History of Photography



Introduction  

History of Photography

A World History of Photography

The Story Behind the Pictures 1827-1991

Photographers' Dictionary










 

 



Chapter 5

 



PHOTOGRAPHY AND ART:


 

THE FIRST PHASE


 

1839-1890


 


Naturalism

Reaction was inevitable to the mannered contrivance of combination images and to the trivialization of photography by mass-production genre images. The former subverted an inherently direct process with a superabundance of handwork while the latter submerged photographic expression in a wash of banal literalism. And toward the end of the 1880s, a further lowering of standards appeared certain with the invention and marketing of new equipment and processes designed to make photographers out of just about everyone (see Chapter 6).

The most irresistible protest against these developments was embodied in the theory of "naturalism" proclaimed by the English photographer Peter Henry Emerson (see Profile below). In an 1889 publication entitled Naturalistic Photography, Emerson held that camera images (and all visual art) ought to reflect nature with "truth of sentiment, illusion of truth .. . and decoration," that only by following this path would photographs achieve an aesthetic status independent of and equal to the graphic arts without resorting to handwork on print or negative.

In Emerson's lexicon, Naturalism was a substitute for Impressionism, a word he felt was limited in connotation, and too closely associated with controversial artists such as his friend James McNeil! Whistler. Asserting that the role of the photographer was to be sensitive to external impressions, he observed that "nature is so full of surprises that, all things considered, she is best painted (or photographed) as she is." At the same time, his emphasis on the importance of selection and feeling made his ideas congenial to the aesthetic artists of thie late 19th century. In a field already confused by inaccurate terminology, Emerson compounded the problem by stating that realism was "false to nature" because it was descriptive, while Naturalism was both "analytical and true."

For eight years, beginning in 1882, Emerson photographed in the tidal areas of East Anglia. A careful observer, he probed beyond the surface to expose in both word and image the difficult existence of the English rural poor while also documenting their fast-disappearing customs and traditions. In exalting the sturdy folk and quiet beauty of the countryside, he showed himself to be one of a group of comfortably situated English artists and intellectuals who sought to make a statement about the incivility of modern industrial life. Despite his insistence on a distinctive aesthetic for photography, however, these images reflect the heroicizing attitudes of painters such as Jean Francois Millet, Jules Breton, and Jules Bastion-Lepage, who had idealized French peasant life a few decades earlier. Reapers at Damnlle (pi. no. 280), an etching of 1879 by Bastien-Lepage, is both visually and ideologically a forerunner of In the Barley Harvest (pi. no. 281), a plate from Emerson's Pictures of East Anglian Life of 1888. Emerson's Naturalist concepts and techniques challenged Robinson's Pictorialist dictates, initiating an acrimonious dispute in the photographic journals; ideas abou: class and aesthetics engaged other photographers and editors as well. In addition, the Naturalist approach began to influence the work of other established English camera artists. In the Twilight (pi. no. 282) by Lidell Sawyer, a Pictorialist "born, nursed and soaked" in photography who deplored the fragmentation of the medium into schools, incorporates a sense of atmosphere into a carefully composed genre scene in an effort to balance contrivance and naturalness. One of the most renowned Pictorialist photographers in England, Frank M. Sutcliffe worked in Whitby, a fishing village that was at the time a mecca for painters and amateur photographers. Interested in the hand camera as well as in portraiture, landscapes, and genre scenes made with a stand camera, Sutcliffe's work displays a sensitive application of the Naturalistic precept of spontaneity. The conscious selection of an expressive vantage point, along with carefully controlled printing techniques enabled him to invest Water Rats (pi. no. 283) with both the immediacy of real life and a transcendent lyricism.

Emerson renounced his great expectations for artistic photography in 1890, convinced that the pioneering studies in sensitometry—the scientific relation of tonality to exposure—published in the same year by Frederick Hurter and Vero Driffield (see A Short Technical History, Part II), proved that photographers could not truly control the tonal quality of the print, and therefore the medium was at best a secondary art. Despite this turnabout, however, Naturalism—refined and reinterpreted—continued to find adherents, providing a foundation for the photographic art movements that developed throughout Europe and North America after 1890. This "second coming" of pictorial or art photography will be the subject of Chapter 7.

280. JULES BASTIEN-LEPAGE. Reapers at Damville, 1879.
Etching Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

281. PETER HENRY EMERSON. In the Barley Harvest from Pictures of East Anglian Life, 1888.
Gravure print. Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England.


Peter Henry Emerson (see collection)
 

282. LIDELL SAWYER. In the Twilight, 1888.
Gravure print. Gernsheim Collection, Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.

283. FRANK M. SUTCLIFFE. Water Rats, 1886.
Albumen print. Private Collection.


Art Works in Photographic Reproduction

While the struggle for the acceptance of camera pictures as art was being carried on by a small group of aesthetically minded photographers, a development of much greater consequence for the general population was underway. Realizing that the accurate reproduction of works of art could be both commercially and culturally beneficial, a number of professional photographers throughout Europe started in the 1850s to publish photographic prints of the mastenvorks of Western art. There is little question that since that time the camera image has been the most significant purveyor of visual artifacts, revolutionizing public access to the visual art heritage of the world. The same verisimilitude denounced by elitists as too real when applied to recording actuality was welcomed when used for reproducing art objects, because it was believed that familiarity with masterful works of art through facsimiles would not only uplift the spirit but would improve taste and enable people to make better selections of decor and dress in their daily lives.

It will be recalled that photographs of engravings and casts were among the earliest themes in daguerreotypes and calotypes, in part because these objects provided un-moving subjects but also because they established the possibility of making graphic art available to a wide audience. With the inclusion of the Bust of Patroclus and a drawing of Hagar in the Desert in The Pencil of Nature, and a publication on Spanish painting, Talbot specifically pointed to this important application of photography. Instructions for photographing works of art, notably by Blanquart-Evrard and Disderi, appeared during the 1850s, at the same time that photographers in Italy were including such works in views made for tourists. James Anderson (born Isaac Atkinson), an English watercolorist, was one of the first to make photographic reproductions of paintings and sculpture along with the better-known architectural monuments of Rome. Considering the dimness of the interior of the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Anderson's achievement in conveying both the sculptural form and expressive drama of Michelangelo's Moses from the Tomb of Julius II (pi. no. 284) is remarkable.

During the 1850s, a considerable number of photographers outside of Italy, among them Antoinc Samuel Adam-Salomon, Baldus, Diamond. Disderi, Fenton, and Franz Hanfstaengl in Europe and John Moran in the United States, began to photograph art objects ranging from those in royal and renowned collections to obscure artifacts in antiquarian societies. As a result of the favorable response by prestigious art critics to the photographic reproductions at the Exposition Untverselle of 1855, a more programmatic approach ensued. Between 1853 and i860., Fenton worked for the British Museum, providing them with negatives and selling prints to the public, from which he garnered a not inconsiderable income; besides sculpture and inscribed tablets, he photographed stuffed animals and skeletons. The Alinari brothers of Florence, Braun in Dornach, Hanfstaengl in Munich, and, later, Goupil in Paris—to name the most famous companies—organized large enterprises for the publication and sale of art reproductions. In spite of objections from painters in Italy who regarded photographs as a threat to their livelihood as copyists, these projects all prospered.

Braun, who was said to have higher ambitions than mere commercial success and who might be considered the exemplar of this activity, began modestly by photographing rarely seen Holbein drawings (pi. no. 285) in the museum at Basel, not far from his studio at Dornach; when access to other collections became possible through favorable publicity in the press and a bit of lobbying in the proper circles, the company he established photographed some forty collections of drawings, frescoes, paintings, and sculpture in Paris, Rome, Florence, Milan, Dresden, and Vienna. During the mid-186os, the firm changed from albumen to carbon printing in order to produce permanent images, but the change also made possible exact facsimiles because the photographs incorporated earth pigments similar to those used in the original drawings in the carbon tissues. Widely acclaimed for the improvement in taste engendered by the excellence of his work, Braun kept abreast of changing technologies in both photography and printing, and at the time of his death in 1877 had begun to solve the problem of reproducing oil paintings in color.

The effect of this large-scale activity on the part of Braun and others was to increase the accuracy of representation, making low-cost reproductions of artworks available not only to individuals but to art schools in Europe and the United States. One English enthusiast even suggested that both the expenses and cultural risks of sending English students to study in France and Italy might be avoided because such excellent reproductions had become obtainable! While students thoughtfully continued to insist on contact with real works, photographic reproductions did have a profound effect on the discipline of art history. For the first time, identically replicated visual records enabled scholars in widely separated localities to establish chronologies, trace developments, and render aesthetic judgments. Besides familiarizing people with the acknowledged masterpieces of Western art, photographs made lesser works visible and awakened interest in artifacts and ceremonial objects from ancient cultures and little-known tribal societies. As a substitute for actual visual and tactile experiences, especially in the case of multifunctional three-dimensional structures (architecture), camera images clearly present problems, but it is all but impossible to imagine how the study of visual artifacts would have fared without photography.

In its early struggles to show itself capable of artistic expression, photography wandered down some uneasy byways, and its practitioners initiated some enduring arguments about camera art. These developments were due in part to the hesitation by critics and painters to acknowledge the camera's expressive potential and in part to confusion among photographers themselves as to what constituted artistic images. From a historical perspective, it seems possible to conclude that the medium was at its best when illuminating aspects of the real world, and least inspiring when emulating the sentimental conventions of genre (or other) painting. Sensitivity to the disposition of form, to the varieties of textural experience, and to the nuances and contrasts of light rather than emphasis on narrative content gave photographs their unique power, whether their makers called their images documents or art.

During the same period, painters faced with the threat presented by a potentially rival visual medium found a variety of ways to use the photograph, whether or not they admitted doing so. Of even greater significance was the transformation that occurred in the handmade arts as camera images began to suggest to artists new ways to delineate form and new areas of experience worthy of depiction. Tenuous at first, these interconnections between graphic and photographic representation have gained strength over the years and continue in the present to invigorate both media.

284. JAMES ANDERSON. Michelangelo's Moses from the Tomb of Julius II, early 1850s.
Albumen print. Collection Centre Canadien d'Architecture/ Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

285. ADOLPHE BRAUN. Holbein's Dead Christy 1865.
Albumen print. Societc Francaisc de Photographic, Paris.

Hans Holbein the Younger
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1521


Profile: Charles Negre
  (see collection)
 

Charles Negre was an established painter of some repute who became interested in photography for its expressive and technical capabilities as well as its possible commercial exploitation. Born in Grasse, France, in 1820, the nineteen-year-old Negre arrived in Paris determined to become an artist in the classical tradition. He enrolled first in the studio of Delaroche, with Fenton, Le Gray, and Le Secq as classmates, and later studied with Ingres. A canvas was accepted for exhibition in the Paris Salon of 1843, and for the next ten years Negre regularly exhibited under this prestigious sponsorship.

In common with other Delaroche students, Negre experimented with daguerreotyping, producing a number of landscapes, and around 1849-50 he began to make calotypes as an aid in painting. In the following years, Negre began to photograph actively, drawing upon the picturesque tradition made popular in France by Francois Bonvin. In his portrayals of beggars, shepherds, peasants, and the working-class poor of the city, he subordinated detail to overall effect by the careful manipulation of light and shade exemplified by Toung Girl Seated with a Basket (pi. no. 256). The delicate pencil shadings that Negre applied to the paper negatives in order to adjust values and subdue sharpness were all but invisible on the rough-textured paper surface of the calotype print.

Attracted by spontaneous street activity, the photographer invented a combination of fast lenses to capture aspects of passing life such as market scenes (pi. no. 286), one of which he translated almost directly into a small oil in 1852. He also undertook an ambitious architectural documentation in die south of France, culminating in a portfolio of some 200 prints of buildings, ruins, and landscapes of the Midi, which he endeavored to publish but without much success. Eventually, the project led to a government commission for a series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral. The rich architectural textures and clear details revealed in these images suggest that Negre had found an inherently photographic aesthetic that was not dependent on painted antecedents.

Besides perfecting calotyping techniques, Negre displayed an interest in the craft aspect of photography that led to an involvement with printing processes. Convinced that gravure printing would solve the problems of permanence and make possible the inexpensive distribution of photographs, he improved on the process developed by Niepce de Saint Victor, receiving his own patent in 1856. One year earlier, his gravure prints had been commended for "subtlety of detail, tonal vigor and transparency of middle tones," but to his great disappointment and the surprise of many, the Duc de Luynes prize for a photographic printing technology went in 1867 to Alphonsc Louis Poitevin. Negre, by then a drawing master in Nice, continued to work for several years on a gravure project but seems to have lost interest in photography. At their best, his calotypes demonstrate a respect for die integrity of the medium informed by exceptional sensitivity to light and form.

286. CHARLES NEGRE. Market Scene at the Port de L'Hotel de Ville, Paris, 1851.
Salt print. Collection Andre Jammes, Paris; National Gallety of Canada, Ottawa.


Charles Negre

(French, 1820-1881)

Charles Nègre began to photograph in 1844 in order to collect visual images to use in preparation for his paintings. Unlike many painters who turned to the new medium, Nègre never ceased to paint. He is best known for his landscape and architectural photographs of Paris, Chartres, and the Midi, a region in southern France. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nègre printed all of his own photographs and was renowned as a photographic printer. He retired in 1863 and died at Cannes, France.


CHARLES NEGRE. Deux Pifferari dans la cour du 21 quai Bourbon vers 1854


 


Profile:
Peter Henry Emerson (see collection)
 

Peter Henry Emerson, a girted but contentious individual who practiced only briefly the medical profession for which he was trained, was involved with photography for some 30 years, but all his important contributions were made between 1885 and 1893. During this period, as he developed, refined, and then denounced a theory of aesthetics, he also documented aspects of rural life in England with the stated aim of "producing truthful pictures."

Born in Cuba of a family distantly related to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Peter Henry arrived in England in 1869 to begin a disciplined education that eventually was crowned with degrees in medicine and surgery. In 1882 he began to photograph, and three years later, on gaining his last medical tide, embarked on a documentation of the marshy region of East Anglia inhabited mainly by poor farm laborers, fishermen, hunters, and basket-makers. Hiring a boat to cruise through the inland waterways and fens, Emerson met the landscape painter T. F. Goodall, with whom he collaborated on a book of images of this area, Life atid Landscape on the Norfolk Broads—40 platinum prints with text, issued in 186 Over the next five years, despite his avowedly aesthetic outlook, Emerson continued to work in this region and to publish images in book form—that is, as sequential statements rather than as individual works of art.

In considering techniques for capturing the "truth'" of the real world on photographic plates, Emerson was motivated both by his revulsion against what he considered the meretricious art of the past and by his scientific outlook. A trip to Italy in 1881 had convinced him that the renowned masterpieces of church art, from the mosaics at Ravenna to Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, were unnatural and mannered—that one might learn more from a walk "in the fields of Italy" than from visits to museums and churches to see "some middle-age monstrosity." His scientific background led him to examine physiological factors in human vision, and on the basis of the optical theories of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz, he argued that during a momentary glance human vision is sharp only at the point of focus, whereas the camera lens produces an image that is equally sharp over the entire field; therefore, photographers should use long-focal-length soft lenses to approximate natural vision—that is, to replicate instantaneous perception. He ignored the fact that the human eye does not fix itself on one point but travels rapidly over the visual scene, communicating as it does so a sharply defined picture to the brain. It is ironic, also, that his call for softer delineation came at the very moment when the sharpest lenses developed were being introduced into Europe.

That Emerson sought a scientific basis for truthfully depicting actuality while concluding that the goals of art and science were incongruous is one of the paradoxes of his career. It also is puzzling that he could so deftly renounce his great expectations for photography when presented with a means for controlling the relationship of exposure and development. Apart from these inconsistencies, his contributions include the promotion of platinum printing paper for its subtle gradations and permanence, of hand-pulled gravure for reproduction, and of sensible rules for the submission and display of photographs in competitions and exhibitions. As a means of avoiding the fictive and the false in art, his theory of Naturalism inspired a generation of photographers to seek both truth and beauty in actuality.


PETER HENRY EMERSON. Ricking The Reed

 


Peter Henry Emerson

(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Peter Henry Emerson (1856–1936) was a Cuban-born photographer. His photographs are early examples of promoting photography as an art form. He is known for taking photographs that displayed natural settings.
Emerson was born in Cuba to a British mother and an American father. He spent most of his youth in New England. He moved to England in 1869 and went to Cambridge University, where he earned his medical degree in 1885. The next year, he abandoned his career as a surgeon and became a photographer and writer. He made many pictures of rural life in the East Anglian fenlands. He published eight books of his work through the next ten years, but did not release anything else after the turn of the century. He died in Falmouth in 1936.
During his life Emerson fought against the British Photographic establishment and its manipulation of many photographs to produce one image. This work was especially undertaken and promoted by Henry Peach Robinson. Some of his photographs were of twenty or more separate photographs combined to produce one image. Emerson said this was false and his pictures were taken in a single shot. Emerson also believed that the photograph should be a true representation of that which the eye saw. This led him to produce one area of sharp focus in his pictures the remainder being unsharp. This he believed mimicked the eye's way of seeing. The effect was for a picture that remains up-to-date when compared to the constructed all over sharp production a la Robinson school. This was an argument he pursued vehemently and to the discomfort of the Photographic establishment. Emerson and the establishment squared up like two bulls.
Emerson also believed with a passion that photography was an art and not a mechanical reproduction. The same argument with the establishment ensued but Emerson found that his defence failed and he had to allow that Photography was probably a mechanical reproduction. The pictures the Robinson school produced were mechanical but Emerson's still remain artistic not being a faithful reproduction of a scene but having depth due to his one plane sharp therory. When he lost the argument over Art of Photography he did not publicise his Photography but continued to take photographs. A strange ending for a photographer whose pictures endorsed his argument so eloquently.

 

PETER HENRY EMERSON.
Rowing home the Schoof-Stuff from Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, c. 1885

 

Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

 
| privacy