A new BBC series of five programmes on photography sets out to show how a single image changed the world. Those pictures are not artworks, and nor were they made for newspapers. They are pictures of influence, not illustrations of influence sited elsewhere.

To get the counterintuitive aspect out of the way: these programmes will not air on television but on Radio 3. That isn’t second-best. Radio is a great place to discuss photographs — particularly now that many listeners can view the works online even while listening.

Five stories, then, each centred on a photograph. As a story, the best is the last: Jennifer Tucker’s account of the trials known together as the case of the Tichborne Claimant. In the early 1870s, Arthur Orton, an English stockman and butcher living in Australia, impersonated a lost baronet called Roger Tichborne to claim an inheritance. The case became a cause-célèbre about class. Was it possible that a gentleman could shed all the “natural” qualities of his tribe to become an ungentlemanly roughneck in Wagga Wagga? Souvenir photographs of the Claimant helped to make him a working-class hero but he was eventually found guilty and jailed.

The case opened a number of questions about photography. What exactly was a likeness? Was a portrait a tool of empowerment, or one of social control and surveillance? These questions have not gone away. The great polymath Sir Francis Galton, inventor of the weather map, was much affected by the case, and his work on composite portraiture to some extent derives from it. The Court of Chancery, pilloried by Dickens for its abuses, was abolished in the wake of the case.

This is good history and good fun. The story moves easily through the gears, from the small photograph to large consequences.

Kelley Wilder gives a virtuoso account of the X-ray, launching off from the first example, a simple picture of the hand (with a ringed finger) of Anna Bertha, wife of Wilhelm Röntgen. From the tiresome routines of airport security, now so familiar to all, Wilder takes us back to a time in 1895 when the question “What is light?” implied a potentially enormous expansion of knowledge into the invisible.

Wilder has fun with some of the more ludicrous uses of X-rays. Radioactive materials were marketed as depilatories until the 1930s, for example, and Wilder herself recalls a shoe-fitting system used by Woolworths in the 1960s called the fluoroscope. Thomas Edison gave up working with X-rays after losing an assistant to skin cancer and suffering damage to his own sight. Wilder even glances at the schoolboy potential of X-rays for prurient voyeurism in the 1963 film X: The Man With X-ray Eyes, starry Ray Milland.

I thoroughly enjoyed Jeanne Haffner’s account of how the use of aerial photographs of the Dogon people in Mali by the French Africanist Marcel Griaule in the 1930s spread through the social sciences. The idea is that the checkerboard patterns of Dogon agriculture revealed the symbolic and personal engagement of the individual within the community, an understanding that led to the gradual insistence on human-scale and accessible design that we see now in such things as pedestrianisation, cycleways, and the huge unplanned Maidan that now stands as a people-friendly park on the site of the old Tempelhof airport in Berlin. However, it does seem a heavyweight of European thought to hang on a single photograph.

Elizabeth Edwards gives a much more tightly controlled account of an equally expansive story: how photography has become the standard route into the vernacular past. Her starting point is the work of William Jerome Harrison, a Midlands schoolmaster who at the very end of the 19th century planned to enlist amateurs in mass participation projects to record the buildings, customs and types of their localities.

In the age of the mobile phone it takes quite an effort to go back to a time when cameras were only just becoming common enough for ordinary people to have access to them. The idea that those ordinary people might through the camera have some say in what was worth preserving was radical. Edwards makes a claim that photography lies at the very heart of the way social history has become the dominant historical mode. In France the key might have been the formal proceedings of the Annales school from the 1920s on; in Britain at the turn of the century, the tendency was already established as a kind of vernacular and popular engagement with history.

The weakest episode in the series is by a Canadian astronomer called Omar Nasim in which the proportions of awe and analysis are not well judged. Nasim essentially takes a lot of words to tell us how amazing the heavens are, and hangs that on a couple of photographs.

Overall, this series is utterly welcome and will grow very nicely, though it would have been good to have had voices that were not so constrained by the tight and formal delivery of the academic paper. Gradually, through quite modest but fascinating programmes such as these, photography will come to be seen in public as the touchstone subject of interest that it is.

Until February 20, bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052z84r

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