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Photography: The Beauty Treatment

William H. Fox Talbot: Inventor of the Negative-Positive Process

by André Jammes
Macmillan, 96 pp., $5.95 (paper)

French Primitive Photography

introduction by Minor White, commentaries by André Jammes, by Robert Sobieszek
Aperture, unpaged pp., $6.95 (paper)

Paul Strand: A Retrospective Monograph, Vol. I, The Years 1915-1946; Vol. II, The Years 1950-1968

by Paul Strand
Aperture, unpaged pp., $40.00 the set

Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful. (The name under which Fox Talbot patented the photograph in 1841 was the calotype: from kalos, beauty.) Nobody exclaims, “Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.” Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is, “I find that ugly thing…beautiful.”

It is common for those who have glimpsed something beautiful to express regret at not having photographed it. So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that often photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. House-proud hosts may well pull out photographs of the place to show visitors how really sensational it is. We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph. Photographs create the beautiful and—over generations of picture-taking—use it up. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.

Most people are anxious when they’re about to be photographed: not because they fear, as primitives do, being violated but because they fear the camera’s disapproval. People want the idealized image: a photograph of themselves looking their “best.” They feel rebuked when the camera doesn’t return an image of themselves as more attractive than they really are. But few are lucky enough to be “photogenic”—that is, to look better in photographs (even when not made-up or flattered by special lighting) than in real life. That photographs are often praised for their candor, their honesty, indicates that most photographs, of course, are not candid. A decade after the Englishman Fox Talbot’s negative-positive process had begun replacing the French daguerreotype in the early 1840s, a German photographer invented the first technique for retouching the negative. His two versions of the same portrait—one retouched, the other not—astounded crowds at the World Exposition held in Paris in 1855 (one of the earliest world fairs, and the first with a photography exhibit). The news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.

The consequences of lying have to be more central for photography than they ever can be for painting, because the flat, usually rectangular images which are photographs make a claim to be true that paintings never make. A fake painting (one whose attribution is false) falsifies the history of art. A fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies reality. The drama of photography has been the struggle between two different imperatives: beautification and truth-telling.

The truth of photographs is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by romantic ideals of truth-telling, adapted from nineteenth-century literary models and from the new profession of independent journalism. Like the naturalistic novelist and the reporter, the photographer was supposed to unmask hypocrisy and ignorance. This was a task which painting, no matter how many nineteenth-century painters shared Millet’s belief that le beau c’est le vrai, was too slow and cumbersome to take on. Astute observers noticed that there was something naked about the truth a photograph conveyed, even when its taker did not mean to pry. In The House of the Seven Gables (1851) Hawthorne has the young photographer Holgrave remark about the daguerreotype portrait that “while we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture on, even if he could detect it.”

The invention of cameras made possible a peculiar heroism of vision. Freed from the beginning from having to make narrow choices (as painters did) about what images were worth contemplating, because of the rapidity with which cameras recorded anything, photographers made seeing into a new kind of enterprise: as if seeing itself, pursued with sufficient avidity and single-mindedness, could indeed reconcile the claims of truth and the need to find the world beautiful.

The earliest photographers talked as if the camera were a copying machine; as if, while people operate cameras, it is the camera that sees. Photography was welcomed as a means of easing the burden of ever-accumulating information and sense-impressions. Fox Talbot, whose claim to the title of photography’s inventor is as good as that of any of the other principal contenders, was a gentleman polymath, scholar of ancient languages, mathematician, Fellow of the Royal Academy, and artist of sorts. In his book of photographs The Pencil of Nature (1844) he relates that the idea of photography came to him at Lake Como, on the Italian Journey that the romantic poets had made obligatory for Englishmen of inherited wealth like himself. Trying to make landscape drawings with the aid of a device called the camera lucida, which projected the image on the paper but did not fix it, he was led to reflect, he says, “on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass of the camera throws upon the paper” and to wonder “if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably.” The camera suggested itself as a new form of notation whose allure was precisely that it was impersonal—because it was recording a “natural” image, “by the agency of light alone, without any aid whatsoever from the artist’s pencil.”

The photographer was thought to be an acute but noninterfering observer—a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras give an impersonal, scientific result yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what is “there” but of what an individual sees: not just a record but an evaluation of the world.* It became clear that there is not just a simple activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing,” which is both a new way for people to see and a new activity for them to perform.

A Frenchman with a daguerreotype camera was already roaming the Pacific in 1842, the same year as the first volume of Excursions daguerriennes, vues et monuments les plus remarquables du globe was published in Paris. The 1850’s was the great age of photographic orientalism: Maxime du Camp, making a Grand Tour of the Middle East with Flaubert in 1850-1851, concentrated his camera on attractions like the Colossus of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Baalbek, not the daily life of fellahin. Soon, however, travelers with cameras annexed a wider subject matter than famous sites and works of art. “Photographic seeing” meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees, but neglects as too ordinary. Photographers were supposed to do more than just see the world “as it is,” including its already acclaimed marvels; they were to create interest, by visual decisions.

Photography opened up a new model of free-lance activity—allowing each person to display a certain unique, avid sensibility. Photographers departed on their cultural and class and scientific safaris, searching for striking images. They would entrap the world, whatever the cost in patience and discomfort, for this active, acquisitive, evaluating, gratuitous modality of vision. Alfred Stieglitz proudly reports that he had to wait three hours without moving during a fierce snow-storm on February 22, 1893, “awaiting the proper moment” to take his celebrated picture “Fifth Avenue, Winter.” The proper moment is when one can see things (especially what everyone has seen) in a fresh way. The quest became the photographer’s trademark in the popular imagination. By the 1920s the photographer had become a modern hero, like the aviator and the anthropologist—without necessarily having to leave home. Readers of the popular press were invited to join “our photographer” on a “journey of discovery,” visiting such new realms as “the world from above,” “the world under the magnifying glass,” “the beauties of every day,” “the miracle of light,” “the beauty of machines,” the picture that can be “found” in the street.

Everyday life apotheosized, and the kind of beauty that only the camera reveals—a corner of material reality that the eye doesn’t see at all or can’t normally isolate, or the overview, as from a plane—are the main targets for the photographer’s conquest. The close-up seemed, for a while, photography’s most original form of seeing. Photographers found that as they more narrowly cropped reality, magnificent “forms” appeared. In the early 1840s the versatile, obsessed Fox Talbot not only composed photographs in the genres taken over from painting—portrait, landscape, still life—but also, as we see in André Jammes’s valuable book, trained his camera on a sea shell, the wings of a butterfly (enlarged with the aid of a solar microscope), a portion of two rows of books in his study. But his subjects are still recognizably a shell, butterfly wings, books. When “natural” seeing was further violated—and the object isolated from its surroundings, rendering it abstract—new conventions about what was beautiful took hold. What is beautiful became just what the eye can’t (or doesn’t) see: that fracturing, dislocating vision that only the camera supplies.

In 1915 Paul Strand took a photograph which he called “Abstract Patterns Made by Bowls.” In 1917, Strand turned to close-ups of machine forms, and throughout the 1920s did close-up nature studies. The new procedure (its heyday was between 1920 and 1935) seemed to promise unlimited visual delights. It worked with equally stunning effect on homely objects; on the nude (a subject one might have supposed to be virtually exhausted by painters); on the tiny cosmologies of nature. Photography seemed to have found its grandiose place, the bridge between art and science, and painters were admonished to learn from the beauties of microphotographs (and telephotos) in Moholy-Nagy’s book The New Vision, which the Bauhaus published in 1928. It was the same year as the appearance of one of the first photographic best-sellers, a book by Albert Renger-Patzsch entitled Die Welt Ist Schön (The World Is Beautiful), which consists of one hundred photographs, mostly close-ups, whose subjects range from a colocasia leaf to workers’ hands. Painting never made so shameless a promise to prove the world beautiful.

The abstracting eye—represented with particular brilliance in the period between the two world wars by some of the work of Strand, as well as of Edward Weston and Minor White—was probably possible only after the discoveries made by modernist painters and sculptors. (Both Strand and Weston acknowledge the relation of their ways of seeing to those of Kandinsky and Brancusi, and may have been attracted to the hard edge of cubist style in reaction to the softness of Stieglitz’s images.) It is just as true, as Moholy-Nagy points out in The New Vision, that the technique and spirit of photography directly influenced cubism. But for all the ways in which, from the 1840s on, painters and photographers have mutually influenced and pillaged each other, their procedures are fundamentally opposed. The painter constructs; the photographer discloses. That is, the identification of the subject of a photograph always affects our perception of it—as it does not, necessarily, in a painting. Weston’s “Cabbage Leaf” (1931) looks like folds of drapery; a title is needed in order to identify it. Thus the image makes its point in two ways. The form is pleasing, and it is—surprise!—the form of a cabbage leaf. If it were drapery, it wouldn’t seem so beautiful. We already know that beauty, from the fine arts. Hence the formal qualities of style—the central issue in painting—are, at most, of secondary importance in photography, while what a photograph is “of” is always of primary importance. What looks like the photograph of an austere crown becomes more interesting when we find out it is a splash of milk.

  1. *

    The view of photography as impersonal seeing has, of course, not vanished. It recurs, at least for rhetorical purposes, among the surrealists; André Breton’s essay of 1920 on Max Ernst begins by calling automatic writing the camera of poetry, the blind instrument that records a landscape to which no human effort can add a single new element. In the opposing aesthetic camp, the Bauhaus theoreticians, like Moholy-Nagy, treated photography as a branch of design, like architecture—creative but impersonal, free of distasteful vestiges of artistic vanity.

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