Light Im­pres­sions

American Fine Art Magazine - - Contributors - By Jay E. Can­tor

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 pho­ 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.

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