The Social Fabric of America

by Joanne Lukitsch

In the “introduction,” Martha A. Sandweiss situates Photography in Nineteenth-Century America within a field of study developed in the late 1930s with the publication of Beaumont Newhall’s Photography, 1839-1937 and Robert Taft’sPhotography and the American Scene, A Social History, 1839-1889. Unlike Newhall’s transposition of an art historical narrative of master practitioners and internal stylistic development to photographic activities, Sandweiss explains, Taft’s intention was to trace “the effect of photography upon the social fabric of American, and in turn, the effect of social life upon the progress of photography.” Sandweiss acknowledges the importance of Newhall’s work, but credits Taft’s suggestion that “an intriguing field for further study would be how photographs were created, used, and perceived by their original audiences” as the inspiration for Photography in Nineteenth-Century America and the exhibition it accompanies.

The terms of Sandweiss’ contrast between Newhall and Taft would seem to place the book and exhibition within the context of well over a decade’s criticism of the aesthetic autonomy of the photographic image, but, as I will discuss, this is not entirely the case. A more troubling consequence of Sandweiss’ contrast between art history and American social history is that “America” is left as the unexamined term. How does Taft’s interest in the study of how photographs were used by their original audiences speak to contemporary ideas about the “social fabric of America?”

Photography in Nineteenth-Century America features six essays, interspersed by a color plate and portfolio sections that reproduce images from a number of American museums, libraries, and historical collections, and an appendix consisting of an exhibition checklist and biographies. This format is similar to recent national surveys of nineteenth-century photography, such as The Golden Age of British Photography, but the lengthy essays (with extensive references to primary sources) inPhotography in Nineteenth-Century America seem to address a more serious audience. The six essays are arranged in approximate chronological order and their subjects generally coincide with Taft’s (and with Newhall’s, for that matter) discussion of the period: the early reception of photography in the United States, portraiture, the Civil War, photography produced during different periods of westward expansion, and late century amateur pictorial photography.

The theoretical approaches of the essays differ from those of Taft and from each other. In the essay “Photography: The Emergence of a Keyword,” Alan Trachtenberg analyzes the different meanings generated by and attached to the word “photography” during the era of the daguerreotype, when “the image and the idea of a photographic medium took shape in America.” Barbara McCandless’ “The Portrait Studio and the Celebrity: Promoting the Art” discusses how the production and display or photographs of celebrities was as significant to the careers of portrait photographers as the more widely recognized production of portraits of family and friends, and develops this idea in an extended account of the careers of Mathew Brady and Napoleon Sarony. Sandweiss’ “Undecisive Moments: The Narrative Tradition in Western Photography,” recounts how photographers working in the West from the pre-Civil War period through the end of the century used different means – from the exhibition of hundreds of daguerreotypes in formats derived from panorama paintings to descriptive captions on photographic mounts – to place individual images within a narrative text that would meet the expectations of contemporary audiences.

In “A Terrible Distinctness: Photography of the Civil War Era,” Keith Davis examines the cultural context of Civil War photography through an analysis of the production, dissemination, and appreciation of the imagery in relation to the interests of what Davis identifies as its four primary audiences: the civilian public, individual soldiers, the illustrated press, and the official military hierarchy. Peter Bacon Hales’ “American Views and the Romance of Modernization” describes the course of what he describes as an “American photographic view tradition,” which represented the urban and Western spaces under development in the post-Civil War period in a form consistent with dominant American values. In “Of Charming Glens, Graceful Glades, and Browning Cliffs: The Economic Incentives, Social Inducements, and Aesthetic Issues of American Pictorial Photography, 1880-1902,” Sarah Greenough provides a lengthy discussion of pictorial photographers in the 1890s, after professional photographers had relinquished “the new aesthetic of pictorial photography” as a potential – but unsuccessful – means of adding status to a profession threatened in the 1880s by the growing amateur market.

While the essays all approach their subjects differently, to a large degree they share the concept that photography is a “medium,” a concept that suffices as the reason why none of the essayists explains her or his premise for distinguishing nineteenth-century photography from contemporary visual and literary representations as a subject of study. As used here, the concept of nineteenth-century photography as a medium is uneasily transported from Greenberg’s late modernist formalism: there is a photographic medium – encompassing daguerreotypes and gelatin silver prints – and it follows a purposeful course through the nineteenth-century. It is a predictable “Newhall” approach to the history of photography; Sandweiss is not being disingenuous in claiming Taft as precedent; she and the essayists are at pains to resist “aestheticizing” photographs, but they have fewer qualms about aestheticizing nineteenth-century American history.

While Sandweiss’ “Undecisive Moments” challenges what she describes as a photographic art market’s preoccupation with the “aesthetic qualities of the individual print,” her challenge proceeds on that market’s terms and she does not evaluate the historical significance of these different photographic narratives, save to indicate their affinity with “themes made familiar in contemporary literary tests: the taming of the wilderness, the subjugation of the native peoples, and the westward expansion of American culture.” Sandweiss provides some valuable information about the reception of this imagery, but her discussion of this material – particularly her ambition to reconstruct “the original narrative context” of the photographers or to their public audiences – is surprisingly indifferent to the stakes involved in the conflicting contemporary historical interpretations of the westward expansion of American culture. Additionally, her belief in the availability of the original context of viewing exists, at the expense of, among other factors, a productive investigation of the historical significance of differences in viewing. In contrast, Davis’ “A Terrible Distinctness” is less concerned with photography as a medium, than with the complex of uses photographic representations played in the Civil War, “the first ‘modern’ conflict to combine mass armies, industrial technology, factory production, engineering skills, and mechanical invention.” Davis’ thorough account of the production and reception of Civil War photography in relation to their four primary audiences is also proposed as an “attempt to suggest some of the original meanings and functions” of this imagery, but he also describes the difficulty of that attempt; more importantly, his concluding remarks locate his own essay among the inventions and interpretations of Civil War imagery written since the war’s historical conclusion.

Trachtenberg’s essay on the emergence of photography as a “keyword” from the 1840s through the 1860s – a “keyword linked to modernity itself” – consists of nuanced, excellent readings of the different meanings of “photography” in a number of elite and popular sources. The meanings under discussion encompass issues of erotic anxiety to expectations of civic order, and the essays include an important discussion of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ three Atlantic Monthly essays on photography. Trachtenberg’s essay would seem to be least attached to the concept of nineteenth-century photography as a medium, and on one level this is the case: the specific material properties of the daguerreotype, the stereograph, and paper prints inform his study. Yet, however complex the concept, photography follows its appropriate course: the essay concludes with a summary notice of Alfred Stieglitz’ campaign for photography as an art and the modern movement in photography, which “would restore the critical edge in the keyword, making it seem once again a word worth fighting for.” The connection between Holmes and Stieglitz is a tenuous one, serving more to bring a provocative analysis to a familiar point of closure.

McCandless’ and Hales’ essays are concerned with the photographic medium as manifested in the production of, respectively, portraits and landscape subjects, over extended periods of time. McCandless’ discussion of the importance of the studio-produced celebrity portrait for the development of a popular market for photographic portraits, culminating in “truly democratic portrait,” produced by the Kodak hand camera, provides much useful information, but is discouragingly vague on what constitutes a popular market and its changing expectations of portrait representations. Hales’ examination of the American view tradition as one that “integrated the rhetoric of expansionism, the economics of laissez-faire capitalism and the visual conventions of landscape discourse to represent a new culture coming gloriously into being within a special landscape of virtue and hope,” rather romanticizes this tradition and its practitioners, though Hales’ readings of view imagery and the images produced in the wake of the disintegration of this “tradition” are interesting in their discussion of viewing practices and the representation of space.

The affiliation Photography in Nineteenth-Century America claims with Taft would seem to promise a social history of nineteenth-century photography: for most of the essays, research in the subjects consistent with modernist histories of photograph constituted the effective extent of their thinking about social history. At a time when controversy over whose stories of American history will be taught in schools and exhibited in museums, the book is oddly detached: while it doesn’t advance different voices, neither does the medium of photography authoritatively maintain traditional values.

Joanne Lukitsch is a visiting assistant professor in the art department of the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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