Photo History Makes Its Own Picture

By Bill Frazier

On the occasion of the one hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the invention of photography, numerous efforts have been made to celebrate this most common art form. This article will examine three such celebratory exhibitions, originating in Houston, Washington. DC. and San Francisco. These exhibitions raise a number of issues which are central to the history, interpretation, and reception of photography. A discussion of some of these ideas will bring us to study various texts briefly. In so doing, it may also lead to an understanding of factors which affect our reading of photographic history.

The Art of Photography exhibition which was shown at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston this past spring includes nearly five hundred photographs made by Europeans and Americans during the past one hundred and fifty years. After its closing in Houston, the exhibition traveled to Canberra, Australia. It opens at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on September 23rd and closes later this year on December 23rd.

The principal curator for the exhibition is Daniel Wolf; Mike Weaver and Norman Rosenthal assisted in the selection process for the exhibition, and Weaver edited the handsome catalog which contains almost 500 reproductions sequenced by Wolf. Anne Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston had a consulting role in the process, but the role of the Houston museum was largely organizational.

The exhibition presented marvelous opportunities for close study of photographs which are rarely brought together and made available to the public. The exhibit was divided into fifteen sections variously organized by subject, process, period or style. These subdivisions provided a historical and chronological framework which was generally helpful to viewers.

As with any broad categorizations, there were occasional oddities. For example, Works by Robert Adams and William Eggleston were shown in a section with photographs by Minor While entitled “Visionary Styles." Both Adams and Eggleston have seemed intent upon mere description, preferring to let the cultural record of our neighborhoods and possessions establish a dialogue with viewers. While their deadpan, dispassionate approach Adams and Eggleston is interesting and important to any discussion of accent approaches to landscape, "visionary" seems a bit too much here, especially by comparison with Minor While's Zen meditations and efforts to intersperse photographs with short haiku-like verbal messages.

One remarkable feature of this exhibition is that it is a handsome collection of original works - which had been printed either by the artists or with their supervision during their lifetimes. Most of these autographic prints were in pristine condition, and the show reflects the careful connoisseurship which Daniel Wolf has practiced as a photo dealer in New York.

On occasion, certain salons in the museum seemed almost a perfect grouping of types of imagery. For example, in the second room of the exhibition there were the sharp-focus, heroic portraits of the new intellectual elite in Paris which Nadar made in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. His work presents the image of the stalwart cultural revolutionary. These pictures were hung opposite calotypes by the Scottish duo Hill and Adamson. These prints from paper negatives with their indistinct textured passages seem almost painterly, yet they retain their essential photographic qualities. Elsewhere in this room, Julia Margaret Cameron was represented by her large soft-focus portraits which frequently present an individual as an allegorical representation of a religious or literary figure. Her images have an indefinite, ephemeral quality. Finally, there are the portraits of Abraham Lincoln made by the Scotsman-turned-American Alexander Gardner. Gardner, who worked for Mathew Brady in a Washington studio, made a portrait of Lincoln which is filled with nobility, yet still manages to suggest elements of the American President's earthy humanity.

Unfortunately, this room did not give an accurate picture of nineteenth century portrait practice. Despite this grouping of magnificent images, several things were missing. There were no tintypes, a kind of image that was quite common in the United States. In Europe, the inexpensive portrait often took the form of carte-de-visite. The absence of these two forms of popular portraiture indicates a curatorial penchant for the rarefied example and the exclusion of the more common form of photography. This predilection became more noticeable in later sections of the exhibit as well.

The introductory room of the exhibit contained calotypes by Fox Talbot and daguerreotypes by various practitioners. From viewing this first room one could assume that daguerreotypes were typically rather large and commonly recorded still lifes, landscapes, historical architectural motifs, and on occasion, portraiture. In practice, however, the daguerreotype was often tiny and nearly always used for portraiture. There were some portraits in this section of the show by the Boston firm of Southworth and Hawes. The remarkable daguerreotype of an “Unidentified Girl with Gilbert Stuart Portrait of George Washington" and a shirtless self-portrait by Albert Sands Southworth are testimony to the expressive possibilities of the medium, which produces images on small silvered copper plates.

About one third of the way through the exhibit inn, gallery viewers came to face a wall of five images taken by the young Paul Strand. These photographs, taken from 1915-1918 were hung together and established the stylistic break between nineteenth century photographic practice and work done for the new modern age. The shift toward modernist formalism looked fresh and exciting. Strand’s photographs from this era such as “Wall Street, New York” (1915) and "Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut” (1916) demonstrated that the subject of photography had changed. Strand photographed light, form and shadow to create images which are essentially abstract. As Stieglitz had recognized, this young photographer had made images which marked a radical departure from earlier efforts. Photography’s attendant reality and dependence upon subject had finally been overcome in this early work by Strand.

These bold images were the introduction to a room which contained work by the three kings of the American modernist avant garde - Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. They are represented by a total of 41 images, many of which are recognized as important within the history of the medium. The early abstractions by Strand, “The Steerage" (1907), "Equivalents," and portraits of O’Keefe by Stieglitz, and the images which Weston made of Armco Steel, nudes, and sand dunes, represent important work by these early modernist artists. There is also a marvelous portrait by Weston of the photographer Tina Modotti reciting poetry. This large grouping of images could have been reduced by a third, however, without diminishing the accomplishments of these three men, thereby allowing room for others to be included. The importance of the contributions which these artists have made to the development of the medium is not bring questioned here, only the curatorial infatuation with the notion of the master photographer.

Throughout the exhibition, there were numerous artists who were represented by comparatively large numbers of works. This concentration of attention on a relatively small number of photographers establishes those practitioners as, perhaps overly important. While it is wonderful to see 16 calotypes by Talbot and 15 images by Stieglitz, this concentration made it necessary to exclude many and underrepresent some. Timothy O’Sullivan was represented by only three images. Francis Frith and Henri Le Secq had only two prints each m the exhibit, and the Bisson Brothers were accorded a single photograph. According to this exhibition, there are a handful of artists who are so influential that concentration upon their work will reveal some truth about the nature of the medium. Instead, this process effectively minimized the contributions of some, like O'Sullivan, and obscured the very significant accomplishments of dozens of others, especially of many women, whose participation in photography has made it unique among all media in the history of art.

The Art of Photography Exhibition presents a version of the history of the medium which is inaccurate and misleading. Of the nearly one hundred artists in the show, only four are women; Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arhus, Susan Meiselas, and Cindy Sherman are the sole representatives of a very large group who have made significant contributions to the medium. A few of the women who might have been included are Gertrude Kasebier, Imogen Cunningham, Anne Brigman, Frances Benjamin Johnson, Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Gisele Freund, Esther Bubley, Lisette Model, Jan Grover, Connie Hatch, Barbara Kruger. . . . The list could continue almost indefinitely. Many more women might have been included had the primary curators not chosen to enhance the already substantial reputations (and commodity value) of work by so many men by including 10 to 15 examples of their production. Additionally, there are no photographs by minorities who also were able to participate in photography to an extent that was without precedent.

It could be argued that not all of these women have made significant contributions to the medium, but the same could he said for many of the men who whose work is included (Joel Sternfeld comes to mind as one such example). In the 1937 exhibit celebrating the centennial of photography’s invention, a young Beaumont Newhall managed to include over a dozen women in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. This show took place well before the advent of the current feminist movement of the last two decades. Surely Anne Tucker, the curator of Photography at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, must have found this exclusion difficult to accept. Rumor had it that she entertained the idea of mounting a small ancillary exhibit of photographs by women artists who are represented in the permanent collection of the museum, but had to abandon it because there was not any additional gallery space available after the huge exhibit had been installed in the upstairs galleries of the museum. As it stands, The Art of Photography and its companion publication of the same title represent revisionism at its worst. They demonstrate the sad fact that patriarchal interpretations of history operate to effectively censure the many noteworthy contributions by women. The argument here is not with those artists whose work is included in the exhibition Rather, it is with Wolf, Weaver, and Rosenthal, and the other curators listed in the catalogue (six men) who have assembled their own rather narrow and precious view of the photographic art, and in the process, distorted the unique social realities of photographic practice in the past 150 years.

Women did not come to photography accidentally. In the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution began to change the fabric of our cities, it caused a major social change. For the first time in history, large numbers of women entered the work force. By the time that photography was made available to the general public, women had been a part of the working class for a generation. The sewing machine, which was introduced at mid-century, was a mechanical device that fit with accepted perceptions of respectable work for women because of its domestic associations. Similarly, the camera was a tool which could afford a woman the chance to balance work with domestic responsibilities because photography could easily be done in the home.

Photography, the sewing machine, and later, the typewriting machine, gave women employment options which did not compromise their need to earn an income, and which conformed with public perceptions about proper conduct for women. Though substantial opportunities for exploitation continued to exist, photography was one of a very few occupations for women which was considered respectable, and their participation in all aspects of photographic practice has a well- documented history. For these reasons, and other more current ones, their near exclusion from this anniversary celebration is most unfortunate and seriously mars the presentation.

Another troubling aspect of this program is the type of curatorial and editorial control which Mike Weaver seems to have exercised over the catalog. Weaver’s heavy-handed approach and his interpretive impulses might be better understood by examining briefly a 1986 publication of his entitled The Photographic Art. In this book, twenty short essays condense history and relate Weaver's rather odd views about the development of pictoral traditions in Britain and the United States. For Weaver it seems that all pictorial content is symbolic. In a section of the book entitled "Concerted Arrangements” he attempts to construct an iconography for photographs of groups of people. A Renaissance print by Raimondi is included to establish an art historical pedigree for it would seem, any trio grouping in almost any photograph. Eugene Smith's picture of Welsh miners (1950s) is said to express the three ages of life: childhood, adult-hood, and old age. A picture from Paul Strand’s Mexican Portfolio becomes a retablo of a sacra conversazione. A picture made in Ireland by Josef Koudelka (1972) shows three men convening while kneeling on their walking sticks. Their posture immediately suggests for Weaver oblique references to the bent-knee posture at Calvary. From reading Weaver, it would appear that any image with three people must surely refer to the Holy Trinity and three-figure pyramidal compositions from the Italian Renaissance. Weaver stands ready to apply cultural significance to any formal pictorial device.

Weaver does not acknowledge the influence which vernacular imagery must surely have had upon the nature of photographic practice. With George Eastman's introduction of the Kodak in 1886, photography was available to almost everyone. After this time, the nature of photography changed. Once it was put into the hands of the middle and lower classes, the medium began an evolution, which was dictated by popular usage. This new form of photography was completely independent of the art historical conventions with which Weaver is preoccupied For example, Paul Martin, who worked in England at the turn of the century, and whose work is not included in The Art of Photography, could be said to be typical of this new class of photographic practitioner He was essentially a tradesman who, having been displaced as a wood engraver, earned a living doing photography. He came from a social class that could not afford the luxury of a classical education, and it is therefore, unlikely that his street merchants had complex iconographical layers of meaning.

Though the exhibit and catalog of The An of Photography contain many exceptional images, the primary curators have engaged in what this writer considers to be an abuse of curatorial prerogative. To consider how this effort compares to another, let us examine the catalog entitled On the Art of Fixing a Shadow, which was pub­lished this year as a joint effort by the National Gallery of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, accompanying an exhibition which originated in Washington, DC. In the opinion of this writer, this large volume represents a more thoughtful response to this anniversary.

ln the introduction to the catalog, the curators and essayists Sarah Greenough, Joel Snyder, David Travis, and Colin Westerbeck state that they do not wish, '. . .to dwell on personality or develop a profile of the master photographer, but rather to chart the evolution of certain ideas. . .". This task has been accomplished by includ­ing many major figures and work which is less well-known, such as vernacular imagery, space photography, photo montage and altered photographs. Theirs is not a purist interpretation but instead one which allows for the role which the amateur played in the history of photography. Consequently, the essays construct more of a history of the medium and studiously avoid the kind of kingmaking and mythologizing with which Wolf, Weaver, et al seem to have been preoccupied in The Art of Photography.

In the first of these essays, entitled "Inventing Photography," Joel Snyder avoids the pitfalls of excessive categorization and tries to help the reader understand the imagery and the period from a broad perspective. He acknowledges the civic, social, and historical factors which created the climate in which photography was invented and which contributed to its suc­cess and growth.

The second essay in this book, entitled "The Curious Contagion of the Camera,1" by Sarah Greenough, covers the general period from 1880-1918, during which photography was made available to all classes of society. This section begins with a discussion of the hand camera. It reproduces several anonymous photographic tondos which were made using the first Kodak cameras. Greenough writes, "The legions of hand camera enthusiasts created new sub­jects, new criteria of pictorial structure and function, new theories, and a new critical vocabulary. In so doing, they shook the very core of the medium…” This section of the book presents some very important practitioners who were not artists per se. Jacob Riis, for example, used photography as a means to an end in his social reform efforts.

This exhibit, as it is represented by its catalog, presents a substantially different view from those who would link the masters of the medium together to form an artistic monolith. These curators have resisted the rather antiquated views of artists as cultural giants, and instead have presented them as sensitive respondents to cultural conditions, subject to the varied influences which affect society at large. Consider for example, the work of William Eggleston whose approach to landscape cannot be understood without recognizing that Eggleston may have been influenced by snapshot imagery.

On the west coast, the San Francisco Museum of Modem Art assembled an exhibit with a slightly different focus. A History of Photography from California Collections was organized by Dr. Sandra S. Phillips, the Curator of the Department of Photography. The regional focus was reflected not only in the list oflenders, but also in the subject ofmany of the images. Various historical associations and libraries from across the state had made loans from their archives. As a result, this show had a decided community flavor which was refreshing.

In the galleries there were large cases which held oversize folios opened to mammoth plate prints by Carleton Watkins and others. The long panoramic photo of San Francisco made by Eadweard Muybridge (1878) documents the city as it existed a generation before the great quake and fire which destroyed the city. Photography’s relationship to the press and photojournal­ism was illustrated by the presence of maga­zines, which presented the original context in which the images were published. In short, this exhibit embraced the fine art aspect of photographic practice as well as its more pedestrian history. There were also a great number of women represented in the show. While some of the names were quite unfamiliar, work by Imogen Cunningham, Anne Brigman and others indicated that photography in California involved women as well as men.

As we have seen from these three exhibits, the personalities and views of writers and curators do influence our read­ing of historical material. In reviewing some of the texts in use recently in photo history courses, we can further understand how various factors influence the interpre­tation provided in a given text. For instance, the nationality of the writer may skew the emphasis. Gisele Freund, who was born in Germany but moved to France during the second world war, is a respected photojournalist and writer. Her publication Photography and Society gives priority to the French inventor of photography, Daguerre. This lively history is filled with many insightful remarks about the relation­ships between political and social events, and comments on how these may he seen in the photography of the time. Freund’s nationalistic chauvinism is evident howev­er in her treatment of Fox Talbot, who is summarily dismissed with four sentences as the inventor of the calotype in England.

Conversely, lan Jeffrey's publication Photography: A Concise History IS biased toward contributions by Britons. Daguerre is mentioned in only a single instance and his process is never described. Nationalistic bias may have encouraged the curators for the Houston show to overlook artists who were not from Britain, France or the United States.

In this country, one of the texts most fre­quently used is that which Beaumont Newhall has adapted from the catalog for the 1937 MOMA exhibit Photography I837-1937. Currently in its fifth edition, The History of Photography is well organized and thoughtful as it progresses from the earliest photographic experiments through the decades to the mid-twentieth century. Recent scholarship has created a few holes in the section of Newhall’s book which covers the years from about 1850­-1890, but in general, the text is adequate until the period of about 1940. There is a bit too much emphasis upon technical development, which is not often given much of a social context. The major defi­ciency in this text is that its sections covering work since 194H are rather sketchy and not very informative. Contemporary pho­tographic practice is not reviewed at all.

In 1955, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, who as collectors are almost single-handedly responsible for the preservation of many nineteenth century images, wrote a histo­ry of photography. A revised edition enti­tled A Concise History of Photography (1965) is an interesting and thorough com­pendium of well-known works and a few lesser-known images. Gernsheim has begun updating this history and has published two volumes: The Origins of Photography (1982), and The Rise of Photography 1850-188O: The Age of Collodion. This later publication is typical of the type of photography book which has evolved over the past ten years. The more recent publications are distinguished from their predecessors by the quality of their reproductions, which attempt to approxi­mate the tones and value ranges of the original work being reproduced.

Gernsheim includes in his history of the medium notes on technical developments and equipment. He also discusses aspects of the medium which are frequently considered unimportant. There Is a humorous anecdotal account of a dubious class of photographic businessmen who were com­plete charlatans.11 Their inclusion m this history helps explain the enthusiasm for the new invention which was in such demand that itled many unqualified peo­ple to hurriedly open photographic establishments. Elsewhere, Gernsheim states flatly that Matthew Brady’s role in Civil War photography was that of an "Organizer"; in so doing, he avoids the kind of myth-making that has clouded an accurate understanding of the contribution which Brady made. Gernsheim writes,”. . .the aura surrounding Brady is quite disproportionate to his merits as a photographer." It will be interesting to see further efforts in this series.

ln 1986 Jean-Claude Lemagny and Andre Rouille edited a text entitled A History of Photography: Social and Cultural Perspectives, which was translated into English in 1987. In his introduction Lemagny writes that the editors decided to invite numerous authors from Europe and the United States to contribute to the vol­ume.11 This diversity of authorship helps avoid any consistent nationalistic slant. What emerges from this effort is a thought­ful group of essays that convey the varied social, political, and national complexities of photography as it has been practiced by artists, photojournalists, private individuals and the state.

A section of the book entitled " Photography and Contemporary Art" written by Philippe Dubois is a most thorough assessment of the interaction between photography and other art forms during this century. It includes a discussion of photography and other contemporary art practices, such as conceptual art, environmental art, pop art, and performance art. Dubois and the editors are willing to let the formalist notion of the photograph as a strangely whole and complete object be challenged. In this last section of the book, photography is shown as enmeshed within contemporary artistic practice and fre­quently dependent upon a contextual relationship to some other work.

Fox Talbot is nearly missing using from this work as well. (Despite the varied nationalities of the contributors, the editors may have allowed some nationalist fervor to color then views of history!) Though Talbot is mentioned several times through­out the book, he is represented by only one small reproduction of the “Latticed Window" from 1835.

In what is easily the most ambitious undertaking of photo history in a single volume, Naomi Rosenblum has assembled A World History of Photography. This vol­ume has over 600 pages and more than 800 reproductions in color and black and white. It discusses hundreds of practitioners and has two sections which present techni­cal histories. There is periodically a portfo­lio of sorts which presents work with shared concerns virtually without interpretation of comment. In these sections, work such as "The Galerie Contemporaine,” a collection of images picturing influential personages from nineteenth century France, is published to give a view of such work unencumbered by subjective interpretation. There are similar sections devoted to Alexander Gardner's images of the Lincoln Conspirators, the Western Landscape, and medical, scientific, and space photography.

Rosenblum’s project allows for much information to be included. Typically, sur­vey books published for markets in the United States concentrate upon France, England and the United States. While it is true that much of the activity took place there, there were important things happening elsewhere. Rosenblum presents Canadian and Latin American photographers as well as practitioners from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Spain who are not usually represented in survey texts. Important figures are briefly profiles in a manner which meets the necessity of biographical and stylistic discussions while avoiding the tendency to dwell upon these photographers.

LIFE magazine, which has had a role in shaping our reception of photography since it began publication in 1936, printed an issue in the fall of 1988 celebrating the sesquicentennial of photography. Not surprisingly the editors ofLIFE adopted a broader interpretation of photography than some museums have. The issue includes sections and photo spreads on numerous subjects - fashion, photojournalism, portraiture, cameras, sports photography, advertising, historical figures in the medium; and it even includes a section on present day art photography which reproduced week by Joel-Peter Wilkin, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, John Baldessari, and Barbara Kruger. (It would seem that LIFE is more up'to-date than some of the museums.) These various sections are interspersed with advertising. Polaroid has an ad for its new Spectra camera which presents pictures of ten attractive women perhaps as a sample to testify to the merits of the product. Casio advertises its electronic still camera. Fuji, Kodak, and Nikon are lined up with Chevrolet, Claussen pickles, and porcelain horses from the Franklin Mint in support of photography’s anniversary. The publishers bring us the miracles of the good life, as well as a few rather bizarre juxtapositions.

This LIFE also includes an interesting section entitled “Milestones” which is essentially a photographic timeline. It begins in 1839 with the frontispiece of Daguerre’s publication and ends with an image of a hand tossing a Fujicolor Quick Snap into a waste bin. There are some mar­velous stops along the way -the advent of the baseball card in 1887, the first photo booth in 1925, and the first drive-thru Fotomat in 1967. These milestones are technical, political, social, and on occasion troubling - such as the coining of the term "photo opportunity'' in 1969 as a euphemism for controlling public access to our president. In typical LIFE fashion, the editors have devoted one section to images from small town portrait studio as representative of all such enterprises in late nineteenth century America." This gallery of ordinary citizens from Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, demon­strates the formula which made LIFE sopopular. As Freund has noted, the periodical frequently told its stories by using specific people who led rather ordinary lives. In this case, the formula is applied to the past. We see here an American version of the Galerie Contemporaine populated with more plebian types.

No photographic history or recollection would be complete without a section devoted to snapshots. These informal, pri­vate images are what most of us know of photography. For the most part, snapshots are quite unremarkable, yet we in the United States are estimated to have made about fifteen billion of them in 1987. LIFE asked ten writers to contribute a favorite snapshot and write a brief note about the image. While the pedigree of the maker does add a certain cachet to these pictures which snapshots do not ordinarily have, their inclusion does make this LIFE issue rather more complete.


Exhibitions, encyclopedic catalogs, and histories do as much to create a history of the medium as artists or photojournalists do. It is necessary when reading any history or showing an exhibition to understand what sequencing, editing, and curatorial choice effectively present a specific person­al view which is far from objective. As we construct them, our histories reflect both present-day knowledge about a given period and present fashion. Changes in empha­sis, omissions, and privately held theories tend to gel in the way and can confuse the issues. Let the reader beware.