By Paul Hester
Carleton E. Watkins, Photographer of the American West, by Peter E. Palmquist, with a foreward by Martha A. Sandweiss. Published for the Amon Carter Museum by the University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. $50.00 hard cover.
The Amon Carter Museum of Western Art is the best reason I know for visiting the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metro-plex. I’ve recent publications are excellent reminders that there is much more to Western Art than Remington and Russell.
Carlton E. Watkins Photographer of the American West is the catalogue for an exhibition on view at the Amon Carter April 1 - May 22, 1983. It is a detailed biography of the fascinating life of Carlton E. Watkins (1829-1916). No other book with which I am familiar comes close to these vivid descriptions by Peter E. Palmquist about the life of a nineteenth century photographer. His abundant research specifies the experience behind the magnificent views of Yosemite, enumerating the 12 mules, 2000 pounds of equipment, and the 100 eighteen by twenty-two inch glass negatives weighing four pounds each. Letters from Watkins' travels in Southern California and Arizona to his wife in San Francisco offer intimate knowledge of his frustrations with wind, sand and rain in photographing the Spanish Colonial missions-Most of the attention given to Watkins in the past has focused on his production of the Yosemite views of 1861-1866. Nearly three-fourths of the 113 plates reproduced here have not been published before, and they give ample evidence of his growth as a photographer into the 1870's and 80's. These newly presented images show the changes in his approach to Yosemite and are clearly documented to substantiate this new interpretation by the author.
Watkins began photographing in the service of commerce, to provide evidence in court about boundary disputes for land claims, and to describe land-holdings for mining companies to attract foreign investors. It is difficult from our perspective to reconcile the photographer of Yosemite with such commercial activities. Our myths of creative genius demand that inspiration came from within, and collaboration with the enemy is best ignored or denied.
The reality of broken plates bankruptcy and betrayed loyalties could contribute to a romantic misunderstanding of the artist's life, but here the factors that influenced his picture-making are each examined outside of mystification and suggest the necessities of the marketplace that were behind his inventiveness. The problems of managing a gallery to distribute his prints are seen next to his efforts to use a wider angle lens in order to produce better legal evidence. The availability of the roads into the high country at Yosemite is discussed in reference to his increasing preference for panoramic overviews.
In spite of all this historical data, the danger still exists of interpreting these photographs through modern eyes, projecting our vision of them onto his intentions. The book skillfully recreates the context for Watkins’ work, but then in an effort to claim the greatness which he clearly deserves, makes reference to his abstract as a way of setting his work apart from that of his contemporaries. His camera placement that so distinctly places these new industrial settlements in the landscapes needs no apologies or comparisons to modern compositions.
The absolute clarity of his descriptions "force us to reconsider any arbitrary division between commercial and artistic photography," as Martha Sandweiss says in her foreward.
His best photographs are capable of producing a terrific awe of the natural forces, evident in the thrust of Half Dome above the valley or in the skeletal erosion of rocks in the Golden Gate Claim. His photographs of the new towns and farms reveal the balance between order and chaos in these new places. His skill in this is most dramatically evident in the workThe reck of the Viscata, 1868, beached among the Liliputions as if in a scene from Gulliver's Travels.
Watkins also photographed for geodetic and geological surveys; produced albums for wealthy Californians to display in their mansions; won medals in European expositions; produced photographs of Southern California agriculture that were displayed under the title "Californians, the Cornucopia of the World — Room for Millions of Immigrants - 43,795,000 Acres of Government Lands Untaken, Railroads and Private Lands for a Million Farmers, a Climate for Health and Wealth Without Cyclones or Blizzards"; went blind; Lost everything in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906; and spent the last six years of his life in the Napa State Hospital for the Insane.
My only disappointment with this very good book is that it's not big enough. A five-plate panarama of San Francisco in 1864 spread over eight feet on the museum wall offers the luxury both of detail and expanse. To see it reduced in the book is not the same thing. The book is beautifully reproduced and the colors are faithful, but a seven by nine-inch image cannot offer the details of construction or of stance available in sixteen by twenty-inch contact prints. Nor does it have the same presence; you do not have the experience of the work until you stand in front of that mammoth plate albumen print.
But if you missed the exhibition in Ft. Worth, there are wonderful surprises contained in this catalogue.
Masterworks of American Photography, The Amon Carter Museum Collection, by Martha A. Sandweiss. Oxmoor House, Inc., Birmingham. $49-95.
Masterworks of American Photography presents 155 photographs from the collection of the Amon Carter Museum, which began in 1961 with the acquisition of Dorothea Lange's portrait of the artist Charles Russell.
This is a large, ambitious book; a great deal has gone into the reproduction of the unique colors of different types of prints. The warmth of albumen can be seen in contrast to the cold blue of modern gelatin silver, and the many variations in between, such as platinum, photogravure, and carbon prints.
Collections of this sort can frequently be boring in the sameness of presentation and the awkward weightiness forced equally upon all the pictures. Here, full pages are devoted to the large-scale mammoth plates from the surveys of the West, interspersed among smaller daguerretypes and tintypes, offering a sense of their relative sizes.
These efforts toward fidelity with the original objects are helpful in understanding the qualities in prints that affect our responses. It is unfortunate that unevenness in the printing has caused strange colors in certain instances.
The layout of the book is unusual in its departure from a highly structured system. Grids usually suppress the individual print in favor of overall appearance. Here a seemingly random relation of one high, one low accommodates larger pictures per page and allows serious and ironic comparisons. "Ranchos De Taos" by Paul Strand is seen next to "Pennsylvania Station" by Bernice Abbot and "Gulf Oil, Port Arthur" by Edward Weston. We also see a Ben Shahn photograph of a girl hugging her front porch column next to a Walker Evans picture of a woman hugging her child on a New York subway, similar expressions on their faces.
In these ways the book provokes our thinking about photographs. The plates are presented in traditional categories of The Nineteenth-Century Landscape, Nineteenth-Century Portraits, The Pictorial Style, The Straight Photograph and the Documentary Style, and the Twentieth-Century Landscape. While these divisions don't add much, the text is a concise statement of the characteristics of each category, contributing a basic understanding of its development. Included are references to historical events and technical particulars that make the individual photographers within the categories more human. The text avoids theoretical arguments, reads easily, offers several insights into the differences between individual photographers.
The delightful surprise of the book is the richness and vitality of the portraits, both from the nineteenth-century and the portraits of photographers included at the end of the book. Mrs. Wilsons Nurse is a modern print from a five by seven-inch dry plate glass negative of a black woman holding on display a fat, naked white baby. This image of c. 1890 calls to mind Robert Frank's photograph of a similar subject, and suggests the ways in which each subject is defined by our attitudes toward race-relations, child-rearing, 35mm street photography, and five by seven studio photography.
Two extraordinary photographs of circus performers by Harrison Putney of Leavenworth, Kansas, in 18H5-86 feature the Great Layton balancing three hurricane lamps while he sits on a slack wire, and H, Lissik twirling a blurred baton. Barbara Morgan has caught two other performers in the act, as Beaumont Newhall and Ansel Adams clown around the studio. Walker Evans is shown in a self-portrait of 1928 looking like Merlin the Magician with a "Curtain for Hat."
Martha Sandweiss, Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter, points out that women began to play a much more active role in photography with the advent of the dry plate negative and the introduction of the Kodak camera with roll film. The point is well-made with the number of images by women both famous and unfamiliar.
The most interesting discussion is contained in the first chapter, "The Photographer as Historian"; it sets the tone of the book and reveals the ideas behind the selection of images. Although the connection between history and photography is not new, the changing attitudes of historians are shown here to parallel the development of photography from an objective truth to metaphor and personal vision. The book reminds us that a photograph can be seen not only for its formal similarities to the concerns of painters, but also for the cultural associations it shares with the rest of us.
TIBET, The Sacred Realm. Photographs, 1880-1950. Preface by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Chronicle by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa. An Aperture Book. $35.00 hardcover.
The Western world's image of Tibet had largely been formed through accounts of foreign travelers and writers beginning in the seventeenth century, while Tibet maintained semi-isolation and totally absorbed itself in a spiritual world. Travelogues, personal interpretations, and sensational narratives published on Tibet created a distorted image in the outside world. Although many of the authors were not scholars, but missionaries, trade agents, military officers, and adventurers, their writings are still, even today, considered authentic sources of research and information, much to the chagrin of serious scholars of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. The early travelers had but superficial knowledge of Buddhism in general, no real knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, and often no knowledge at all of Tibetan language…None of these evokes the Tibet that only Tibetans really knew, the Sacred Realm, which is now lost to US.'
This critique appears in the chronicles that accompany these photographs, and it is an accurate description of this book. Although a valuable visual record that contains several enchanting images, it is a view from outside, made by visitors. Magnificent landscapes and monasteries are not clues of the Tibetan Buddhist way of life.
The effort is halfway between a history book and a picture book. Captions with each plate are inadequate to explain the significance of what we see; we are treated as tourists, just passing through. The images are not organized in any way toward increasing our knowledge of any particular aspects of Tibetan life.
The most striking photographs are images of the landscape made in 1900-1907 by a Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin, They have a strange resemblance to the photographs produced by 19th century surveys of the American West; the same awesome expanse, the exotic formations, the small scale of human figures. Of course they add little to our understanding of Tibetan culture, but even the photographers that approach the people and their costumes directly seem impersonal and remote. They are like the exotic Kodachromes of National Geographic, without the benefit of color.
A picture that most dramatically places these people in their time shows two dozen robed men sitting on dirt walls, listening to a gramophone. The appearance of the machine and the men places their existence on our Western calendar; in the other pictures they appear timeless, but in this photograph we're reminded that they were living this way in the time of our parents. We more fully recognize our differences.
"It is one of the great differences between your civilization and ours, that you admire the man who achieves worldly success, who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life, while we admire the man who renounces the world." A photograph on page 75 shows a hand reaching out through a stone wall, "Mystic walled into cave, about 1930. Hand is extended at opening to receive food."
Twenty photographers over a seventy-year period, each with his own particular reason for being in Tibet, cannot be expected to provide an exceptionally coherent view of such an unusual country. We are faced with the impossibility of describing what is essentially an inner life. The photographs only present what it looked like, not what it was to practice it.
There is a sufficient reason in the book to visit the Rice Museum in order to see the original prints (sizes, materials, or conditions arc not mentioned in the book). Several of the photographs will surely appear quite impressive in the original, I wish they did in the book, it is a subject that arouses my curiosity but HI have to turn to another source for a stronger feeling of the place.
NICHOLAS Nixon: Photographs from One Year. Untitled 31.
The Friends of Photography, Carmel, in Association with The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Softcover.
Introduction by Robert Adams, 39 plates, portraits with an 8 x 10 camera.
AARON Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors by Carl Chiarenza. A New York Graphic Society Book. Little, Brown and Company, Boston in association with the Center for Creative Photography. $50 00, hardcover, with 74 duotones, 198 halftone illustrations. "Here is the critical biography of a leading artist of our time — The man who, in the words of Henry Holmes Smith, to a large degree has been responsible for bringing photography into the twentieth century.' Behind the challenging work of Aaron Siskind - in fact, often fueling it — is the fascinating story of a life filled with the terrors of anxiety and mishap." (From the dustjacket).
WILLIAM Christenberry. Southern Photographs,
Aperture, $30.00, hardcover.
"I want to indulge myself in the truly sensual pleasure of savoring these pictures in their quiet honesty, subtlety, and unrestrained strength and in their refreshing purity. There is something enlightening about them; they seem to write a new little social and architectural history about one regional America (the deep South). In addition to that, each one is a poem." Walker Evans, 1972.
PICTURES from the New World
DannyLyon. Aperture- $17.95, paperback.
An extraordinary collection of twenty years of living, with photographs.
HALF a Truth Is Better Than None. Some Unsystematic Conjectures about Art, Disorder, and American Experience, by John A. Kouwenhoven. The University of Chicago Press. $17.95, hardcover.
"Kouwenhoven compares the Eiffel Tower and the Ferris Wheel to show that the vernacular developed more uninhibitedly in America than in Europe; lakes a look at some dime novels which call in question certain aproved generalizations about the American response to the technological elements of the vernacular' and in two complementary essays (Living in a Snapshot World and Photographs as Historical Documents)considers photography, the most important visual art (if art it be) whose roots are wholly in the vernacular." (From the dustjacket).