Television and billboards
Living in the twenty-first century, a world with few or no images is difficult for us to imagine. We are constantly exposed to pictures in books, magazines, and newspapers, on television and billboards, and on the wall of our homes and workplaces. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the ordinary person encountered visual images infrequently. The first revolution in this matter came with the introduction of the photographic process in the 1830s. This essay will present the history of photography from 1837-1990.
The main purpose of this paper is to present the pivotal photographs of the history of photography and the reason they were considered revolutionary in the art world. Americans loved mechanical gadgets, and once the camera was introduced, within three decades – from 1837 to 1870 – the popularity of the photographic image was immense. In this early period, the portrait was the most popular of photographic images, although genre subjects, city views and landscapes were photographed as well. The forthright realism of the early daguerreotype was acceptable for portraiture at all level of American society.
John Quincy Adams, for example, although mystified by the process, posed frequently. The full-length portrait of him by Philip Haas (Fig. 1)
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This simplified and less expensive process and other technical advancements made it possible for photographers to move outside their studios and take pictures of the city and the landscapes. Probably the best known photographer of this period was Mathew B. Brady. He is often referred to as Mr. Lincoln’s Cameraman. While he photographed Lincoln many times, he never caught the essence of his subject as splendidly as in the portrait shown in Figure 2. Lincoln’s gravity, his craggy, lined, tired face his solemn pensiveness, and rumpled attire – all are given with the visual realism for which the photograph became so famous.
Figure 2 Mathew B. Brady Abraham Lincoln, c. 1863 Photograph Library of Congress By 1970, photography had become a proven medium for documentation, with capabilities for powerful expressiveness. Photography brought portraiture within the grasp of the common man and woman, it turned its eyes upon level of society that had seldom before been depicted, it recorded facts dispassionately, but often most perceptively, and with realism that fascinated. It made graphic illustration an integral part of journalism.
With the end of the Civil War, the nation turned to developing its enormous potential. Photographers documented enormous energy and accomplishments of this time. People wanted pictures of the new lands. Among the best known photographers who went west, in 1860s and early 1870s, was William Henry Jackson. Jackson was invited to join expedition to the west. The resulting series of images – towering mountains, sweeping valleys, and streaming hot springs – so completely captured the imagination of the nation that they induced Congress to create the first national park – Yellowstone.
One of such pictures was The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Fig. 3). To do justice to the scale and sublime grandeur of his subject matter while photographing the Rocky Mountains, Jackson used a large-size glass plate. The fact that the extremely fragile plates had to be transported about in such regions did not fail to impress Americans generally. Figure 3 William Henry Jackson. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1871 Photograph Library of Congress Portraiture remained one of the primary areas of photography. Napoleon Sarony was the leading portraitist in New York in the mid-1870s.
Typical of Sarony’s work is the melodramatic portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (Fig. 4). The celebrated French actress was at the height of her fame when she arrived in the USA. Her portrayal had captivated American audiences and Sarony photographed her as Camille in her dying swoon, capturing the theatricality of this highly emotional moment. Figure 4 Napoleon Sarony Sarah Bernhardt, c. 1880 Photograph International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York A very different picture of America was presented by the photographer Jacob Riis.
He usually worked in the tenement slums and unsavory hideous of the city, where people lived without daylight, ventilation or sanitation, where filth disease and hopelessness complete the human degradation. Riis’ pictures like In Poverty Gap: An English Coal-Heaver’s Home (Fig. 5) documented the wretched conditions of the working poor with such realism that when they were seen by the public, a reform movement followed. Riis considered that to be the sole purpose of his photography, and never thought of it as being related to art.
As a direct result of Riis’ photographs the public social conscience was awakened to the urgent necessity for reform. As the new century opened, photography, for all its popularity, however, was still not considered to be an art-form. In the twentieth century this situation changed. Many photographers of the early twentieth century were painters and photographers at the same time. Thus Edward J. Steichen worked as a professional photographer though attempted to work the painterly effects of his canvases into his photographs as seen in The Flatiron (Fig. 6).
One is reminded of the dramatic play of light and the loose suggested brushwork. Steichen achieved these effects by using the gum bichromate process, which allowed him to manipulate the printing process. Figure 5 Jacob Riis In Poverty Gap: An English Coal-Heaver’s Home, c. 1889 Photograph Museum of the City of New York This approach was different from previous ‘straight’ photography. The Flatiron shows the famous skyscraper on a misty day, with hackney carriage and their drivers silhouetted in the foreground. A viewer is inclined to compare this photograph with a painting, perhaps with an impressionist work.
In the 1930s photography found an unexpected patronage in the Farm Security Administration, which undertook to inform the Americans about the wretched living and working conditions of migratory laborers, the dire necessity of resettling farmers who faced economic disaster brought on by Depression, and the displacement of laborers by mechanization. Dorothea Lange was among those photographers who were involved in making “straight” photographic record of the life of a vast number of Americans during those difficult times. One of Lange’s masterpieces is Migrant Mother (Fig.
7) taken in 1936 in Nipomo, California. The woman in the picture, Florence Thompson, the mother of ten children, looks much older than Figure 6 Edward Steichen The Flatiron, 1904 Gum bichromate over platinum print Alfred Stieglitz Collection thirty-two, hr actual age. It is an image that tends to haunt one’s memory, one of those rare visualizations that captures the suffering of an entire era and the whole sociological group, transcending the individual to reach the universal. We see a tired, destitute mother, surrounded by her children, two of whom turn their heads away, seeking refuge from a harsh world.
The care and concern expressed in the mother’s face, the fatigue expresses by the hand that supports the chin are remarkable features. Figure 7 Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother, Nipomo “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. ” Feb. 1936. Photograph. Farm Security Administration photo, Library of Congress While by the 1940-s the photograph played a significant role in journalism, by the late 1950-s, when the television came, everything changed. So now photography started exploration of the more purely aesthetic potential. Minor White’s photography is an example of creative experimentation.
White was drawn into the study of Zen Buddhism and his comprehension of Oriental mysticism began to invade his photographic images. He also began to experiment with technical effects, manipulating his poetic vision of nature, for example, through the use of infrared film. It was in that manner that he produced the dreamlike quality of Road with Poplar Trees (Fig. 8). The effect is achieved by the film’s special sensitivity to light, which makes the leaves and grasses, which reflect light, appear to be charged with light from within.
White’s intension is to lead viewer’s thoughts, while contemplating this scene of nature, beyond the subject itself to some loftier realm. This he called the concept of equivalence. White provides no narrative story in his picture, but seeks to create visions that will induce meditative excursions beyond the detail of the formation of clouds or the tree-lined road. Figure 8 Minor White Road and Poplar Trees, in the Vicinity of Naples and Dansville, New York 1955 Postmodernism is represented in photography by Cindy Sherman’s works.
From the beginning her work concerned semiology, for she calls viewer’s attention to the signs, symbols and media usage of feminine stereotyping. About 1980 Sherman switched to color photography and satires of middleclass women. Later she shifted from the figure as subject to enormous still lifes of horrifying reality, and often of considerable repugnance, in a view of the world as waste, litter and filth. All of her photographs are untitled so they speak for themselves and certainly Untitled No. 175 does just that. It is nightmarish assemblage of rotting chocolate cupcakes, vomit and other refuse scattered about the sand of a beach.
The human factor is made present by the image of the small head reflected in the lens of the plastic sunglasses. Whether nature or human nature, urbanscape or landscape, the specific or universal, realism or abstraction, ‘straight’ photography or manipulated – an extraordinary richness of texture, tone, content and innovation characterizes American camerawork from 1837 to the modern age. There is one thing that photographic prints always seem to do – they make us see things we have not seen before, or perhaps cause us to see things as we had not seen them before.