The word photography comes from the Greek ϕωτoς (photos) and γρaϕειν (graphein), meaning to write with light. From its invention in the early 1800s to the beginning of the twenty-first century, photography referred to a photo-chemically based system of analog and indexical still image production that resulted in an optical reproduction of the space in front of the lens. In the first five years of the new millennium analog photography was almost completely supplanted by electronically based digital systems that calibrate light intensities in terms of logarithms. For most of the nineteenth century, photographs were produced by specialists, using a variety of chemical formulae to make and develop light-sensitive surfaces. As artist-technicians, their primary concern was to document the world of appearances, although aesthetic manipulation of reality became an ever-growing trend.
By the early twentieth century, photographic processes had become standardized and their production industrialized, allowing a growing number of amateurs, as well as professionals, to document various aspects of everyday life, and create photographic art in all kinds of genres and styles, including abstract and camera-less photography, architectural, advertising, fashion, documentary, nature, nude, photojournalism, portraiture, and surrealist. With the invention of half-tone printing in the 1880s, photography became all-pervasive in journalism and other forms of publishing, whether to capture objectively the news of the day or to express the subjectivity of the photographer. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, digital photographs began circulating in geometrically expanding numbers through the Internet. With the inflation of prices in the art market in the latter half of the twentieth century, all forms of photography became collectible in the art market, whether its well-known practitioners had intended them to be art or not.
First used as a working tool by painters wishing to measure perspectives, the camera obscura was invented in the sixteenth century. Artists soon began searching for a method of capturing its framed image on a light-sensitive surface. Joseph Nicephore Niépce produced the first known surviving photograph in France in 1827, calling it a heliograph, although documents suggest he made his first successful photographic image as early as 1816. Having no method to permanently fix the image, however, Niépce signed a contract in 1829 with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who was also experimenting with chemically produced images. After Niépce died in 1833, Daguerre successfully invented a photographic process in 1837, called daguerreotype, which fixed the image on a silverplated sheet of copper, using iodine and mercury fumes. Daguerre published his findings in 1839, leading one French newspaper to write: “It upsets all scientific theories of light and optics, and it will revolutionize the art of drawing” (Gazette de France, January 6, 1839). Over the next 20 years, daguerrotypes became an extremely popular form of photography, especially for landscapes and, later, portraits, once exposure times had been reduced to under a minute.
Among the best-known daguerrotypists were Baron Jean Baptiste Louis Gros and Joseph Girault de Pranguey, who documented architecture and cityscapes in their travels to Greece and the Middle East. The Americans Albert Southworth and Josiah Hawes were portrait photographers whose images of the Boston elite revealed startling details of character. By 1853 there were 86 daguerrotype galleries in New York City alone. However, the fact that a daguerrotype image could not be reproduced, as well as the daguerrotype’s expense, led photographers to search for other methods of photographic image making. Utilizing different chemicals, but essentially the same limited technology, ambrotypes and tintypes were briefly an extremely popular low-cost alternative that allowed hundreds of thousands of individuals to have themselves photographed.
At virtually the same time as Daguerre was experimenting, Henry William Fox Talbot began (1835) sensitizing paper with silver chlorides and nitrates to produce a photographic image on paper, but he, too, was not able to fix the image permanently. It was Sir John F. W. Herschel who, after reading Daguerre’s and Talbot’s papers in 1840, successfully fixed his photographic images with a solution of hyposulfite; he also coined the terms “photography,” “positive,” and “negative.” However, these first paper photographs lacked the sharpness of detail found in daguerrotypes. In 1841, Fox Talbot announced the invention of calotypes, which not only greatly improved image quality, but also involved the production of a negative from which multiple prints could be produced. Between 1844 and 1846, Talbot published The pencil of nature, a collection of 24 calotypes, which constituted the first photographic book. Among the most important practitioners of calotypy were David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, two Scotsmen whose outdoor portraits of common people between 1843 and 1848 revealed a strong painterly quality. In France in the early 1850s, Henri Le Secq and Charles Marville used calotypes to photograph the country’s historic buildings and monuments for the Historic Monuments Committee of the Ministry of the Interior.
However, the invention of the wet-plate collodion process by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 soon made both daguerrotypes and calotypes obsolete. Archer’s glass-plate negatives produced much sharper images than calotypes and were infinitely reproducible. Coating glass with a viscous solution of nitrocellulose in alcohol and ether, mixed with potassium iodide, the photographer had to expose and develop his images while the coating was still wet, forcing him to carry a portable darkroom when working in the field. Photographic prints were made on albumen paper, which had been coated with potassium bromide and acetic acid dissolved in egg whites, then sensitized prior to exposure with silver nitrate. While albumen paper gave way to superior collodium paper in 1864 (invented by George Wharton Simpson), wet-plate negatives remained the standard until the 1880s, when gelatin dry plates came into general use.
With these improved tools, photography became both a mass medium for portraiture and a high art. Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson, for example, used photo-montage techniques to produce complex, allegorical images that mimicked classical painting. The work of Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon) was less stylized but also had high art pretensions. Mathew Brady, famed for his photographic work in the American Civil War, focused more on documentary aspects.
The invention of dry-plate photographs involved a long and complex process over 20 years of fits and starts. While Richard Hill Norris produced the first commercially available collodian dry plates in 1856, Richard Leach Maddox is credited with the invention of gelatin dry plates, although his published paper in 1871 in the British Journal of Photography initially failed to attract any attention. Maddox formed an emulsion of gelatin, containing nitric acid, cadmium bromide, and silver nitrate, which he coated onto glass plates and paper, then developed in a solution of pyrogallol. Unfortunately, ill health prevented Maddox from further experiments. The experiments of several other inventors were necessary before reliable and very light-sensitive dry plates became commercially available in 1878. By the early 1880s, large-scale production of dry plates had commenced and collodion wet-plate photography was phased out. Meanwhile, albumen paper had been succeeded by gelatin bromide and chloro-bromide paper for printing.
With the invention of the Kodak camera and acetate roll film in 1888, photography entered a new era, allowing large numbers of amateur photographers the opportunity to produce photographic images for the first time. The introduction of the Kodak “Brownie” in 1900 further democratized the production of photographic images by making it possible for completely untrained amateurs to “point and shoot” successfully.
Photography Enters The Modern Age
While photography evolved toward ever easier usage, some photographers continued to attempt painterly effects. Under the banner of Pictorialism, photographers utilized gum prints on heavy stock paper, producing soft-focus images that resembled paintings. Photogravure printing technology also created soft photographic images, which could be mass produced in a printing press. Peter Henry Emerson, e.g., advocated reproducing human vision by blurring the edges of the image and leaving the camera focus slightly soft. Pictorialist photographers, such as Frederick H. Evans, George Davison, Robert Demachy, Heinrich Kühn, Hugo Erfurth, Eduard Steichen, and Alvin Langdon Coburn, created images that consciously attempted to elevate photography to an art; e.g., Demanchy’s Behind the Scenes (1897) resembled Edgar Degas’s portraits of ballerinas. Their portraits, landscapes, and nudes thus mimicked genre paintings in terms of both composition and texture.
Heinrich Kühn was among the first to experiment with color photographs. In 1907, after years of preparation, the Brothers Lumière in Lyon (the same inventors who had introduced motion pictures in 1895) marketed “autochrome” plates, which would reproduce living color. While previous generations of photographers had to rely on hand coloring their black-and-white prints, the Lumières’ autochromes placed a layer of starch, dyed orange, green, and violet, under a black-and-white emulsion, which was then developed as a color transparency. Autochromes proved extremely popular, but it was not until the invention of the Kodachrome dye coupling process (available in 1937), which placed three layers of color film emulsion on 35 mm photographic film, that an easy and effective color negative process became commercially available.
After 1900, art photography slowly began freeing itself from the strictures of Pictorialism. A new generation gathered together under the banner of the “Photo-Secession” to advocate “straight photography.” They demanded a return to sharply focused images that highlighted the characteristics of the medium itself, rather than attempting to copy other art forms. Among the first champions of straight photography was Alfred Stieglitz, who had earlier been aligned with the Pictorialists. Stieglitz co-founded the Photo-Secession in 1902, and its New York gallery “291.” He also became founding editor of Camera Work (1903–1917), the primary publication of the new style, while continuing to make his own straight photographs, The Steerage (1907) being one of his acknowledged masterpieces. Stieglitz published the work of Gertrud Käsebier, Clarence H. White, Steichen, Coburn, and a young photographer, Paul Strand.
In 1917, Strand won first prize in the prestigious Wanamaker competition, the Twelfth Annual Exhibition of Photography, with his photograph Wall Street (1916), which was typical of straight photography’s concern for capturing scenes from everyday life, while simultaneously abstracting the image through composition and light values, thereby constructing deeper meanings. Strand also exemplified a new generation of professional photographers who took on commercial assignments to support their own artistic work in the medium. Strand bought an Akeley 35 mm movie camera and worked as a newsreel and documentary cinematographer. White became a professor at Columbia University and directed his own photography school in Maine, while Steichen supported himself with fashion and advertising photography. Today, Steichen’s commercial photography is just as highly prized in the art market as his more private work.
Value is, in fact, more dependent on original condition, age, uniqueness, and reputation of the photographer than on the original context of production. As is the case with other arts, a photographer’s reputation is subject to fashion and critical academic debate. A constant in photography’s history over the last century is that photographers have chosen to work in a wide variety of genres, whether as private artists on fellowships, private patronage, or foundation grants, or as employees for hire of private companies, government agencies, or communications media.
Forms And Subjects Of Modern Photography
In the 1920s European modernist artists began experimenting with exposing photographic paper to light without a camera, resulting in purely abstract images, parallel to painting’s evolution toward abstraction (abstract or camera-less photography). Both Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy placed objects directly on photographic paper and exposed them to light in a darkroom for their rayograph and photogram series, respectively. Christian Schad and Francis Brugière used cut paper to produce abstract shadows in a multitude of black, white, and gray tones. Meanwhile, Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents series depicted clouds as pure light and shade. In the 1940s, Harold Edgerton and Gjon Mili utilized strobe lights to create abstract multiple exposures of moving objects or persons, again producing abstract designs. In the 1960s, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind photographed the real world, but framing their images so that objects were abstracted and no longer recognizable as anything but pure form.
In the nineteenth century, a major impetus for photography was the documentation of architecture, especially historic buildings. In the early twentieth century, photographers became fascinated by cityscapes with skyscrapers as the epitome of modernity. Eugene Atget’s images of deserted Paris streets and buildings prior to World War I had a great influence, especially on the surrealists. The city demanded new ways of seeing, whether looking down from high buildings or looking up at them, as exemplified by Alvin Coburn’s view down on Central Park, The Octopus (1916), and Alexander Rodchenko’s images of Moscow balconies. In mid-century New York, Bernice Abbott followed in Atget’s footsteps, while Eric de Maré became the most prominent architecture photographer of the 1960s–1990s.
With the expansion of mass print media, photography evolved into the most important tool for advertising consumer goods. In the 1920s, German photographer Albert RengePatsch produced advertising photos for Hag Coffee, strongly influenced by the Bauhaus concept of graphic design, while Ralph Steiner’s American Eight O’Clock Coffee likewise highlighted the product through eye-catching composition. Given the huge popularity of fashion magazines, it is not surprising that fashion photography soon became big business. Some of the most successful fashion photographers also established artistic reputations, include Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Sarah Moon, William Klein, and Bruce Weber.
One of photography’s foremost goals was to document real-world conditions. Utilizing the camera as a tool for social criticism, Lewis Hine’s images of children in New York sweatshops helped pass child labor laws in many states. August Sander’s frontal portraits of farmers, workers, and tradesmen created a complex social portrait of Weimar Germany. In Depression-ridden America, the photographs of Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Dorothy Lange, and Ben Shahn documented economic hardship and the New Deal. Roman Vischniac’s photos of Jewish ghettos in 1930s Poland captured a way of life that would disappear with the Holocaust. In the last 50 years, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon, and Mary Ellen Mark, among others, have documented both the middle class and social outcasts.
Just as nature has always been a primary subject matter for art, so too has it continued to fascinate photographers. Edward Weston’s, Imogen Cunningham’s, and Karl Blossfeldt’s early twentieth-century images tended to abstract nature, finding formal patterns in natural environments. In mid-century, Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter sought to capture the grandeur and power of the natural landscape, while Jean Dieuzade’s and Joan Fontcuberta’s nature images function as abstracted still lifes.
An important subject from classical art, nude photography runs the gamut from the pornographic to the highly aesthetic. Paul Outerbridge’s nudes in the 1930s broke new ground by mixing classical naïveté with taboo-breaking fetishisms. Frantisek Drtikol and Bill Brandt abstracted the human body, making it an element of photographic design. Helmut Newton and H. F. Heinecken have trodden a narrow line between pornography and fashion photography, while Robert Mapplethorpe’s large-format homoerotic images of male nudes caused intense political controversy in the 1980s.
With the rise of illustrated news magazines, e.g., the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Picture Post, and Life, as well as the development of the 35 mm Leica camera, modern photojournalism was born. Capturing news events of the day, whether diplomatic conferences or images from a war front, photographers such as Erich Solomon, Alfred Eisenstedt, Umbo (Otto Umbehr), and Margaret Bourke-White traveled the globe to get their scoops. More in the vein of today’s paparazzi, Weegee photographed the underbelly of 1950s New York and Los Angeles, his snapshots of murders, homeless drunks, and prostitutes displaying the immediacy of news torn from the headlines. At the same time, W. Eugene Smith created a series of intense photo essays, including one on the Japanese victims of industrial pollution.
From the time of the earliest daguerrotypes, portrait photography has been central to the medium. The photograph was thought to capture not only the outward appearance of the subject, but also a sense of the person inside. In the 1920s, Nicholas Murray photographed the artistic and intellectual community of his day, including many film stars. Hollywood, in fact, engendered a sub-genre, the star portrait, produced for studio publicity purposes by George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Ruth Harriet Louise. After 1950, Chargesheimer (Karl Heinz Hargesheimer) and Richard Avedon represent celebrity photographers working for illustrated magazines. In the 1960s, Diane Arbus’s portraits of freaks and other physically or emotionally deformed persons took on a surrealist quality. In the 1990s, Cindy Sherman invoked the conventions of portraiture to create fictionalized self-portraits in gallery-sized formats that have commanded prices akin to painting.
The twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen a large number of photographers manipulating the medium to create surrealist fantasies, juxtaposing photography’s ability to reproduce reality iconically with its capability of creating fictions. Utilizing a variety of techniques, including multiple exposure, photo-montage, and solarization, photographers in the 1920s, like Jaromir Funke and Herbert Beyer, created surrealist images. In the 1950s, it was Philippe Halsman and Jerry Uelsmann who sought to visualize their inner subjectivities, while in the 1970s Paul de Nooijer and Duane Michaels were prominent.
In the early years of the twenty-first century, photography has become both more prevalent, retaining its status as a mass medium through Internet distribution, and also subject to the critical and aesthetic winds of postmodernism. Photographers, such as Marco Breuer, Carl Carienza, Rimma Gerlovina, Richard Misrach, Julie Moos, Sebastiao Salgado, Gary Schneider, and Krizystof Wodiczko are as diverse as the genres they work in.
In the new millennium, photography has morphed from a chemical-based medium to digital forms, with images stored digitally on hard discs in cameras or computers. While it is still too early to tell what aesthetic consequences the digital revolution will have for photography, it is already clear that both amateurs and professionals have embraced the medium almost instantaneously. Furthermore, distribution of digital images has been revolutionized, allowing consumers to take pictures with their phones and send them to their computers, while professionals can email extremely large image files from almost anywhere on the planet to their editors. However, digitality has also entailed convergence, meaning that film, photography, and other forms of image production have lost much of their media specificity.
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