Telling Our Stories: Caveman to Kodak.


Over the years humankind has found many ways to share their stories with others. From the earliest times people told their stories around campfires, and drew them on the walls of caves. They developed language, and alphabets so they could write their stories down. They learned to paint and sculpt and create elaborate mosaics, all so they could share with those around them, and with future generations.

And while the formats may have changed, the desire to tell our stories has not. If anything, we have more and more ways to share, and easier, more instant channels for doing so. But by making our stories easier to share, are we diminishing their value? If a 12th Century letter took three weeks to arrive, carried by hand across the mountains, and over the seas, do those precious words, hard won and desperately longed for, hold more value than an email or a Facebook update? The obvious answer is "yes". Then again, an amazing photo is no less amazing because it was taken on an iPhone.

So perhaps an exploration of how we have shared our stories over the years will help us understand the importance of sharing to humanity, and how to ensure our stories don't lose their impact, now and in the future, simply because we have made them easier to tell.

Cave Paintings, Hieroglyphics and Sequential Art.

Before humankind knew how to write their stories, they drew them on cave walls using a series of images to tell their experiences. The sequence of the images would serve as a storytelling device - in much the same way that comic books still do today. These images began as rudimentary, and literal - cave paintings of men hunting animals literally represented men hunting animals - but over time these images became symbolic and more structured.

Ancient cave paintings.

In Egyptian hieroglyphics each symbol had a meaning, and when used with other symbols these sequences could tell more sophisticated stories. Although, rather than the simplicity of the cave painting, these symbols required a knowledge of their meanings to read them, adding a layer of complexity, and commencing the road towards an alphabet.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Sequential art also took the form of frieze engravings on Greek temples, telling the stories of the Gods frame by frame. While these were again literal depictions of scenes from the stories of the Gods, symbolism also began to play a role.

Bassar Frieze.

For example, the asclepius rod is is an ancient Greek symbol associated with astrology and with healing the sick through medicine. By including the rod in a piece of art, the artist is drawing on the understood meaning of the object to give his work more context.

Asclepius Rod.

Another, much later example of sequential art is the Bayeux Tapestry, a series of needlework tableaux depicting the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry is incidentally one of the strongest sources we have of the story of that battle, and the events that lead up to the fateful Norman Invasion.

The Bayeux Tapestry.

In a time where literacy was limited to nobility, sequential art (tapestries, murals on church walls, mosaics etc) were the strongest way of recording and communicating important stories.

Letters and Portraits.

In 1193 an 18 year old Danish princess, Ingeborg of Denmark, was sent to marry the King Philip of France. For reasons unknown (although rumoured to be the King's wedding night impotence), the day after marrying her he put her aside, claiming he had never consummated the marriage. Ingeborg disagreed and claimed they were rightfully married in the eyes of God. However, with no power in the marriage, she was locked away for many years, while she and her family appealed to the Pope to pressure the French king to acknowledge the marriage, and reinstate her as Queen.

Ingeborg of Denmark.

Although Ingeborg's letters were written nearly a thousand years ago, her words clearly evoke the conditions she is forced to live under, and the anguish of her story. In 1203 (after 10 years in captivity) she writes:

"My lord husband persecutes me, Philip the illustrious king of the French, who not only does not see me as his wife but, [desires] to burden my youth with the solitude of prison... You should know, holy father, that in our prison I have no comfort and I suffer innumerable and unbearable harms; for no one dares to visit me there except some religious person to console me, nor can I hear the word of God from any mouth to restore my soul, nor do I have the means to make confession to any priest; rarely can I hear mass, never other offices/the hours. Moreover no person or messenger from my native land is permitted to come or to speak with me, with or without letters. My food is given sometimes very scantily; I daily have the bread of tribulation and the drink of anguish, nothing medicinal for the needs of human frailty. I can have no one to counsel me about the health of my body, or to do what would be good for me. I am not permitted to enter a bath; I can not be bled if I wish it; I fear from my appearance that serious infirmities will develop. There is no supply of clothes, not such as would be suitable to a queen. My misery culminates in the quite base people who converse with me by royal will never speaking good words to me but afflicting me with insulting and injurious speech, though I have heard and know that when they depart from me they are sympathetic. But they give me no consolation and compel me to remain always sad. I am closed in such a house and can not leave it."

- Letter from Ingeborg to Pope Innocent III.

The fact that a story from so long ago can remain so vivid and potent is testament to the power of letters to tell our stories. For thousands of years this was the primary way for people to communicate, and their letters remain today as the key to hearing their long distant voices.

However, it was not simply through words that people communicated their stories. Portraiture also played an important role. Unlike the candid nature of a lot of digital photos from today, portraiture was not only carefully staged, it was also commissioned. Therefore, the artist paid to do the work was also paid to portray the person as they wanted to be seen, rather than as they actually looked. These portraits were often exchanged by diplomats when arranging royal marriages. As the young princes and princesses had often never seen one another, small portraits were carried and presented, along with letters of reference. Perhaps it was Ingeborg's misrepresentation in her portrait that also led to Philip casting her aside so suddenly after marrying her (or to his rumoured wedding night impotence).

We know that Henry VIII decided to marry Anne of Cleves upon viewing her portrait (by the great Hans Holbein), but annulled the marriage soon after the wedding saying, "She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported."

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein.

In spite of the possible inaccuracies, and obvious bias of the artist towards making their subjects look better than life (not unlike fashion photographers and "photoshoppers" today) until the advent of the photographs, portraits and first hand accounts in letters were the only means by which people could share themselves and their stories with those they did not see every day.

The First Photographs.

The oldest surviving photograph was taken by Nicephore Niepce in around 1826. In partnership with Louis Daguerre they continued to develop the technology - Daguerre taking over after Niepce's death. Over the next decades the "daguerrotype" photograph gained popularity in the emerging middle classes of the Industrial Revolution. As wealth began to be distributed to this burgeoning class, the demand for portraiture grew, with the oil painters unable to satisfy their needs. Photography became the solution. Although, much like painting, the portraits were often still posed, they bear a much greater likeness to the subject, and convey a far deeper and truer character.

These portraits remain today a captivating legacy of the Victorian and Edwardian period, and the lives of the people who posed for these photographs. A photograph from 1865 of prisoner Lewis Powell creates a haunting image of a handsome young man with a dramatic story. Casually laid back against the prison wall in wrist chains, his chiselled movie star looks are in contrast with his terrible crimes. An ex Confederate soldier, he was imprisoned for being involved in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln, and for the attempted murder of US Secretary of State William H. Seward with a knife. He was executed not long after this photograph was taken.

Lewis Powell, photograph by Alexander Gardner.

The instant nature of photographs, and the increased ability of the photographer to capture life as it is, as opposed to the selective and subjective reality of paintings, also allowed for a new type of storytelling to emerge - photojournalism. Photographers began capturing life on the everyday streets of their cities, telling the stories of ordinary people in their own environments.

The photographs of Horace Warner tell the vivid, fascinating yet heartbreaking stories of the children of Spitalsfields at the end of the Victorian era. Wearing rags, and with no shoes, their faces are still those of young children, but their eyes tell of a lifetime of struggle and the resourcefulness necessary to survive. These photographs were later used to highlight the struggles of the working class living in slums, and helped campaigners to better the conditions of those in the East End.

Children of Spitalsfields, by Horace Warner.

When Kodak invented the Box Brownie in 1900 (the first "snapshot" camera) the use of photographs to capture our lives, and tell our stories began to be adopted on a mass scale. The idea of "personal photos" was born, and has continued to be the primary means of chronicling our lives ever since.

The need to tell our stories is as old as humanity itself. Over thousands of years the way we tell those stories has changed with the development of new technologies, but no matter what form the story takes, at the heart of every letter, piece of art, and photograph, are still the voices of people who had stories they wanted to share with others.

by Lucy Watson

Lucy is Head of Marketing at albumworks, but also studied history at the Universities of Melbourne and Edinburgh.

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