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The Five Photographs That (You Didn't Know) Changed Everything

De Montfort University expertise has helped to curate a series of thought-provoking sound essays about powerful images that altered the way we look at the world, broadcast on Radio 3.

The Five Photographs That (You Didn’t Know) Changed Everything series, transmitted nightly over the course of a week, focuses on five discrete subjects, ranging from the mundane to the cosmic, each of which holds deeper significance than first appearances suggest.

Series editor Professor Elizabeth Edwards, of the Photographic History Research Centre at DMU, said: “What if we redefine what we mean by ‘important’ photograph?

“The series of short essays aims to show how apparently unremarkable photographs changed the way people could think about their world, and experience their world, whether it was the place of their planet in the galaxy, their relationship with the past, the spaces in which they lived or the visualisation of the body’s interior.

“Starting from the idea that things are at their most influential when they are unnoticed, the essays each take their starting point from a photograph which has activated networks that changed the way the world was understood, and which continue to resonate today.”

The photographs are:

1. A woman’s left hand.

The photograph of Anna Bertha Ludwig Rontgens left hand taken in 1896 astounded the scientific world and alarmed the public. For the scientists it signalled the beginning of medical radiography. For the public it gave rise to fears about intrusion… Kelley Wilder Reader in Photographic History at DMU, explains how X-ray photography changed the world. You can listen here.


2. Draper’s Nebula.

Today high-resolution photographs of nebulae or galaxies saturate our culture to such an extent that they are almost kitsch. But when Henry Draper took the very first pictures of a nebula in 1880 it was one of the greatest achievements of photography, as Omar Nasim, lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent, explains. You can listen here.


3. The Dogon.

The birds-eye photograph of the Dogon tribe, working their fields in Mali, revealed the patterns and secrets of the lives of its inhabitants - patterns which could teach Western city planners and architects how to build a happier society, as explained by Jeanne Haffner, lecturer in the Department of History and Science at Harvard University.You can listen here.


4. The Broom cottages.

DMU’s Elizabeth Edwards on the photograph, taken by W. Jerome Harrison, that launched a scheme for recording the country’s past in which amateur photographers up and down the land were the key players – and forerunners of Wiki-buildings and English Heritage, Prof Edwards argues that the mass participation of people  in defining what matters about the past began with Harrison, and changed the way in which a nation viewed itself. You can listen here.


5. The Tichborne claimant.

In 1866 a butcher sat for his photograph in the remote town of Wagga Wagga, Australia. Three years later this likeness had Britain transfixed. Jennifer Tucker, Associate Professor of History and Science in Society at Wesleyan University, USA, explains how and why. You can listen here.