Mathew Brady: American Art Series
The North American Indians
Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown
Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer
Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography
Alfred Stieglitz at Lake George
Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs
Alvin Langdon Coburn: Symbolist Photographer, 18821966
Women at Work: One Hundred and Fifty-Three Photographs
Men at Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines
Paul Strand: An American Vision
Paul Strand (Aperture Masters of Photography Series, No. 1)
Edward Weston: Forms of Passion
Tina Modotti: Photographs
Berenice Abbott: Photographs
Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye
Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection
Photography and the American Scene
The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (fifth edition, 1982)
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.
In the Southwest, peaceful tribes such as the Hopi and the Zuni remained relatively unmolested because they lived in desert regions that white settlers did not then much want. Adam Clark Vroman (1856–1916), a Los Angeles bookseller, photographed them as well as their houses and their decorative arts; his pictures of faces, rooms, and individual works of art are low-key and meditative, entirely free of the hubris of ethnological cataloguing. In retrospect they look like early documents of modernism, the first news of the pueblo aesthetic that would soon influence, among other things, the simplification of Eastern interiors.
The turn of the century, however imprecise as a date, nevertheless stands as a sort of alchemical gateway between one mode of life and another. The United States, having lately acquired Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and all but acquired Cuba, could now consider itself a world power, and the vertical expansion of its cities dramatized the claim. New York City’s Flatiron Building, built in 1902, was not the first edifice to be called a skyscraper, but, with its exaggerated wedge shape, it immediately became the best known. It quickly became a point of photographic reference as well, shot in turn by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, much later by Berenice Abbott, and in between by hundreds of postcard and stereograph photographers and thousands of amateurs, all from virtually the same angle. The pictorialists, of whom the first three were representative, were thus linked with the least assuming vernacular photographers in their mutual contemplation of a single icon. Even as the pictorialists entered their plea for photography to be considered an equal of painting in the oligarchy of the arts, and not a mere mechanic’s profession, they stood to pay homage to that building, a work at once of art and of engineering. This could be said to be one of the formative episodes of modernism.
The pictorialists, who included Stieglitz, Steichen, Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White, and John G. Bullock (all but Coburn were members of Photo-Secession, founded in 1902), made photographs so texturally lush and often so misty, so shimmering, so impressionistic, that they hardly seem to be photographs at all. Their work was ruled by their need to compensate for the mechanical basis of the medium, a quaint notion today, but its great beauty survives intact. Anyway, the pictorialist creed represents one of the classic American course corrections. At a time when photographic associations and their periodicals focused on technical minutiae to the exclusion of aesthetics, the pictorialists found it necessary to emphasize painterly qualities of texture and tone even as they avoided invidious comparisons to painting. The Photo-Secessionist search for the sub-lime through the compromised means of a mechanical process parallels the dialectic between the Virgin and the Dynamo that Henry Adams found in the Gothic cathedrals and described in his Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres of 1904. Among the preoccupations of early modernism was the realization of a spiritual element, broadly defined, within the torrent of technological progress. In any case, it certainly did involve the enjambment of contradictions, which were beginning to multiply ferociously.
Stieglitz in particular—who founded Photo-Secession but of its members was among the least inclined toward manipulation of prints—was a lightning rod of contradictions, both as photographer and as impresario. His career, which began in the 1880s in Germany (he was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1864) and ended with his death in New York in 1946, spans many phases of photographic history, which he weathered through force of personality and by the consistency of his work, which could be seen as formalist or documentary depending on the moment. As pope of the church represented by his various galleries, from the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession to “291” (the same location, in a new guise) to An American Place, he passed judgment and engaged in endless arguments and feuds but remained catholic. His enthusiasms could thus encompass both the ethereal loveliness of Clarence White’s abstracted Ophelias and the upended urinal of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which he in fact photographed for the Dada journal The Blind Man in 1917.
If Stieglitz was able to change his perspective while sometimes appearing an immovable center, the younger and even longer-lived Steichen (1879–1973) might seem to have reinvented himself in every decade. He first came to attention as a sort of Post-Impressionist, making landscapes that seem barely possible as products of a camera; spent the 1920s and ‘30s principally shooting portraits of glamorous figures for fashionable magazines; was a documentarist for the US Navy in World War II; and then headed the Museum of Modern Art’s department of photography from 1947 to 1962, a tenure notable for his acquisition of works by extremely diverse photographers, many of them young, as well as for his single full-scale exhibition, The Family of Man. This was a vast thematic tableau, purporting to represent all human emotions, in which many small photographs by various contributors were laid out magazine-style, a design that succeeded in leveling their personalities. Steichen’s work always managed to exemplify the style and preoccupations of the time in which it was made, with a chameleonic facility. At worst his pictures were brilliant examples of craft; at best, especially in his younger years, they transcended slickness so far as to be not merely artful, but art. His personality, while indisputably forceful, remains elusive.
With the single exception of Stieglitz’s great picture “The Steerage” (1907), a dramatic composition seeming to show immigrants below decks and tourists above (although in reality the passengers, all of whom were in steerage, were actually returning to Europe), the Photo-Secessionists ignored social conditions in their work. They appear not to have registered the existence of their contemporary Lewis W.Hine (1874–1940), who took up the mantle of Jacob Riis as the recording eye of the reform movement labeled, at first disparagingly, “muckraking.” Like Riis, Hine was above all concerned with the measurable social effects his work could have, but unlike his predecessor he was fully conscious of his work’s formal properties. His subjects, at least in his early work, are always returning the photographer’s stare, giving the impression that they are as much in charge of the picture as he is. The pictures, though, are as passionate about light diffusion as they are compassionate of their subjects’ plight. Hine’s early photographs of young children working in mines and factories provided hard evidence of the widespread abuse of child labor laws, and provoked outrage that led to a protracted struggle for passage of an enforceable national law, although this did not happen until 1938.
Standing midway between Hine and the pictorialists, Paul Strand (1890–1976) was an aesthete who took his camera into the streets. Strand photographed the slums and the people who lived there (probably his best-known photograph is “Blind,” from 1916, a tight close-up of a woman’s head, the pupil of her one open eye slipped far to the side, the titular sign hanging around her neck). But his pictures are formal, disengaged, a bit chilly, and he was simultaneously studying rocks and architectural details with identical intensity, so that all his photographs of the period can be primarily considered abstractions. His decision to photograph mendicants and Bowery loafers very likely owed something to the influence of the Eight, the painters popularly known as the Ashcan School. These artists, among them Robert Henri, William Glackens, and George Luks, were modernist mostly in their choice of subjects, which included alleys, saloons, billboards, rubbish, newsstands, elevated trains, and boxing matches. One of their number, Arthur B. Davies, was among the principal organizers of the Armory Show of 1913, which also brought to a large stateside audience for the first time the work of Picasso and Braque, among others. The conjunction of the Eight’s subjects and the Cubists’ form can be retrospectively seen as preparing the ground for a distinctly American modernism.
Of course, this entity was coming to term simultaneously in various disparate pockets of the country. One of them was Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where in 1910 the young painters Charles Sheeler and Morton Schamberg began renting a stone farmhouse built in 1768. The house was plain and rectilinear in the most traditional American style, a style born out of the combination of practical necessity and Puritan self-denial. Not a trace of ornament found its way into or onto the house, or on any of its furniture. Its stonework marked it as an example of a particular tendency that had grown up among the Quaker settlements along the lower Delaware River, but it shared many traits with other regional constructions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries throughout the northeastern United States.
Within a few years of moving in, Sheeler (1883–1965) began to photograph the house’s details—its narrow, turning staircases, its luxuriously weathered walls, its stubbornly asymmetrical beams—recognizing a strength of line shared with such modernist inspirations as machinery and African sculpture. In the following decade Sheeler was to find the purest American design of all in the work of the Shakers, the millenarian sect that flourished in New England and upstate New York beginning in the late eighteenth century. Shaker design, a direct product of the sect’s order of simplicity, somehow managed to be at once ascetic and sensuous in its finely judged proportions and its attention to the grain of its materials. Sheeler’s passion for early American forms may have been modernist in inspiration, but it oddly paralleled such contemporary antimodernist phenomena as the Arts and Crafts movement, enduringly exemplified by the clean, spare furniture of Gustav Stickley.
But it is not always helpful to apply ideological labels to the diverse forms of artistic exploration simultaneously occurring all over the United States in the first two decades of the century. It was a many-headed awakening. Sheeler’s interests, for example, seem to have been anticipated at least five years earlier by the photographer and illustrator Clifford Johnson (1865–1940), about whom little is known other than that he took careful, plain photographs of plain objects like barn doors. Many isolated artists and a number of visionary eccentrics thrived in this period, inspired to action by the ease and availability of equipment and perhaps by stray bits of information blown across the countryside by newspaper accounts. This was especially true in photography; every town of any size had its camera club, whose members dutifully read specialized periodicals such as Wilson’s and perhaps even Camera Work, Stieglitz’s organ, and produced exquisite and lifeless pictorial compositions following the latest strictures emanating from New York.
But there were also numerous practitioners, more independent or perhaps simply more naïve, whose work was more straightforward and which in most cases looks the stronger today. Between 1905 and about 1918 the most widespread medium for the dissemination of photography was the postcard. This was a result of three principal factors: a change in postal regulations that halved the cost of mailing postcards; Eastman Kodak’s offer in 1906 to print images on postcard stock at no extra charge; and the continued difficulty of reproducing photographs in newspapers. Amateurs and professionals alike turned out photographic postcards in vast quantities (by 1913 the US mail was handling nearly a billion picture postcards a year, although there is no way to know what percentage of these were photographs). Professional postcard photographers—including the young Edward Weston, who began his career around 1906 working door-to-door in Tropico, California—made portraits and took scenic views, and also recorded fires, floods, tornadoes, barn raisings, train wrecks, store openings, county fairs, parades, freakish hailstorms, harvests of unusually large vegetables, and the US Army’s intervention in the Mexican revolution between 1910 and 1917, in editions that ranged from several dozen to several thousand. Amateurs, meanwhile, sent their snapshots out into the world, using the mails to make them public.
In considering the creative explosion of the period, though, the distinction between amateur and professional is not always discernible, and is often irrelevant. Many thousands of exemplary works of photography were unsigned, and their authorship is forgotten. The great mass of photographic postcards includes extraordinary individual images, but its strongest impact is as a boiling whole, a giant collective work of art. Its clapboard-plain style probably did not seem like a style at the time of its making, but to a present-day eye this folk photography can be clearly seen as a bridge between the work of Brady and his associates and that of Walker Evans and Ralph Steiner. Those photographers, who grew up in the era of the postcard, learned from it the head-on stare and the appreciation of beautiful junk—from advertisements to amateur carpentry—that they made synonymous with American style a couple of decades later.
The democratic vigor and inspiration of the era’s photography ranged beyond the postcard, too, its effects visible even in family photo albums, which often have retained a freshness unmatched by those of any subsequent period. Tens of thousands of Americans apparently bought their first cameras at the same time and used them to look at their surroundings with new eyes, at least for the fifteen or twenty years it took for conventions to set in and harden. A particularly eccentric example of the album as work of art is that of Charles Norman Sladen (1858–1949), a commercial illustrator who embellished his vacation photographs of friends and bucolic settings with pen and ink, linking snapshots together into continuous landscapes or simply extending their lines as whorls or tree rings or spiderwebs or long grass.
In the light of such creative ferment, it is not surprising that the era’s professional studio photographers included a significant number of artists who made distinctive and even important bodies of work in seeming isolation—such rediscoveries are still coming to light. Perhaps the signal example of this sort of stray genius is Ernest J. Bellocq (1873–1949), who was generally unknown until the photographer Lee Friedlander found his work in the 1960s. Bellocq was a kind of Toulouse-Lautrec, a portraitist of the New Orleans red-light district known as Storyville, the largest in the country until its suppression in 1917. Bellocq’s portraits of prostitutes are eloquent and grave, showing the women’s sadness and fatigue, displaying their few cherished possessions and their poignantly prosaic rooms. The end of Storyville was also, as far as we know, the end of Bellocq’s career. The district’s eradication, and the release of its inmates into scullery work, was a consequence of World War I, which also had such direct or indirect long-range effects as the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, the crackdown on and deportation of elements deemed subversive, and the ending of the venturesome period that had preceded it. The spirit that took hold after the war was one of consolidation, of conformity in the interest of business.
The photographs of the 1920s, for all their dissimilarity in other respects, share an iconic quality that might be seen as corollary to this ideal of consolidation, and also reflect the rise of the print media. The illustrated newspapers and magazines made possible by advances in technology required photographs that could be taken in at a glance. The New York Daily News, launched in 1919, was the first of the tabloids, small-format populist papers that emphasized visual punch over textual content and even coherence; this was labeled “jazz journalism.” Around the same time Condé Nast’s Vanity Fair, a magazine that could retail Hollywood, high fashion, and James Joyce all in the same breath, came into its own as a photographic medium. It published such definitive images as Steichen’s portraits of Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson and Nickolas Muray’s picture of Babe Ruth posing with his Louisville Slugger.
In retrospect, Lewis Hine’s 1920 “Steamfitter” (a man tightening a bolt on a gear who is fused with the machinery by the composition) would not have seemed out of place there either. The picture is no protest, but an advertisement that hawks the dignity of labor with all the razzmatazz of a fashion plate. Interestingly, Hine’s glamorization of labor (his later shots of workers constructing the upper stories of the Empire State Building have the look of an aerial ballet) anticipates themes exploited by Soviet photographers before the end of the decade, in the interval when modernism and nascent Zhdanovism uneasily shook hands. In a similar way, Paul Outerbridge’s “Ide Collar” of 1922, a bona fide advertising image of uncanny purity (the collar sits alone on checkerboard tiles), could slide effortlessly into any lineup of images produced by Bauhaus-influenced German photographers a few years later. The seductiveness of dynamism, force, and speed can now be seen as having spanned the ideological spectrum, uniting the tools of capitalism and their opponents in a delirium of modernity for a brief while before the worldwide economic collapse of 1929.
These disparate manifestations also, of course, reflected the lessons of Cubism, absorbed by many, if not always consciously, by 1921. Cubism, ridiculed by critics for a few years following the Armory Show of 1913, had found its American echo not only in the paintings of Marsden Hartley and Joseph Stella and Stuart Davis but in a wide range of less obvious places, from the slapstick mysticism of George Herriman’s comic strip Krazy Kat to the frantic polyphony of New Orleans jazz to the stop-and-go rhythms of Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedies. Numerous American artists, not all of whom could have defined “Cubism” on request, found their equivalent to the slashing geometry and jarring simultaneity that European artists had to work to achieve already present in the lights of Broadway and the steel mills of Pennsylvania and even the small-town Main Street, which seemed to exist in several eras at once.
Some Americans had to go abroad to realize this, to see their country free from the distraction of its poltroons and reactionaries. Edward Weston (1886–1958) and Tina Modotti (1896–1942) went to Mexico in 1923, perhaps in search of adventure and romance but also to learn how to look at things, much the same way their literary contemporaries went to Europe. Weston, a commercial photographer under the sway of pictorialism, and the Italian-born Modotti, who had been a minor player in Hollywood movies and was just beginning as a photographer, crossed the border in the heady and unsettled time after the Mexican revolution. The experience confirmed a tendency already brewing in Weston toward what came to be known as “straight photography.” Both Weston and Modotti began to make photographs—of flowers, people, wires, ruins—so sharply detailed they paradoxically appeared abstract. Their paths diverged within a few years, personally if not so much photographically. Modotti, infused with revolutionary fervor, stayed in Mexico, and later went to the Soviet Union, while Weston went back to the United States and both expanded and concentrated his sights, producing landscapes, for example, in which every element, near and far, is in sharp focus.
Weston’s return occurred in 1926, a suggestive date. The previous year had seen publication of Hemingway’s In Our Time, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, all of them works that carved up and rearranged the American experience, and all but one written by voluntary exiles. A year later the young Walker Evans, who had gone to France with vague literary ambitions, came back to America and almost immediately started taking pictures of his surroundings, beginning with studies of the Brooklyn Bridge, oil tanks, and the lights of Coney Island and Times Square. A current of serious reexamination was in the air. By 1930, when Stieglitz called the final incarnation of his gallery An American Place, the name could stand for a principle that had nothing to do with flag-waving. The critical enterprise begun with apparent spontaneity on many fronts in the 1920s led to the more deliberate undertaking of the following decade, under the aegis of various New Deal agencies.
It might seem that twentieth-century America was invented by its photographers, that each shot was not so much a record as a prediction or an enactment. The country is sufficiently young that photography reaches deep into its history—Niépce made his first negative image less than thirty years after the Constitution was ratified—and more of its history has been photographically documented than that of any other major country. Other countries possess their photographic monuments, but America’s are lined up in tiers from shore to shore. Brady’s images, and O’Sullivan’s, Riis’s, Hine’s are actions as much as they are records. Photographs by Stieglitz, Sheeler, Evans, Abbott gave names and definitions to things previously seen but not consciously observed.
Vernacular photographers, meanwhile, were sometimes visionary and sometimes brilliantly unwitting—photography, by virtue of its mechanical basis and its capacity for fortunate accident, is uniquely capable of outdistancing its practitioners, so that complex works of art can sometimes be made by people who thought they were merely pushing a button, and might have had little ability to recognize the value of their own work. As we have been gradually educated by photography, we are increasingly able to look at the work of the past and see it as new, not merely new in its time but new in ours. A hitherto obscure dead photographer—Kinsey or Bellocq, say, or the Arkansas studio portraitist of the 1930s and ‘40s who called himself Disfarmer—can be disinterred in time to become part of the present, having anticipated the vanguard work of that moment. Photography, the work of an instant, can hold its meaning in reserve for the future, like a wine or a treasury note, or it can accrue or change meaning as perception changes. It is singularly suited to the United States, the country of the perpetual present tense, as a quantum element of history—discontinuous, unstable, asynchronously contemporary. The iota of time frozen today by a lens may fall unrecognized, only to adhere to the surface of a time yet to come.