Wry Scholarship

by April Rapier

The Formative Decades: Photography in Great Britain, 1839-1920, by Roy Flukinger, University of Texas Press, Austin.
Roy Flukinger’s brilliant and erudite volume, The Formative Decades: Photography in Great Britain, 1839-1920, University of Texas press, 1985 was originally conceived as an exhibition, the first in nearly two decades drawn from the Photography Collection, Harry Random Humanities Resource Center, University of Texas, Austin. The Gernsheim Collection, purchased in 1963, was seen officially as a supplement to the HRC’s British literary materials; the merging of the two created one of the world’s largest collections of photographic historical materials, inaugurating the Photography Collection, HRC (now HRHRC), of which Flukinger is curator. The exhibition was a collaboration between HRHRC and the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, an important and resourceful cooperation. The book is both scholarly and engaging, the result of Flukinger’s renowned researching abilities, relentless and absolute.
Its forma is one of the clearest and most accessible of any historical writing or catalogue: one reads a text first, after which individual photographs are positioned over a descriptive few paragraphs, discussing artist, process, general applications, and other issues. Its clarity and simplicity make available a concentration of interesting and hard-to-find information, making it invaluable as an art of photo-history text. In fact, one wishes for its companion volumes – France and America, to suggest a starting point – as an alternative to Newhall’s book, which in comparison, seems truncated and anecdotal. The range of images used is an innovative departure from the norm, using obscure and better known imagery in enlightening juxtaposition.
Ideas and factual data are drawn full-circle, an entirely different level of material is brought to light, and parallels and connections are startlingly innovative and detailed. Flukinger presents information in a logical progression, enabling the reader to piece together an extremely active and seminal eight decades, a time period that revolutionized the world. His editorial interjections are born of thoughtful and informed dialogue with contemporary imagemakers and educators, reflecting an open-mindedness that clears the reader’s wa, encouraging further inquiry. Flukinger calls upon other disciplines as well, adding scientific, sociological, psychological, political, and lierary disciplines and commentary as response to tangent issues that arise quite naturally in the course of processing new information. The Formative Decades is wry and challenging, representative of the kind of work one has come to expect and enjoy from Flukinger, evidenced in his lectures, papers, curatorial skills, and insightful intellectualism alike.
The exhibition provided a rare opportunity to see first-hand a vast and exciting collection of the foundations of photography. The book far surpasses the concept of scholarly catalogue: it contains a wealth of marvevlous information and opinion, an indespensible addition to the artists’ or historians’ library.