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American Photography’s Golden Age

Mathew Brady: American Art Series

Random House Value, 112 pp., $16.99

The North American Indians

by Edward Curtis
Aperture, 96 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown

by Arnold Genthe, by John K Tchen
Dover, 128 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer

by Dorothy Norman
Aperture, 240 pp., $29.95; $17.50 (paper)

Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography

by Richard Whelan
Little, Brown, 662 pp., $29.95

Alfred Stieglitz at Lake George

by John Szarkowski
Abrams/Museum of Modern Art, 112 pp., $35.00; $19.95 (paper)

Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs

by Barbara Michaels
Abrams, 192 pp., $45.00

Alvin Langdon Coburn: Symbolist Photographer, 1882–1966

by Mike Weaver
Aperture, 80 pp., $25.00; $19.95 (paper)

Women at Work: One Hundred and Fifty-Three Photographs

by Lewis W Hine
Dover, 128 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Men at Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines

by Lewis W Hine
Dover, 63 pp., $6.95

Paul Strand: An American Vision

Aperture, 171 pp., $100.00

Paul Strand (Aperture Masters of Photography Series, No. 1)

Aperture, 95 pp., $22.95; $14.95 (paper)

Edward Weston: Forms of Passion

edited by Gilles Mora
Abrams, 368 pp., $65.00

Tina Modotti: Photographs

by Sarah M Lowe
Abrams/Philadelphia Museum of Art, 160 pp., $45.00

Berenice Abbott: Photographs

Smithsonian, 176 pp., $29.95 (paper)

American Photographs

by Walker Evans
Abrams/Museum of Modern Art, 208 pp., $40.00; $29.95 (paper)

Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye

by Gilles Mora
Abrams, 368 pp., $65.00

Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection

by Judith Keller
J. Paul Getty Museum, 410 pp., $95.00

Photography and the American Scene

by Robert Taft
Dover, 557 pp., $13.95

The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (fifth edition, 1982)

by Beaumont Newhall
Museum of Modern Art, 320 pp., $29.95 (paper)


Americans did not invent photography, and perhaps this has always rankled just a bit. After all, the list of American discoveries during the nineteenth century seems to include nearly everything: the carpet sweeper and the machine gun, the sleeping car and the harvester-thresher, the electric iron and the incandescent light, the phonograph and the safety razor, linotype and vulcanized rubber, and on and on. For another thing, the United States, just twenty-four years old at the century’s start, was busy inventing itself, and photography—discovered in France by Nicéphore Niépce and developed there by Louis Daguerre and independently in England by William Henry Fox Talbot—would prove to be an essential tool in that process of self-creation. But just as the national identity could compose itself from the synthesis of many nationalities, and just as the American language—based on English, itself a synthesis—would become an omnivorous and ever-expanding construct that could take in borrowings from virtually every language, so the art and science of photography was effortlessly adopted by the fledgling nation, which could almost persuade itself of its ownership.

For much of the nineteenth century the arts in America were a rope tugged at one end by those beholden to Europe and yearning for Europe’s approval, and at the other by those who sought an entirely new template, specific to the geography and history and language of the United States. Numerous well-known examples of the difficulties encountered by the latter cause can be found in literary history: the derision at home that countered Poe’s fame abroad, the neglect that Melville fell into at the height of his powers, the total obscurity in which half of Emily Dickinson’s work lay for a full century. Visual artists had a somewhat easier time of it, for reasons that had a great deal to do with the relation of Americans to their own landscape. The scale of the American vista demanded representation in ways that had few antecedents in European painting, and those painters who could deliver the goods became popular across class lines, whether their subjects were the familiar valleys of the East Coast or the titanic panoramas of the far West. Frederic Edwin Church’s massive Niagara (1857) is a famous but hardly unique example of a painting that could draw large crowds without sacrificing anything in the way of artistic integrity.

By the time photography was technically capable of taking in the grandeur of Western landscapes its audience was already well prepared. One of the decisive factors in this preparation was the Civil War, extensively documented by photographers as no war had been up to that time. (The Crimean War had been well photographed, by Roger Fenton among others, but to a much lesser extent.) Mathew Brady’s atelier—which included among its most important operatives Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, who both went on to significant postwar careers—determined many people’s visual imagination of the war. They recorded campgrounds and fortifications, fields and ruins, engagements and their aftermaths, dead soldiers and living generals, all in a direct and unadorned style born out of necessity. Later, this style would be recognized as peculiarly American, uncannily related to the strict plainness of clapboard churches and stone farmhouses and brick factories.

The work of Brady and his employees, so matter-of-fact in its depiction of endless horrors, virtually killed off the heroic ideal of military painting, and it brought the grim news to remote Northern villages and isolated farmsteads, where it could not be denied in the name of patriotism or wishful thinking. Albums of war scenes were sold by subscription, establishing a precedent later exploited in the wake of major disasters, from the Johnstown flood of 1889 to the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, which were similarly marketed.

After the war, when western expansion resumed in earnest, the government began its ambitious surveying expeditions of the uncharted territories between the Great Plains and the Pacific Coast. Clarence King’s Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel and Lieutenant George Wheeler’s Survey West of the One Hundredth Meridian both employed O’Sullivan as official photographer, and Dr. Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden’s Survey of the Territories hired the photographer William Henry Jackson. Their photographs, as well as those of independent commercial operators such as Carleton Watkins, astounded viewers who had perhaps seen such vistas in the paintings of Albert Bierstadt but not quite believed they were real. Using large-format wet-plate cameras and wagon-mounted darkrooms, these photographers produced monumental landscape views, often crystalline in their detail, sometimes requiring the inclusion of a minute human figure somewhere in the foreground as a clue to their dizzying scale. Most of what they shot had never been depicted before, and much of it had never been seen by whites. It was as a direct result of these pictures that a movement to preserve natural splendors detached itself from the general enterprise of exploitation; Jackson’s photographs, for example, persuaded the government to declare the astonishing collection of topographical phenomena known as Yellowstone the first national park, in 1872.

Another major development in the use of photography took much longer to achieve fruition. On March 4, 1880, the New York Daily Graphic became the first newspaper to print a photograph in halftone. This picture, a view of a New York shantytown by one Henry J. Newton, was perhaps crude in its reproduction by later standards, but it was perfectly intelligible. It was, however, orphaned by the time and expense required by the process; twenty years would pass before newspaper use of photographs became widespread—and even twenty years after that, photos were still primarily restricted to rotogravure sections published on Sunday. Meanwhile, newspapers continued to rely upon wood or steel engravings for illustration purposes.

The photographic work of Jacob Riis provides a striking example of this technological lag. Sometime in 1887, Riis, accompanied by the amateur photographers Richard Hoe Lawrence and Henry G. Piffard, began photographing the verminous lodgings and the denatured-alcohol saloons of the most desperate of the New York poor, mostly working in the middle of the night, capturing his subjects by surprise, employing the magnesium-powder flash, then a novelty. Riis also wrote about what he saw, first in the New York Sun and then in a series of books beginning with How the Other Half Lives (1890). His work had real effects, leading to the destruction of the worst rookeries and the construction of settlement houses, schools, and parks. His photographs, however, were first seen by the public as linecuts, bare approximations that gave nothing of the crucial details: the dirt, crumbling masonry, decaying mattresses on the one hand; the proud, beaten, innocent, or hardened faces on the other. These could be appreciated only by those who purchased his books or attended his lantern-slide lectures. Even at the height of his fame, the importance of his photographic work was neglected, and it continued to be for half a century, until the photographer Alexander Alland rescued his surviving plates from certain decay in a Connecticut farmhouse, made new prints, and exhibited them in 1947.

While Riis was inventing what would later be called photojournalism, George Eastman’s development of the box camera further increased photography’s mobility, and dramatically expanded its reach. The first apparatus marketed by the Eastman Kodak Company in 1888 was unusually small and easy to operate, and it weighed a mere 22 ounces. The Kodak slogan, “You press the button; we do the rest,” was intended literally—after all one hundred exposures on the film roll had been made, users simply mailed the entire machine to company head-quarters in Rochester, New York, for developing and printing. About thirteen thousand Kodaks were sold in their first six months on the market. The pages of family photograph albums, formerly constructed like so many envelopes, with die-cut windows for the display of cartes de visite or cabinet cards, were now made of black uncoated stock, with slits at angles to fit the corners of the thin square prints that bore the distinctive round pictures of the early Kodaks.

The photographs of the 1890s, a time of profound changes in all aspects of life, demonstrate the coexistence of ways of thinking that seem separated by a gulf of decades. A perfectly innocent fascination with nature was still possible then, for example, and uncomplicated beauty could be pursued with no taint of complacency or willful ignorance. Henry Hamilton Bennett (1843–1908) spent virtually the whole of his professional career photographing the Wisconsin Dells, making idyllic yet straightforward pictures of a sort that even a decade after his death would be unavoidably freighted with irony or kitsch. At the same time, Darius Kinsey (1869–1945) was documenting the systematic destruction of nature. Kinsey’s business was to record the logging business in the Pacific Northwest, not to comment on the defoliation of the American wilderness, but his pictures present one scene after another of centuries-old arboreal giants being hewn, of clear-cut hillsides littered with felled trees that look like piles of matchsticks. Kinsey’s work marks the expulsion from the garden, even if his influence in his own time was nearly invisible (if he was considered at all, it was as an obscure regional artisan, until Edward Steichen included some of his work in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951).

Likewise, the 1890s were the last time when ethnological description could be not only pursued without condescension but also imbued with humanist concern and painterly delicacy, as in Arnold Genthe’s studies of Asians in Japan and in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Genthe (1869–1942) was a romantic portraitist with an interest in types, his work idealistically soft-focus. He presented his subjects as much more than specimens, but they stop just short of being individuals; he did not embrace the cold-blooded anthropological cataloguing of the nineteenth century, but neither did he subvert it, as August Sander was to do in the 1920s. His contemporary Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952), a feminist and a niece of Grover Cleveland, was meanwhile making the photographs she was to collect in The Hampton Album (1900), a particularly understated document of social protest. In classically rigorous compositions awash with light, black students at the Hampton Institute in Virginia are shown learning practical trades and studying such subjects as the architecture of the English cathedral towns. Johnston’s photographs refuse to impose on their subjects the indignity of a plea; instead they quietly assume that the subjects, the photographer, and the viewer are all on an equal footing of seriousness.

In the West, at that time, the momentum of exploration and expansion had ended, and introspection began to set in, awkwardly. The previous era’s closing acts had been the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, when settlers of European stock claimed over two million acres of what had been set aside as Indian territory, and the following year’s massacre by Seventh Cavalry troops of several hundred Hunkpapa Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. By the time an interest developed in Native American culture and traditions, it was already cushioned by nostalgia. When Edward S. Curtis (1868–1954) began his massive twenty-volume documentary project, The North American Indian, in 1896 (it was not completed until 1930), the indigenous way of life of his subjects had already passed into memory, and Curtis is known to have persuaded fully westernized Comanches and Sioux to don for the benefit of his camera garments and headdresses they had not worn for many years, and to have retouched his prints to excise such objects as clocks and lamps from their dwellings.

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