Before photographers began tinkering around with their pictures – blurring the focus, lining up landscapes so that they looked like like nude female figures, or burning in dramatic skies – under the false impression that this made them look like art, photography was recognised for its peerless recording properties. Victorian civil engineers were quick to appreciate that it could provide almost perfect visual records of their projects, and began commissioning "record pictures". They saw that photographs could be much clearer, more detailed records than topographical drawings. Significantly, the first 50 years of photography was also a period of previously unsurpassed activity in British civil engineering, and the engineer's influence came at a key point in the history of the new medium.
By commissioning pictures of their sites, civil engineers actively encouraged a tradition of landscape photography whose hallmarks were compositional clarity, fine detail and an objective perspective. This approach has influenced the finest landscape photographers in the history of art. Carleton Watkins, celebrated for his 19th-century pictures of Yosemite and the Columbia River, took his first landscapes as record pictures of a silver mine, to be used to settle a court case. Contemporary artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, winners of the Erasmus Prize last year, did not find the inspiration for their photography from stylised photographic artists but the uncelebrated, largely anonymous ranks of industrial record photographers.
The civil engineers' commissions had a profound practical and philosophical impact on photography. Practically, it meant that record photographers were trained to make technically perfect, unambiguous pictures. Philosophically, these photographs are factual records rather than fanciful depiction.
Record pictures pre-empt the scope for exaggerated, personalised accounts by seeking as objective a viewpoint as possible. Rather than the viewer being given an interpretation to follow, in theory these pictures allow the spectator free rein; this is the difference between a stage-managed spectacle and an unconditional revelation.
Of course, nothing human is objective. However, the principle is not only that these pictures are unmanipulative but by giving the viewer greater freedom, the photographer – or artist – encourages them to explore the picture in a deeper, more uninhibited way. Is this not the realm of art?
Michael Collins is a photographer and curator. He will be delivering a lecture on photography of record at the Institution of Civil Engineers on 24 March.