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 and 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)

Berenice Abbott, Photographer: A Modern Vision

New York Public Library, 96 pp., $14.95

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…

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