Living in the twenty-first century, a world with few or no images is difficult for us to imagine. We are constantly exposed to pictures in books, magazines, and newspapers, on television and billboards, and on the wall of our homes and workplaces. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the ordinary person encountered visual images infrequently. The first revolution in this matter came with the introduction of the photographic process in the 1830s. This essay will present the history of photography from 1837-1990.
The main purpose of this paper is to present the pivotal photographs of the history of photography and the reason they were considered revolutionary in the art world. Americans loved mechanical gadgets, and once the camera was introduced, within three decades – from 1837 to 1870 – the popularity of the photographic image was immense. In this early period, the portrait was the most popular of photographic images, although genre subjects, city views and landscapes were photographed as well. The forthright realism of the early daguerreotype was acceptable for portraiture at all level of American society.
John Quincy Adams, for example, although mystified by the process, posed frequently. The full-length portrait of him by Philip Haas (Fig. 1) is very different from elegant and idealized painted portraits. Adams posed for Haas on request of an artist who whished to use the picture as an aid when he painted Adam’s portrait. In the early 1850s photography underwent important technical changes. The wet plate and collodion-coated plate replaced daguerreotype. This simplified and less expensive process and other technical advancements made it possible for photographers to move outside their studios and take pictures of the city and the landscapes.
Probably the best known photographer of this period was Mathew B. Brady. He is often referred to as Mr. Lincoln’s Cameraman. While he photographed Lincoln many times, he never caught the essence of his subject as splendidly as in the portrait shown in Figure 2. Lincoln’s gravity, his craggy, lined, tired face his solemn pensiveness, and rumpled attire – all are given with the visual realism for which the photograph became so famous. By 1970, photography had become a proven medium for documentation, with capabilities for powerful expressiveness.
Photography brought portraiture within the grasp of the common man and woman, it turned its eyes upon level of society that had seldom before been depicted, it recorded facts dispassionately, but often most perceptively, and with realism that fascinated. It made graphic illustration an integral part of journalism. With the end of the Civil War, the nation turned to developing its enormous potential. Photographers documented enormous energy and accomplishments of this time. People wanted pictures of the new lands.
Among the best known photographers who went west, in 1860s and early 1870s, was William Henry Jackson. Jackson was invited to join expedition to the west. The resulting series of images – towering mountains, sweeping valleys, and streaming hot springs – so completely captured the imagination of the nation that they induced Congress to create the first national park – Yellowstone. One of such pictures was The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Fig. 3). To do justice to the scale and sublime grandeur of his subject matter while photographing the Rocky Mountains, Jackson used a large-size glass plate.
The fact that the extremely fragile plates had to be transported about in such regions did not fail to impress Americans generally. Portraiture remained one of the primary areas of photography. Napoleon Sarony was the leading portraitist in New York in the mid-1870s. Typical of Sarony’s work is the melodramatic portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (Fig. 4). The celebrated French actress was at the height of her fame when she arrived in the USA. Her portrayal had captivated American audiences and Sarony photographed her as Camille in her dying swoon, capturing the theatricality of this highly emotional moment.
A very different picture of America was presented by the photographer Jacob Riis. He usually worked in the tenement slums and unsavory hideous of the city, where people lived without daylight, ventilation or sanitation, where filth disease and hopelessness complete the human degradation. Riis’ pictures like In Poverty Gap: An English Coal-Heaver’s Home (Fig. 5) documented the wretched conditions of the working poor with such realism that when they were seen by the public, a reform movement followed. Riis considered that to be the sole purpose of his photography, and never thought of it as being related to art.
As a direct result of Riis’ photographs the public social conscience was awakened to the urgent necessity for reform. As the new century opened, photography, for all its popularity, however, was still not considered to be an art-form. In the twentieth century this situation changed. Many photographers of the early twentieth century were painters and photographers at the same time. Thus Edward J. Steichen worked as a professional photographer though attempted to work the painterly effects of his canvases into his photographs as seen in The Flatiron (Fig.6).
One is reminded of the dramatic play of light and the loose suggested brushwork. Steichen achieved these effects by using the gum bichromate process, which allowed him to manipulate the printing process. This approach was different from previous ‘straight’ photography. The Flatiron shows the famous skyscraper on a misty day, with hackney carriage and their drivers silhouetted in the foreground. A viewer is inclined to compare this photograph with a painting, perhaps with an impressionist work.
In the 1930s photography found an unexpected patronage in the Farm Security Administration, which undertook to inform the Americans about the wretched living and working conditions of migratory laborers, the dire necessity of resettling farmers who faced economic disaster brought on by Depression, and the displacement of laborers by mechanization. Dorothea Lange was among those photographers who were involved in making “straight” photographic record of the life of a vast number of Americans during those difficult times. One of Lange’s masterpieces is Migrant Mother (Fig. 7) taken in 1936 in Nipomo, California.
The woman in the picture, Florence Thompson, the mother of ten children, looks much older than thirty-two, hr actual age. It is an image that tends to haunt one’s memory, one of those rare visualizations that captures the suffering of an entire era and the whole sociological group, transcending the individual to reach the universal. We see a tired, destitute mother, surrounded by her children, two of whom turn their heads away, seeking refuge from a harsh world. The care and concern expressed in the mother’s face, the fatigue expresses by the hand that supports the chin are remarkable features.