In 1980 Mt Saint Helens erupts, John Lennon is shot dead, and CNN is launched. Photography & Society by Gisèle Freund is for sale in bookstores. D R Godine was the Boston publisher. This small 230-page book was well designed, the text is a little small for my vision, but the book is comfortably held for reading in bed. Its 125 B&W photographs range in size from thumbnails to full page bleeds.
Freund, a still photographer with a PhD from the Sorbonne, and author of a few books, reveals her history of still photography. From her refreshing European perspective, she mentions magazines, inventions, and important people in the overall development of photography beyond the North American tradition we read about ad nauseam. Her writing style is easy to absorb, without the usual Doctorate of Bullshit. The 3-page index begins with Adams, Ansel. The word Abstract does not appear in her index, although towards the end of the book, photograms and a sense of abstraction are shown and discussed. Opposite the title page, is a full-page photo of the human eye. In the 1970s and 1980s half the camera clubs had a stylized human eye as their logo. Thankfully those ridiculous decades have passed.
Part One, of 8 chapters, deals with Photography & Society, The First Portrait Photographers, and Attitudes Toward Photography, etc. Part Two, also 8 parts, plus a conclusion, covers Press Photography, Photography as a Political Tool, and that all important Photography as Art, etc.
In the late 1700s, small physionotrace portraits were all the rage, with enough realistic detail to easily surpass the simple black silhouette. Cheap, and requiring less sitting time, they quickly overtook miniature painting and etching. Finally, 1839 arrived and photography with it. At the beginning cameras were bulky and exposure times required a lengthy stillness by the sitter. But the Machine Age was underway, and French society, much like today, was becoming more and more standardized. Individualism, like the moon, waned.
The invention of photography was a scientific breakthrough dependent on the properties of light and a special mechanical box with a lens, which has undergone a thousand changes since 1839. In this year, the sitting time to have one’s portrait taken was 15 minutes in full sunlight. By 1842, less than a minute was necessary. Images which reflected civilization were progressing. At first only wealthy patrons and scientists could afford to use the heavy equipment. Soon however, with more scientific breakthroughs, still photography [art] was becoming democratized.
The daguerreotype became successful throughout Europe from 1840 to 1860. Felix Nadar was the first to take aerial photos in 1856 from the basket of a soaring balloon. Photo London has awarded Edward Burtynsky, The 2018 Master of Photography, for his aerial still photos of human-altered landscapes taken from a hovering helicopter. He shows us what hawks have seen every day for millennia. He is the contemporary of Nadar. Nothing new by Edward B; more cliches of realistic still photographs to carry on an old tradition.
In 1853 Nadar wasn’t making much money. A friend encouraged him to buy some used photographic equipment and open a studio in Paris. This launched his career. Soon everyone of note in Paris wanted his portrait taken by Nadar. It could be said, Nadar discovered the human face with his camera. Celebrities etc, were drawn to Karsh to have their portraits taken in the late 1900s. More evidence that old ideas keep re-appearing at regular intervals in the brief history of still photography. Supposedly, Nadar’s portraits are considered works of art. Why, I’m not sure? Curators will tell us still photography must have a historical art culture to match the other fine arts. Nadar was an interesting figure of his time and has been elevated to the status of photographic artist, by curators of the great museums. They must know what they are doing.
Photography allowed people, such as me, to view different parts of the world they could never reach on their own. The Bisson brothers opened a shop to show their beautiful landscapes of Switzerland etc. Today we see most of the world on the web and with Google maps at street level (very artistically shot with a camera mounted on a car). I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico with google since a friend was going there. The painter Georgia O’Keeffe has a museum dedicated to her images in the city. I saw what it looked like from the outside and above, and a cluster of her paintings reproduced on the web. On to the next artist.
David Octavius Hill, a painter / photographer used some of his still photographs as aids in completing his paintings. This tradition remains in use today by many realistic painters who borrow from still photographs. I wonder if any abstract painter will use my anti-still photographs as models for some of future paintings, since my images have no documentary value and exist solely as art?
As industrialism continued to improve and expand, so too did photographic equipment. The Industrial Exposition of 1855 in Paris devoted a section to photography. Like today, the public (middle class) liked large photographs, up to about 50 cm tall in 1855. Today, digital images reach several meters wide, imitating the size of some paintings. Then along came Disderi. He reduced the size of a portrait to a mere 10 cm and made and sold multiple copies and albums in record numbers to all classes of people, not just the rich. Even Napoleon lll paid him a visit in 1859 one his way to fight another useless war. With his new found fame Disderi made millions. This attracted others. Competition grew. Disderi spent more time at his estates than at his photography. The quality of his work dropped and clients went elsewhere for their portraits. He lost everything. He died in a public home.
This reminds me of the American still photographer Annie Leibovitz. She reportedly (2009) was $24 million in the hole? Her wildly ill-advised spending of millions on homes, and trusting the wrong account led to her downfall, according to the web. History repeats itself endlessly. Money drives people crazy. However Annie is still in the game with a new book and show of portraits, her speciality.
In the early days of photography, when debates raged as to its limited expression in the field of fine art, even the assholes running the catholic church gave their unholy thoughts. According to their flawed opinion, God created man in his image [false] so no human machine [camera] can capture the image of god. If I sent the pope my anti-still photo of God Laughing, would I be excommunicated? I certainly hope so. However, science, industry and inventions charged ahead, leaving the feeble RC church in its dust. Baudelaire countered the church with, I believe in nature and only nature. Art can only be an exact copy of nature, so photography would be the absolute art. Debate always narrows and centralizes opinions to the detriment of whatever is being debated. There must be sides; without compromise.
When Kodak finally invented a much smaller hand-held camera near the end of the 1900s, people were able to take their own portraits and carry cameras with them. Women rode bicycles into the country and took landscapes. The impressionist style of painting lead to Pictorialism in still photography. Photographic images tended to mimic the soft blurry images of painters. Here the author gives her PhD opinion. During photographic pictorialism the camera and the women using it lost its most important characteristic, its ability to provide a clear, sharply-focused image. I wonder, has there ever been a photographic gallery showing only out-of-focus images? Occasionally, I have seen a blurry image for $10,000 hanging in a Toronto Gallery, but they are rare, and unfortunately, due to peer pressure, not the norm.
Once color printing became cheap and popular, great works of art [paintings] were photographed and reproduced endlessly. Visit any art museum to purchase your reproductions. The masses can hang a Picasso repo in their living room. The originals still belonged to wealthy patrons. A business, with exclusive rights to reproduce the art in the Louvre, produced a 550-page catalogue with thousands of pictures in 1887. Soon postcards for tourists began to appear. In 1910, 123 million postcards were printed in France, by over 30,000 workers. Today billions are sold globally.
The rise of illustrated magazines included Playboy and Life. Life had a good run and several imitators worldwide. A weekly, it was eventually outdated by TV which gave news and images on a daily basis. The Ermanox was an early, popular hand-held camera that allowed indoor shots, without a flash, of plays and secret photos without she / he realizing their picture was taken. The gossip magazines became popular. Next came the Leica (35 mm film) which was mistaken by some for a toy, not a professional camera. Heinrich Hoffmann, the official still photographer of Hitler and the Nazi party, became wealthy selling photos (some staged) to publications world wide.
Still Photography was a prime tool for wartime propaganda on both sides. Dead and maimed people were kept from the public’s eye. The beauty of war, a mushroom cloud over Japan, was published.
Finally we get to Freund’s chapter on still photography as art. Cliches abound – A rough, messy photo of paint (graffiti) on a wall with numerous drip lines by Brassai; photograms by Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy. Gisele Freund regurgitates the same old-fashioned axioms. Painters strive to create new forms; still photographers, stuck in the documentary mode, can only hope for a new direction or subject. Still photographers focus on personal, intimate views and problems of contemporary society.
Fortunately, my anti-still photographs, like images by painters, are creating new forms and giving photography a real sense of artistic place. I am not influenced by Wall, Gursky and Edward Burtynsky, nor what the major museums collect. Curators and directors tell the gullible public they collect and exhibit only the finest in contemporary photography. They do not.
My purpose in fine art photography is to find and give expression to new forms and ideas; not contribute to the recycled still bullshit hanging on gallery walls near you.