A Snapshot of Photography's Past - Collecting Vintage Photographs series - Perhaps more than any other art form, photography's progress parallels with technological developments. Born during the Industrial Revolution, photography's evolution was determined as much by technological breakthroughs as artistic movements. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, photographers were hamstrung by expensive, bulky apparatus and wet-plate film that had to be diligently developed after each exposure before a new plate could be readied. This helps explain the overwhelming number of sitting portraits, landscapes and still lives in early photographs. The camera could capture reality- - if reality would stand still. It would take the invention of the dry plate, better lenses and the handheld camera before photographers could capture action, spontaneity and the candid moment that have become hallmarks of the medium. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals

 

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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine Fine Art > Feature Story:
A Snapshot of Photography's Past - Collecting Vintage Photographs series
 


Collecting Vintage Photographs Series

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COLLECTING VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPHS

A Snapshot of Photography's Past

Perhaps more than any other art form, photography's progress parallels with technological developments. Born during the Industrial Revolution, photography's evolution was determined as much by technological breakthroughs as artistic movements.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, photographers were hamstrung by expensive, bulky apparatus and wet-plate film that had to be diligently developed after each exposure before a new plate could be readied. This helps explain the overwhelming number of sitting portraits, landscapes and still lives in early photographs. The camera could capture reality- - if reality would stand still. It would take the invention of the dry plate, better lenses and the handheld camera before photographers could capture action, spontaneity and the candid moment that have become hallmarks of the medium.

Photography's development was also hindered by philosophical roadblocks. The uncanny verisimilitude of photography burdened it with a reputation as a lesser art -- if it was considered an art at all. It took nearly a century to shake off the widespread conviction that photography is mere technique -- that the camera does the work and the photographer merely releases the shutter.

In 1861, an English critic wrote, "Hitherto photography has been principally content with representing Truth. Can its sphere not be enlarged? And may it not aspire to delineate beauty, too?" In answer to this question, some early artists began to use soft focus and painterly compositions, often of pastoral subject matter. Calling themselves pictorialists, these amateur photographers began to lay claim to photography's status as an art form, holding salons and forming camera clubs to promote their cause.

At the same time, it became apparent that photographers with no artistic aspirations were capable of producing works of enduring beauty and power. Matthew Brady's images of the American Civil War or Jacob Riis' muckraking exposure of the slum conditions in New York City showed clearly that photography could be a force for social change.

By the turn of the twentieth century, this pure photographic style gained its artistic credentials. Progressive artists began to sing the praises of "photographs that look like photographs." The manipulation of images favored by the pictorialists was rejected in favor of what was dubbed the "straight style." The straight style's deceptive simplicity belies the careful composition and eye for pattern, light and contrast that distinguishes the best work of this genre. In the hands of a master like Edward Weston or Paul Strand, a photograph of a cloud or sand dunes becomes a rich canvas full of nuance and mystery.

The First World War had a profound impact on art, not least on photography. In the disillusionment that followed, the old verities were shaken and artists turned their back on received wisdom. It had been widely taught, for example, that the camera must always be held horizontal when taking an image. Now, in a world increasingly off balance, the viewpoint of the camera shifted radically. This new perspective fit perfectly with the currents flowing through the art world. Influenced by cubism, Dadaism and modernism, photographers began using double exposures, extreme close-ups, photomontage, solarization and other techniques.

By the 1930s, photography had firmly established its place in the visual arts. During the Depression, the U.S. government works programs put photographers in the field documenting social conditions across the country. The increasing use of photographs in the media (Life magazine, for example, was launched in 1936) expanded the role and status of photojournalism. And, in 1940, the Museum of Modern Art established a Department of Photography, the first of its kind in any museum.

The first decades of the twentieth century laid the foundation for much of what followed in photography. The subject matter may be dated, but the great photographers of the 1920s or 1940s still look modern to our 21st-century eyes. Between then and now, photographers have integrated new technological advances - especially color photography - and further expanded the notion of what photography can do.

What is the future of photography? One only has to look at digital imaging and the use of software in shaping images to see that the art is as mutable as the images it creates. We've lived with photography for nearly two centuries

 


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