Shelves: photography , nonfiction This book was full of striking, impressive, or otherwise important photographs accompanied by a few paragraphs about why each photograph was selected to represent both the history of photography and the overall collection at the Museum of Modern Art. The included photos are inarguably important ones, and the paragraphs do a good job of placing them in historical and artistic context while remaining brief introductions, leaving the focus on the images themselves. I will say that the accompanying This book was full of striking, impressive, or otherwise important photographs accompanied by a few paragraphs about why each photograph was selected to represent both the history of photography and the overall collection at the Museum of Modern Art. I will say that the accompanying text is stronger at the beginning, which might be because the earlier photos have a proven importance or impact. As the photos near the current day although the latest photo in the book was taken in the late 60s, which is far from contemporary the explanations about their significance are often more convoluted or technical and, for me, less persuasive.
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It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work. The difference was a basic one. It was soon demonstrated that an answer would not be found by those who loved too much the old forms, for in large part the photographer was bereft of the old artistic traditions.
The photographer must find new ways to make his meaning clear. There have been many of the latter sort. Those who invented photography were scientists and painters, but its professional practitioners were a very different lot. He had subsequently travelled as a peddler of cologne water and other essences. He had studied and practiced dentistry. Still more recently he had been a public lecturer on mesmerism, for which science he had very remarkable endowments.
His present phase as a daguerreotypist was of no more importance in his own view, nor likely to be more permanent, than any of the preceding ones. If photography was a new artistic problem, such men had the advantage of having nothing to unlearn.
Among them they produced a flood of images. In the new york daily tribune estimated that three million daguerreotypes were being produced that year. But whether produced by art or by luck, each picture was part of a massive assault on our traditional habits of seeing.
By the latter decades of the nineteenth century the professionals and the serious amateurs were joined by an even larger host of casual snapshooters. By the early eighties the dry plate, which could be purchased ready-to-use, had replaced the refractory and messy wet plate process, which demanded that the plate be prepared just before exposure and processed before its emulsion had dried.
The dry plate spawned the hand camera and the snapshot. Photography had become easy. In an English writer complained that the new situation had "created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic?
They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases "4 These pictures, taken by the thousands by journeyman worker and Sunday hobbyist, were unlike any pictures before them.
The variety of their imagery was prodigious. Each subtle variation in viewpoint or light, each passing moment, each change in the tonality of the print, created a new picture.
The trained artist could draw a head or a hand from a dozen perspectives. The photographer discovered that the gestures of a hand were infinitely various, and that the wall of a building in the sun was never twice the same. Most of this deluge of pictures seemed formless and accidental, but some achieved coherence, even in their strangeness. Some of the new images were memorable, and seemed significant beyond their limited intention.
While they were remembered they survived, like organisms, to reproduce and evolve. But it was not only the way that photography described things that was new; it was also the things it chose to describe.
Photographers shot " objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people. And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.
By the end of the century, for the first time in history, even the poor man knew what his ancestors had looked like. Whether his concern was commercial or artistic, his tradition was formed by all the photographs that had impressed themselves upon his consciousness. The pictures reproduced in this book were made over almost a century and a quarter. They were made for various reasons, by men of different concerns and varying talent.
They have in fact little in common except their success, and a shared vocabulary: these pictures are unmistakably photographs. The vision they share belongs to no school or aesthetic theory, but to photography itself.
Five such issues are considered below. As such, it is hoped that they may contribute to the formulation of a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography. The Thing Itself The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it; unless he did, photography would defeat him.
He learned that the world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness, and that to recognize its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple. But he learned also that the factuality of his pictures, no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself. Much of the reality was filtered out in the static little black and white image, and some of it was exhibited with an unnatural clarity, an exaggerated importance.
The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so. This was an artistic problem, not a scientific one, but the public believed that the photograph could not lie, and it was easier for the photographer if he believed it too, or pretended to.
Thus he was likely to claim that what our eyes saw was an illusion, and what the camera saw was the truth. The sun, as you see, tells quite another story, and will not be coaxed out of it, after half a dozen patient attempts on my part. Here we have a man, sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and withal, cold as ice"5 In a sense Holgrave was right in giving more credence to the camera image than to his own eyes, for the image would survive the subject, and become the remembered reality.
William M. Ivins, Jr. The photographer could not assemble these clues into a coherent narrative, he could only isolate the fragment, document it, and by so doing claim for it some special significance, a meaning which went beyond simple description. The compelling clarity with which a photograph recorded the trivial suggested that the subject had never before been properly seen, that it was in fact perhaps not trivial, but filled with undiscovered meaning.
If photographs could not be read as stories, they could be read as symbols. The decline of narrative painting in the past century has been ascribed in large part to the rise of photography, which "relieved" the painter of the necessity of story telling.
This is curious, since photography has never been successful at narrative. It has in fact seldom attempted it. The elaborate nineteenth century montages of Robinson and Rejlander, laboriously pieced together from several posed negatives, attempted to tell stories, but these works were recognized in their own time as pretentious failures In the early days of the picture magazines the attempt was made to achieve narrative through photographic sequences, but the superficial coherence of these stories was generally achieved at the expense of photographic discovery.
The heroic documentation of the American Civil War by the Brady group, and the incomparably larger photographic record of the Second World War, have this in common: neither explained, without extensive captioning, what was happening. The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real. The edges of his film demarcated what he thought most important, but the subject he had shot was something else; it had extended in four directions.
Since enlarging was generally impractical the photographer could not change his mind in the darkroom, and decide to use only a fragment of his picture, without reducing its size accordingly. If he had purchased an eight by ten inch plate or worse, prepared it , had carried it as part of his back-bending load, and had processed it, he was not likely to settle for a picture half that size. A sense of simple economy was enough to make the photographer try to fill the picture to its edges.
The edges of the picture were seldom neat. Parts of figures or buildings or features of landscape were truncated, leaving a shape belonging not to the subject, but if the picture was a good one to the balance, the propriety, of the image.
To what degree this awareness came from photography, and to what degree from oriental art, is still open to study. However, it is possible that the prevalence of the photographic image helped prepare the ground for an appreciation of the Japanese print, and also that the compositional attitudes of these prints owed much to habits of seeing which stemmed from the scroll tradition.
Time There is in fact no such thing as an instantaneous photograph. All photographs are time exposures of shorter or longer duration, and each describes a discrete parcel of time. This time is always the present. Uniquely in the history of pictures, a photograph describes only that period of time in which it was made. Photography alludes to the past and the future only in so far as they exist in the present, the past through its surviving relics, the future through prophecy visible in the present.
In the days of slow films and slow lenses, photographs described a time segment of several seconds or more. If the subject moved, images resulted that had never been seen before: dogs with two heads and a sheaf of tails, faces without features, transparent men, spreading their diluted substance half across the plate.
The fact that these pictures were considered at best as partial failures is less interesting than the fact that they were produced in quantity; they were familiar to all photographers and to all customers who had posed with squirming babies for family portraits. It is surprising that the prevalence of these radical images has not been of interest to art historians.
As photographic materials were made more sensitive, and lenses and shutters faster photography turned to the exploration of rapidly moving subjects. Just as the eye is incapable of registering the single frames of a motion picture projected on the screen at the rate of twenty-four per second, so is it incapable of following the positions of a rapidly moving subject in life.
The galloping horse is the classic example. As lovingly drawn countless thousands of times by Greeks and Egyptians and Persians and Chinese, and down through all the battle scenes and sporting prints of Christendom the horse ran with four feet extended, like a fugitive from a carousel.
Not till Muybridge successfully photographed a galloping horse in was the convention broken. Immobilizing these thin slices of time has been a source of continuing fascination for the photographer. And while pursuing this experiment he discovered something else: he discovered that there was a pleasure and a beauty in this fragmenting of time that had little to do with what was happening.
It had to do rather with seeing the momentary patterning of lines and shapes that had been previously concealed within the flux of movement. Cartier-Bresson defined his commitment to this new beauty with the phrase The decisive moment, but the phrase has been misunderstood; the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story but a picture. Vantage Point Much has been said about the clarity of photography, but little has been said about its obscurity.
And yet it is photography that has taught us to see from the unexpected vantage point, and has shown us pictures that give the sense of the scene, while withholding its narrative meaning. Ivins wrote with rare perception of the effect that such pictures had on nineteenth-century eyes: "At first the public had talked a great deal about what it called photographic distortion [But] it was not long before men began to think photographically, and thus to see for themselves things that it had previously taken the photograph to reveal to their astonished and protesting eyes.
Just as nature had once imitated art, so now it began to imitate the picture made by the camera. It is, strangely, easier to forget that photography has also influenced photographers. An artist is a man who seeks new structures in which to order and simplify his sense of the reality of life.
For the artist photographer, much of his sense of reality where his picture starts and much of his sense of craft or structure where his picture is completed are anonymous and untraceable gifts from photography itself.
The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear and consecutive but centrifugal. Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness.
At-Home Art and Photography Available Through Two New Books
It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work. The difference was a basic one. It was soon demonstrated that an answer would not be found by those who loved too much the old forms, for in large part the photographer was bereft of the old artistic traditions. The photographer must find new ways to make his meaning clear. There have been many of the latter sort. Those who invented photography were scientists and painters, but its professional practitioners were a very different lot. He had subsequently travelled as a peddler of cologne water and other essences.
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