Many photographic chemicals produced by American manufacturers and sold in Europe referred to their country of origin in the brand name, such as “Wolcott’s American Mixture,” a chemical solution that increased the light sensitivity of the daguerreotype plate. Greater sensitivity to light meant that pictures could be taken more rapidly, thereby improving the sharpness and definition of the image. Electroplating, which increased the brightness of the plate through the addition of extra silver layers, was described as “the American process.” The bitter irony is that chemical innovations in the United States would later contribute to the country’s own pollution problems.
Even though the American products and processes were well known, some critics held fast to the smog hypothesis. Not only was it a good excuse for the British photographers in an era of intense national competition, but the chemical failures of their daguerreotypes also looked uncannily like the dark clouds witnessed in London. Only a dozen years after the first public announcement of photography, people already believed that the medium should represent the world as they saw it.
This summer and fall, amateur photographers in California looked for technological tips to make their smartphone photos more accurately represent the smoke-obscured skies. Smartphones and other consumer-grade cameras offer a series of preset color temperatures: deep shade, open shade, bright sun, and fluorescent and tungsten lighting. Will your next phone include a setting for “wildfire sky” as it becomes a new reality, at least in the western United States? Seven of California’s 10 largest fires in recorded history have occurred within the past three years, five of them since August of this year.
In the 19th century, critics were so alert to the presence of air pollution that they erroneously thought it was affecting their photographs. But today, our cameras seem to deny that such anthropogenic weather even exists. A simple software fix could rectify that. Alongside all the other white-balance icons—pictures of the sun, a building in shade, and a lightbulb—wildfire sky could be represented by the burning of fossil fuels: smokestacks, airplanes, exhaust pipes, just so there’s no mistaking this tragic sight for an extraordinary one, as Monet did.
A smartphone camera is an aide-mémoire. Not only do we use it to record major events and milestones, but we snap thousands of pictures of What’s for dinner?, There’s my dog, Here are my feet, and reminders, such as Buy this brand of shampoo for me, please. Several months from now, when California is green and gorgeous again, the dusty-orange photos from this fall will show up in residents’ otherwise banal photo libraries.