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
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