Shutterbug. That’s me. Boxes and boxes of travel photos—souvenirs of meanderings across America and Europe, and slides, many of them of American art and architecture.while the slides are slowly being converted to digital images, what about all those photographs? Thousands of them which are never looked at.and suddenly, voila, a rapid-fire scanner entered my life. In a couple of days, they have all been converted although I have been warned that these digital images are already old technology and someday will all vanish. (I wonder, if this is true, if everyone’s digital images will suffer the same universal fate on the very same day.) I am about to transport the originals to the town dump, having deposited the resulting single flash drive in my pocket. (Caution has occasioned backup copies.) All of this has made me especially conscious of photography at the very moment that we are being treated to several exhibitions that explore the topic at various levels and help chart the course that saw it evolve from its early relationship with an established visual tradition into an independent creative medium. My journey of discovery began in the Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence—actually, an exhibition of that title at the Metropolitan Museum which explored the now familiar works of Barbizon, impressionist and early modern artists from the perspective of subject matter rather than style. The focus on landscape and flowers yielded a bouquet of masterworks, mostly from the Met’s collection. (You can visit it online at the museum’s website.)the great discovery was a few photographs made in the early years of that medium’s introduction.these were not the familiar daguerreotypes but rather salt prints, the simultaneously invented technology that laid the foundations for all future photographic developments prior to the digital revolution.pioneered bywilliam
Henry Foxtalbot in England, the salt print involved treating a fine quality paper with salt and silver nitrate to produce a paper negative from which a positive print could be made. Unlike the daguerreotype, which was a unique object, salt prints could be multiplied as well as manipulated with manual additions to the negative. The prints that stunned me were by Gustave Le Gray and Eugène Cuvelier. these images had an intense surface quality that was counterpointed by a magical image of the landscape that, like graphic prints, rewarded from close inspection. I soon discovered the technical reasons for the character and quality of these images, from at an exhibition and accompanying publication at the Yale Center for British Art, Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860.
As the earliest examples used uncoated papers, the image literally sank into the paper fibers, building dense blacks which assumed the texture of the paper surface. The rapid pace of technical developments not only changed the visual aspect of subsequent photography but also transformed the medium from the province of a pioneering generation of practitioners into a broad-based professional and amateur community.the function and purpose of photographic imagery evolved in the process. these early photographers focused on modern landscapes, ancient lands, architectural monuments and landscape vistas as well as figural images. their visual language, by and large, mirrored the tradition of representation in prints and paintings. The unique character of these pictures was particularly effective in close study of architecture, providing amazingly detailed images which, it has been suggested, due to the surface texture of the paper, rendered stone in an especially tactile way. The strong sunlight required to make these photographs would tend to wash out lighter objects and surfaces and these images seem to have been darkened in the printing process (sometimes assisted by further chemical treatment) which makes the shadow areas even darker. For me, they seem both hyperreal and inexplicably dense and stylized at the same time. The salt prints atyale set the subject range of much early photography, which, due to the long exposure time needed, tended to be of static images.and since this also could result in rather blotchy skies, that area was almost universally blacked out in the negative, producing a uniform tonal area which added to a frozen, timeless and nearly hermetic quality.
The accompanying publication is organized around themes: Beginnings, Modern Life, History and Epic, Portrait and Presence, thus reflecting much of the early and largely documentary nature of these pioneering images.
In these early days, the practitioners and the audience were limited, and the very novelty of the process was a part of its early appeal. Photography’s increasing public role as a documentary resource was greatly expanded with the growth of illustrated publications. Technical developments, from wet plate to dry plate, and coated paper stock that allowed faster exposure times as well as greater portability of equipment, yielded a wider range of subject matter. Salt prints became outmoded but the photographic medium and audience grew at an exponential rate. There were heated debates about the relationship between painting and photography in the decades after its introduction in 1839.There was some fear that it could replace painting entirely, especially for portraiture. The small scale and lack of color, however, did much to calm the anxiety of the artistic community. Some American artists dabbled in photography, as both an independent medium and an adjunct to their artistic practice, most notably Thomas Eakins and his students and associates. while optics and photography were logical adjuncts to the intense and penetrating focus of Eakins’s art, many of his pictures are in effect casual snapshots of the life around him and his family circle. His interest in photography belongs to the evolving investigation of its role in the journey toward becoming an independent artistic medium.
It was not surprising that another of the towering giants of 19th-century American painting, Winslow Homer, turned to photographic images early in his career as an illustrator for popular illustrated magazines in the middle years of the century. trained in the lithographic workshop, he left his apprenticeship and began a freelance career, which ultimately landed him on the scorched earth of Civil War battlefields. If he hadn’t known working photographers before, he likely had firsthand experience as they shared the same turf in documenting the impact of battle on the land and lives of soldiers.the longish exposure time made action shots impossible but the stark imagery they produced brought the terrors of the battlefield into sharp focus.
For his part, Homer tended to concentrate on camp life of the soldiers observed during the couple of weeks he was there. He accumulated studies and sketches a few of which he turned into multi-figure compositions reproduced as woodcuts in weekly magazines. More importantly, he was gathering material to be used when he launched his painting career in the following year.
Homer had utilized photographic portraits of Lincoln and other worthies in creating some of his illustrations but that appears to be the limit of his photographic
appropriation. building on that background, its own Homer collection, and the recent gift of a camera said to have belonged to the artist, Bowdoin College has assembled an exhibition, Winslow Homer and the Camera, which sets out to explore the possible impact of photography on the evolution of Homer’s art. Bowdoin is rich in both visual and archival resources aiding the study of Homer’s work. Much of the material was assembled by the artist’s family and ultimately donated in the 1960s. this collection provides some of the limited documentation that offers a window in the private life of this excessively private man. The current exhibition presents a tidy survey of Homer’s work in a variety of media, interspersed with photographic materials.the show traces the arc of his career through carefully chosen examples. While the exhibition posits that Homer utilized photography extensively throughout his career and that it informed novel ways of structuring his compositions, personally I cannot quite see the connection. Pinning a seminal role on photography does not truly account for his changing view of his own life and artistic practice, which included subjects that demanded a new manner of representation. During the period after Homer’s English sojourn in 1881 and 1882, he became more deeply immersed in the expressive practice of painting and image-making and moved increasingly away from a descriptive approach that was the heritage of his early career as an illustrator. He was, in fact, directly involved in the act of painting as a way of seeing, a very modern instinct. The limited detail in amateur photographs would not have served this agenda well. Homer had wide exposure to works of art and evolving artistic practice. His year in France in the late 1860s, at a time of great artistic ferment, must surely have introduced him to advanced painting theories. this was buttressed by the gift from his brother of Chevreul’s landmark study of color to which he referred regularly. this scientific study was broadly transformative for modern art and certainly deepened Homer’s thinking about the practice of painting. In New York, he resided in the Studio Building and was exposed to work by the coterie of artist residents. He was a regular participant in monthly exhibitions at the Century Association (showing several hundred works there) as well as participating in joint exhibitions at the National Academy of Design. He had regular gallery exhibitions and became a judge at the major international annual exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. These and many more influences served to help him chart a course for his art, no matter how internal his own probings and reclusive his instincts may have been.
I am pretty sure that he would have been surprised to be referred to as a photographer, something that Bowdoin has done with some regularity in the catalog of the exhibition. Had he felt that photography was an independent medium, and given his regular exhibition of his art, he might have availed himself of the increasing opportunities to exhibit photographic work. And he would likely have signed the images now attributed to him, yet none bear his initials or signature. It seems that photography, at best, was an ancillary interest for him, although the novelty of this very modern invention might well have attracted him.
There are, in fact, only anecdotal accounts of his buying or using cameras in England before bringing them home, although given the fact that at least one was manufactured by Mawson & Swan in Newcastle, a mere 10 miles from Cullercoats where he resided, it is entirely plausible. (In the Bowdoin collection, there is only one photograph that might have been taken with this camera.)
It is likely that Homer’s career-long practice of close observation served as the most solid foundation for his art as well as for his dramatic evolution. His focus also enhanced his strong visual memory. His pictorial compositions evolved over time and thus, while a detail in a photograph might have provided a motif, I suspect there was no sustained or profound influence. The process of taking pictures with a camera like the Mawson & Swan model given to Bowdoin was not an easy one.the image on the focusing screen was upside down, requiring some mental and visual
gymnastics to frame the composition. The exposed plate was then sent off for processing and printing and the finished photograph, as small as 3 by 4 inches in the case of this camera, would come back to the photographer.the resulting image might be too dark or light since judging actual exposure time in the available light was haphazard at best. For all but the dedicated camera enthusiast these procedures could be, at best, frustrating. This was, however, about to change with the development of a camera aimed at the amateur. Surviving photographs from the Homer collection at Bowdoin some of which are included in the exhibition are mostly snapshots, a format that made photography appealing to a broad section of the population.the camera was easily portable and did not require complicated focusing. It is not surprising to find such pictures in the hands of the artist’s family along with other pictures they had accumulated.the snapshots attributed to Homer were likely taken with a Kodak No. 1, introduced in 1889 and said to have been given to him by his brother shortly thereafter. This camera would come loaded with enough film for 100 pictures. The camera was returned to Kodak for processing and came back with pictures and pre-loaded with more film.
This camera produced small circular prints, approximately 2⅝ inches in diameter, and those represented by enlargements in the exhibition are quite conventional views and typical of what a tourist might bring home from the kinds of visits Homer made to Bermuda and Florida as well as his northern camping expeditions. And while the images may have a visual relationship with his painted compositions, he surely would have brought the same eye to these photos that he employed in his paintings rather than an influence flowing backward from the photos.as family members accompanied him on some of his journeys, there is the tantalizing prospect that there were other authors of the photos as well.
Homer did utilize professional photographs as a vehicle to promote and market his art, but the only actual reference to Homer’s access to a camera (no one ever recorded seeing him with camera in hand) is when he noted “Lent Walker the Photo machine.”
By the end of the 19th century, photography, both amateur and professional, had taken a dramatic turn. Photographers initially tended to compose their images as though they were paintings. Conventional image-making was the tradition but as the materials of photography evolved, and sophisticated printing techniques emerged, photographers began to explore a kind of imagery that was unique to the camera. The journey toward developing photography as an independent artistic medium led to the innovation of Pictorial Photography, where the photographer manipulates the image beyond the mere reproduction of a scene or subject, often involving soft-focus images and the modulation of both light and color effects. Clarence White, an early exponent of this strategy is the subject of the exhibition Clarence H. White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895-1925 at the Portland Museum of Art. While the camera’s eye had been touted as provided an objective rendering of the visible world (Röntgen discovered the X-ray in 1895) there was an increasing enthusiasm for a more personal approach which utilized the capabilities of both the camera and the darkroom in creating subjective images. White was an amateur photographer from a small town in Ohio. He began his photographic activities after encountering exhibitions at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.Without any actual training he soon was making photographs that attracted local and then national attention. Photography clubs, exhibitions and photographic journals were proliferating around the country and through these he developed a reputation that led to his affiliation with Alfred Stieglitz and to his charter membership in the Photo-secession created by Stieglitz in 1902.
White’s work and career are fully explored in the Portland show, which originated at Princeton University Art Museum. The poetics of vision through the camera lens and the creation of highly emotive and often soft-focus imagery were fundamentals of this photographic form. Its relation to contemporary painting is underscored by the inclusion of dreamlike paintings by Thomas Dewing, Leon Dabo and Arthur Wesley Dow as well as larger scale paintings of women by John White Alexander and Edmund Tarbell, which clearly establish a shared artistic ethos. What these comparisons also make clear is how the intimate scale of a photograph can conjure not only a ethereal landscape but a highly personal world, a world of reverie and meditation. these are achieved through the subtle tonal qualities of a photograph as it assumes its role as an object of contemplation. In his earlier appreciation of White, Peter Bunnell noted: “in his finest pictures the disposition of every element, of each line and shape, is elevated to an expressive intensity few photographers managed to attain... White was able to transform the sensory perception of light into an exposition of the most fundamental aspect of photography—the literal materialization of form through light itself.”
Charles Clifford (1819-1863), Valladolid-iglesia de San Pablo, 1854. Salted paper print from glass plate negative. Courtesy the Wilson Centre for Photography.
David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) and Robert Adamson (1821-1848), Mrs. Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall, Newhaven Fishwife, ca. 1843-45. Courtesy the Wilson Centre for Photography.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910), attrib., Cliff at Prout’s Neck. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Bowdoin has attributed this photograph to Homer largely on the basis of its size and type.
Clarence H. White (1871-1925), Drops of Rain, 1902. Platinum print. Princeton University Art Museum. The Clarence H. White Collection, assembled and organized by Professor Clarence H. White Jr., and given in memory of Lewis F. White, Dr. Maynard P. White Sr., and Clarence H. White Jr., the sons of Clarence H. White Sr. and Jane Felix White.