'Photographs inform our personal, political, and economic choices' - Dr Jody Patterson

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What do you think has been the most revolutionary invention that changed the way we live? 

The Revolutions season brings together five top academics from the University of Plymouth to pitch their arguments for revolutionary inventions. Dr Jody Patterson makes the case for photography.

A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s often argued that complex ideas can be captured with just a single still image, or that a picture conveys meaning more effectively than any other form of communication.

A world without photographic images is nearly inconceivable in the 21st century. Since the invention of photography in the 1830s, the ability to capture a fleeting moment – to effectively stop time – has transformed how we engage with, remember, and understand the world. Modern societies are saturated with photographic images and they perform an extraordinary range of functions.

Photographs are not merely an aide-mémoire, or a democratically-accessible source of knowledge of people, things, and events distant in time and place. They are also a powerful driver of beliefs and behaviour within the capitalist West. From the dawn of the advertising era to the ubiquity of the ‘selfie’, photographs inform our personal, political, and economic choices.

But photographs are not simply transparent documents of what is ‘real’. If it’s commonly held that ‘seeing is believing’, then the revolutionary potential of photography is unprecedented. When considering photography and its relationship to ‘objectivity’ and ‘facts’, particularly where images are used as ‘evidence’, these associations call into question the nature of images being constructed, manipulated, and frequently taken out of context.

The photograph is perhaps unmatched in its capacity to reveal as much as it conceals.  

Dr Jody Patterson is Associate Professor and Programme Leader of Art History at Plymouth University. She has published her research on the politics of modernism and public art in a range of journals. Her book manuscript on modernist murals during the 1930s is forthcoming with Yale University Press. Dr Patterson is also the Director of the Wallflower Project, a public art programme that will see a diversity of monumental outdoor murals created in the South West.

Has photography captured your vote? Or will you be voting for paper, transistors, ultrasound scanning or semi-conductors? The cases have all been made, and you can join the big debate on Tuesday 6 February at The House. Follow the conversation online with #RevInventions.

'Revolutionary Inventions' season at Peninsula Arts

Recognising that the revolutionary theme not only speaks to political change, we asked our programmers and academic colleagues to think about revolution in terms of inventions – those life-changing, ingenious and innovative inventions that alter the course of history forever. Of course technological inventions do not happen in isolation, they are often linked to social and cultural shifts with one usually preceding the other. Our programme attempts to look at these cultural and technological connections.

It is also important to remember that inventions are just that – invented – they are constructs of human interactions and relations, borne out of questioning, observation, study and sometimes argument.

Animal Condensed by Jennet Thomas