone to a small foreign resort where they spent a week or two among their own kind in a semi-gated community ---getting to know  Mexico's sunshine very well -  but not its people or its culture.

Even today, even among the rich, we rely on secondhand accounts &  firsthand images to supply us with our mental picture of at least 99% of the world's land and water surface.

(How many billionaires have ever been to the South Pole or the Gaza Strip ?)

Written & verbal & hand drawn/painted accounts are always filtered : secondhand.

We know photos and films can lie but no where as easily as can these others.

Foreign audio isn't at all helpful : foreign languages are what makes other people foreign.

But even a silent black and white motion film of two people fooling around from over 120 years ago remains fully readable today via body language - and readable by both children and illiterates.

But details, as opposed to impossible to fake body language, are still best read off a high resolution/large format still photo in a newspaper , magazine or book.

Not only is the image way way way sharper than an image caught on a half frame of 35mm motion film shoot at a very slow shutter speed, it remains on the page forever, to be carefully studied, not seen but once & fleetingly on a distant screen.

I argue it was the invention of the practical periodical halftone screening process (by two Montrealers incidentally) that made mass market newspapers worth buying --- their own unique sell.

It took a fair bit longer to have routine halftones work well on cheap coarse porous newsprint than on the expensive hard smooth coated stock used in magazine and book halftones, but it eventually got 'good enough'.

Previously, one could wait for a wealthier newspaper-buying neighbour to tell a friend who tells friend, until it reached you, that the Tsar had been shot.

But actually seeing the fallen Tsar's body and his bloodied killer led away in chains - to actually see them - that was well worthy buying a paper for !

I believe it was the arrival of mass market halftone photos that were cheap, plentiful and accurate, that made the still-distant foreign and the new seem real enough and close enough to rouse defensive primeval fears that lay behind the surface aggression of Modernity.....

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