To my surprise, George Bernard Shaw (GBS), 1856–1950, was quite the still photographer. Normally, we think of him as a playwright, novelist and art critic. He is not well-known as a photographer, partly because his still images are archived at the London School of Economics [which is where they belong]. He knew many of the top still photographers in his time, such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, wrote articles, gave lectures and debated photography at the London Photographic Society, The Linked Ring, and in The Amateur Photographer. By the way, about his “abstract” vortographs, Coburn wrote they were “the most thrilling experience he had ever had in all the realms of photography.” The vortographs provided an “aesthetic excitement and enjoyment.” This is exactly what I feel about my pure abstractions. They provide new forms, shapes, and textures full of wonder. They reveal another kind of reality, beyond the surfaces we see and photograph each day.
My pure abstractions may look like paintings, but that is not my intention. I like drawing with a hand-held camera, without looking through the viewfinder, using it like a pencil, to see what the photographs will look like. My images complement the millions of still photographs taken each day. Yet they are rarely shown to the viewing public in museums or commercial galleries. Curators and art directors almost always say NO to my hundreds of requests for an exhibition. The leaders of the herd share a tight, unspoken bond, acquired from reading books like this one by GB Shaw.
A small, 146-page book titled, Bernard Shaw, On Photography, was published in 1989 by Peregrine Smith Books, Utah. Under a similar title, On Photography is a 1977 book of photographic essays by the American, Susan Sontag. The editors, Margaret Moore and Bill Jay, who did the book on Shaw, were associated with Arizona State University, USA. The still photograph chosen for the cover is today seen as a cliché, with Shaw standing and holding a small camera vertically to his eye. Yawn!
From the late 1800s into the early 1900s, much debate was spent on photography as a form of art. The medium was undergoing stylistic adjustments. Still photography remained the norm, but each of the several options a photographer used to make her/his images was open to criticism. Overall, Shaw thought still photography was an art equal to or better than etching, painting, etc. It gave a clear, representation of subjects which went beyond the mannerisms of artists in other mediums. Shaw “If you cannot see at a glance that the old game [painting, etching etc] is up, that the camera has hopelessly beaten the pencil and paintbrush as an instrument of artistic representation, then you will never make a true critic; you are only, like most critics, a picture fancier.”
32 b&w, mostly platinum prints by GBS, are grouped in the middle of the book. They are ordinary still photographs – people, self-portraits, landscapes, homes, animals. Like the documentary snapshots of the greater Paris area by the Frenchman, Eugene Atget, 1857–1927, Shaw shows us what people wore, looked like, and did. The compositions are routine.
The photographic societies at the time, wanted their craft to achieve the status of high or fine art. To do this, still photographs were often manipulated to look like other media of recognized fine art. The best way to achieve this was using the gum-bichromate process to manipulate images until they had a painterly appearance. The master of this process was Robert Demachy (1859–1936) a prominent French Pictorial photographer.
Fashion changes, in clothing and in art. Around 1905, the style began to revert back to earlier qualities of the photographic – a straight image with as little manipulation as possible that obviously looked like a photograph. Demachy protested against this reversal of stye, calling it a mechanical system. “The photographic character is, and has always been, an anti-artistic character.” In my opinion, this remains true today, but when the Leader of the Still Photography Department at the Guggenheim Museum in New York buys your still photographs, they suddenly becomes important art as they pass through the museum’s doors. On the walls, your images are admired as art, because of where the wall is.
In 1907, Bernard Shaw wrote a response to Demachy’s beliefs. “The counter-reaction is just as foolish; and Demachy is right to warn us against the danger of a brainless inversion of these propositions.” Shaw’s still photographs in the book do not appear to be manipulated, nor are they razor sharp like the style accepted and promoted by curators for the last several decades. Shaw likes the overall style of photography to resemble his photography, and so rails against the manipulated image by Demachy or anyone else in his camp. Shaw “On the whole, I greatly prefer the photographers [like myself] who value themselves on being photographers, and aim at a characteristically photographic technique instead of a sham brush-and-pencil one.” TJR
Tom Reaume’s new 93-page photo ebook, Photography Traditions, is free at trart.ca