It was the curved shape of the lens that led to its name being borrowed, in the late 17th century, from the Latin name of the lentil plant, lens culinaris. In French, another word for lens is objectif—suggesting truth and impartiality. While objectif had been used since the 17th century to describe the optical glass of scientific instruments like telescopes and microscopes, one of its earliest uses as a name for photographic optics was in Jules Verne’s 1874 novel The Mysterious Island. A group of Americans stranded in the South Pacific take a photograph of the horizon. One of the castaways, Herbert, discovers a speck on the photographic plate. While he first assumes the speck to be a defect in the lens, he realizes that the photograph reveals a ship on the horizon of their deserted island. Unfortunately for Herbert and the other castaways, they soon discover that the ship is crewed by dangerous pirates. The lens purports to show the world as it really is, but that’s also a goal it can never reach.
One lens in particular—the 50-mm lens—is often seen as the most objective of objectifs, and it is said to be the lens that best approximates human visual perspective. For example, the precision-lens manufacturer Zeiss states that its Planar 50-mm lens is “equal to the human eye.” Many artists have taken up 50-mm lenses to render ordinary, everyday experience. Yasujirō Ozu, whose films subtly depict the daily life of 1950s and 1960s Japan, used a 50-mm lens almost exclusively. The French humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson also used one. Underlying its popularity is a promise of shared perspective and common understanding.