PHOTOGRAPHY AND ART
"Is PHOTOGRAPHY ART?" may seem a
pointless question today. Surrounded as we arc by thousands of
photographs of even' description, most of us take for granted that
in addition to supplying information and seducing customers, camera
images also serve as decoration, afford spiritual enrichment, and
provide significant insights into the passing scene. But in the
decades following the discovery of photography, this question
reflected the search for ways to fit the mechanical medium into the
traditional schemes of artistic expression. Responses by
photographers, which included the selection of appropriate themes
and the creation of synthetic works, established directions that
continue to animate photography today. And while some
photographers used the camera to
emulate the subjects and styles of "high" art, graphic artists
turned to photographs for information and ideas. The intriguing
interplay that ensued also has remained a significant issue in the
visual arts. Photographs that reproduce art objects also have had a
profound effect on the democratization of public taste and
knowledge, changing public perceptions of visual culture and making
possible the establishment of art history as a serious discipline.
The much-publicized pronouncement
by painter Paul Delaroche that the daguerreotype signaled the end of
painting is perplexing because this clever artist also forecast the
usefulness of the medium for graphic artists in a letter to Francpis
Arago in 1839. Nevertheless, it is symptomatic of the swing between
the outright rejection and qualified acceptance of the medium that
was fairly typical of the artistic establishment. It was satirized
in a group of cartoons by Nadar depicting an artistic community that
denied photography's claims while using the medium to improve its
own product. Discussion of the role of photography in art was
especially spirited in France, where the internal policies of the
Second Empire had created a large pool of artists, but it also was
taken up by important voices in England. In both countries, public
interest in this topic was a reflection of the belief that national
stature and achievement in the arts were related. In central and
southern Europe and the United States, where the arts played a
lesser role, these matters were less frequently addressed.
NADAR (GASPARD Felix TOURNACHON). TWO cartoons. "Photography asking
for just a little place in the exhibition of fine arts."
Engraving from Petit journal pour rire, 1855. "The ingratitude of
painting refusing the smallest place in its exhibition to
photography to whom it owes so much." Engravings from Le journal
amusant, 1857. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
From the maze of conflicting
statements and heated articles on the subject, three main positions
about the potential of camera art emerged. The simplest, entertained
by many painters and a section of the public, was that photographs
should not be considered "art" because they were made with a
mechanical device and by physical and chemical phenomena instead of
by human hand and spirit; to some, camera images seemed to have more
in common with fabric produced by machinery in a mill than with
handmade creations fired by inspiration. The second widely held
view, shared by painters, some photographers, and some critics, was
that photographs would be useful to art but should not be considered
equal in creativeness to drawing and painting. Lastly, by assuming
that the process was comparable to other replicatable techniques
such as etching and lithography, a fair number of individuals
realized that camera images were or could be as significant as
handmade works of art and that they might have a beneficial
influence on the arts and on culture in general.
Artists reacted to photography in
various ways. Many portrait painters—miniaturists in particular—who
realized that photography represented the "handwriting on the wall"
became involved with daguerreotyping or paper photography; some
incorporated it with painting, as in the case of Queen Victoria's
painter Henry Collen, while others renounced painting altogether.
Still other painters, the most prominent among them Ingres, began
almost immediately to use photography to make a record of their own
output and also to provide themselves with source material for poses
and backgrounds, vigorously denying at the same time its influence
on their vision or its claims as art. While there is no direct
evidence to indicate that Ingres painted from daguerreotypes, it has
been pointed out that in pose, cropping, and tonal range, the
portraits made by the painter after Daguerre's invention virtually
can be characterized as "enlarged daguerreotypes." Yet, this
politically and artistically conservative artist was outspoken in
contesting photography's claims as art as well as the rights of
photographers to legal protection when their images were used
without permission. The irony of the situation was not lost on
French journalist Ernest Lacan, who observed that "photography is
like a mistress whom one cherishes and hides, about whom one speaks
with joy but does not want others to mention."
The view that photographs might be
worthwhile to artists—acceptable for collecting facts, eliminating
the drudgery of study from the live model, and expanding the
possibilities of verisimilitude—was enunciated in considerable
detail by Lacan and Francis Wey. The latter, a philologist as well
as an art and literary critic, who eventually recognized that camera
images could be inspired as well as informative, suggested that they
would lead to greater naturalness in the graphic depiction of
anatomy, clothing, likeness, expression, and landscape
configuration. By studying photographs, true artists, he claimed,
would be relieved of menial tasks and become free to devote
themselves to the more important spiritual aspects of their work,
while inept hacks would be driven from the field of graphic art. Wey
left unstated what the incompetent artist might do as an
alternative, but according to the influential French critic and poet
Baudelaire, writing in response to an exhibition of photography at
the Salon of 1859, lazy and "unendowed" painters would become
photographers. Fired by a belief in art as an imaginative embodiment
of cultivated ideas and dreams, Baudelaire regarded photography as
"a very humble servant of art and science, like printing and
stenography"—a medium largely unable to transcend "external
reality." For this critic as well as for other idealists,
symbolists, and aesthetes, photography was linked with "the great
industrial madness" of the time, which in their eyes exercised
disastrous consequences on the spiritual qualities of life and art.
Somewhat later, the noted art critic Charles Blanc made the same
point when he observed that because "photography copies everything
and explains nothing, it is blind to the realm of the spirit."
Eugene Delacroix was the most
prominent of the French artists who welcomed photography as helpmate
but recognized its limitations. Regretting that "such a wonderful
invention" had arrived so late in his lifetime, he still took
lessons in daguerrcotyping, made cliche verve prints, joined the
recently established Societe beliographique, and both commissioned
and collected photographs. These included studies of the nude made
by the amateur Eugene Durieu, with whom the artist collaborated on
arranging the poses. Delacroix's enthusiasm for the medium can be
sensed in a journal entry noting that if photographs were used as
they should be, an artist might "raise himself to heights that we do
not yet know."
The question of whether the
photograph was document or art aroused interest in England also. A
Popular Treatise on the Art of Photography, an 1841 work by Robert
Hunt, emphasized processes rather than aesthetic matters, but noted
that "an improvement of public taste," which had devolved from the
fact that "nature in her rudest forms is more beautiful than any
human production," already was discernible because of photography.
The most important statement on this matter was the previously
mentioned unsigned article by Lady Eastlakc, "Photography."
Concerned with the relationship of "truth" and "reality" to
"beauty," she contended that while depictions of the first two
qualities were acceptable functions of the camera image, art
expression was expected to be beautiful also. And beauty was a
result of refinement, taste, spirituality, genius, or
intellect—qualities not found in minutely detailed super-realistic
visual descriptions made by machine. This formulation was addressed
to collodion-albumen technology and enabled her to exempt the
"Rembrandt-like" calotypes of Hill and Adamson from her
condemnation. In addition to the broadly handled treatment seen in
her own portrait or in The Misses Binny and Miss Monro, for example,
Hill's and Adamson's images expressed the refinement of sentiment
that Lady Eastlake considered an artistic necessity. She concluded
that while photography had a role to play, it should not be
"constrained" into "competition" with art; a more stringent
viewpoint led critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton to dismiss camera
images as "narrow in range, emphatic in assertion, telling one truth
for ten falsehoods."
These writers reflected the
opposition of a section of the cultural elite in England and France
to the "cheapening of art," which the growing acceptance and
purchase of camera pictures by the middle class represented.
Collodion technology made photographic images a common sight in the
shop windows of Regent Street and Piccadilly in London and the
commercial boulevards of Paris. In London, for example, there were
at the time some 130 commercial establishments (besides well-known
individual photographers like Fenton and Rejlander) where portraits,
landscapes, genre scenes, and photographic reproductions of works of
art could be bought in regular and stereograph formats. This appeal
to the middle class convinced the elite that photographs would
foster a taste for verisimilitude instead of ideality, even though
some critics recognized that the work of individual photographers
might display an uplifting style and substance that was consonant
John Ruskin, the most eminent
figure in both English and American art at mid-century, first
welcomed photography as the only 19th-century mechanical invention
of value, and then reversed himself completely and denounced it as
trivial. He made and collected daguerreotypes as well as paper
prints of architectural and landscape subjects, and counseled their
use to students and readers of his Elements of Drawing. Both
academic and Pre-Raphaelite painters, among them William Frith, John
Millais, Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the American
Pre-Raphaelite William Stillman, employed photographs of costumes,
interiors, models, and landscapes taken from various vantage points
as study materials. While they insisted that their canvases were
painted strictly from nature. some of their productions seem close
enough in vision to extant photographs to suggest "that the camera
has insinuated itself into the work. English painters may have been
even more reticent than the French about acknowledging their use of
photographs because of the frequent insistence in the British press
that art must be made by hand to display a high order of feeling and
EUGENE DURIEU. Figure Study No. 6, c. 1853.
Albumen print. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
The 20 years following the introduction of collodion in 1851 was a
period of increased activity by the photographic community to
advance the medium's claims as art. Societies and publications were
founded in England, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States,
with the Photographic Society of London (now the Royal Photographic
Society) and the Societe Frangaise de Photographic, established in
1853 and 1854 respectively, still in existence. Professional
publications, including La Lumiere in Paris, the Photographic
Journal in London, and others in Italy, Germany, and the United
States, were in the vanguard of discussions about photographic art,
devoting space to reviews of exhibitions of painting as well as
Between 1851 and 1862, individual
photographers, among them Antoine Claudet, Andre Adolphc Disderi,
and numbers of the now-forgotten, joined artistic photographers
Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson, and William Lake Price in
publishing articles and letters to the professional journals that
attempted to analyze the aesthetic similarities and differences
between graphic works and photographs and to decide if photography
was or was not Art. Notwithstanding their long-winded, often
repetitious contentions, the photographers and their allies evolved
a point of view about the medium that still forms the basis of
photographic aesthetics today. Summed up in a piece by an unknown
author that appeared in the Photographic Journal at the beginning of
1862, ostensibly it addressed the immediate question of whether
photography should be hung in the Fine Arts or Industrial Section of
the forth-coming International Exposition. The author observed that
"the question is not whether photography is fine art per se—neither
painting nor sculpture can make that claim— but whether it is
capable of artistic expression; whether in the hands of a true
artist its productions become works of art." A similar idea, more
succinctly stated, had illuminated the introduction by the French
naturalist Louis Figuier to the Catalogue of the 1859 Salon of
Photography (the exhibition that apparently inspired Baudelaire's
diatribe). Figuier was one of a number of scientists of the era who
were convinced that artistic expression and mass taste would be
improved by photography, just as the general quality of human life
would benefit from applied science. He observed that "Until now, the
artist has had the brush, the pencil and the burin; now, in
addition, he has the photographic lens. The lens is an instrument
like the pencil and die brush, and photography is a process like
engraving and drawing, for what makes an artist is not the process
but the feeling."
The leading French painters of
landscapes and humble peasant scenes—known as the Barbizon group—as
well as the Realists and Impressionists who concerned themselves
with the depiction of mundane reality, accepted photographs more
generously than Ingres and the Salon painters, in part because of
their scientific interest in light and in the accurate depiction of
tonal values. A number of them, including Camille Corot, Gustave
Courbet, and Jean Francois Millet, collected calotypes and albumen
prints, apparently agreeing with Antoine Claudet that when a painter
desires to imitate nature, there could be nothing better than to
consult the "exacting mirror" of a photo graph. These artists
considered the camera a "wonderfully obedient slave," and while not
all of them painted from photographs directly, such camera "notes"
had an important effect on their handling of light and tonality.
DAVID OCTAVIUS HILL and ROBERT ADAMSON.
Portrait of Elizabeth Rigby, Later Lady Eastlake,
c. 1845. Calotype. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Frequenting the forests around
Arras and Fontainebleau, the haunt also of a number of
photographers, Barbizon painters became acquainted with cliche verre
a drawing on a collodion glass plate that is a hybrid form—part
drawing, part photographic print. Known since the early days of
photography and included in both Hunt's treatise and a French work
on graphic art processes, it was taught to many artists visiting the
region by Adalbert and Eugene Cuvelier. It could be used as a
sketching technique, as in a set of Five Landscapes by Corot, or to
yield a more finely detailed print, exemplified by Woman Emptying a
Bucket, an 1862 work by Millet. Cliche verre seems to have been
exceptionally congenial to painters working in and around Barbizon,
but an American artist, John W. Ehninger, supervised an album of
poetry illustrated by this technique. Entitled Autograph Etchings by
American Artists, it included the work of Asher B. Durand, one of
the nation's most prominent mid-century landscapists. In England,
its primary use was as a method of reproduction (called
electrography) rather than as an expressive medium.
The effect of photography on the
handmade arts be-came irreversible with the spread of collodion
technology. Besides using camera images as studies of models and
draperies and for portraits that were to be enlarged and printed on
canvas, painters began to incorporate in their work documentary
information and unconventional points of view gleaned from
familiarity with all sorts of photographs. The high horizons,
blurred figures, and asymmetrical croppings visible in many
Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, which seem to
establish a relationship between these works and camera vision have
been discussed by Scharf, Van Deren Coke, and others. To cite only
one of numerous examples of the complex fashion in which painters
incorporated camera vision into their work, an 1870 collaborative
painting by the Americans Frederic E. Church, G. P. A. Healy, and
Jenis McEntee, entitled The Arch of Titus makes use of a studio
portrait of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his
daughter Edith as a focal point. But in addition to this obvious
usage, the extreme contrast between monochromatic sky and the dark
under portion of the arch, the transparency of the shadow areas, and
the pronounced perspective of the view through the arch all suggest
the close study of photographs. Artists using photographs in this
way usually did not obtain permission or give credit to
photographers, and it is not surprising that a number of court cases
occurred involving better-known photographers who contested the
right of painters to use their images without permission, a
situation that has continued to bedevil photographers up to the
UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER. Longfellow and
Daughter in the Healy Studio in Rome. 1868-69.
Albumen print. Marie de Mare Papers, Archives of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C
While painters were using
photographs and critics were arguing the merits of this practice,
how did the photographers themselves feel about the medium's status
as art? Coming from a spectrum of occupations and class positions,
and approaching the medium with differing expectations, they
displayed a range of attitudes. Several, among them Sir William
Newton, a painter-photographer who helped found the Photographic
Society of London, and the fashionable society portraitist Camillc
Silvy, were out-spoken in claiming that the medium was valuable only
for its documentary veracity. Others, including Fcnton, Edouard
Denis Baldus, and Charles Negre, endeavored to infuse photographic
documentation with aesthetic character in the belief that camera
images were capable of expression, while still others, notably
Rejlander and Robinson, not only emulated the conventional subject
matter of paintings but manipulated their photographs to produce
Starting in the early 1850s,
photographic prints were shown in exhibition rooms and galleries and
selected for inclusion in expositions where problems of
classification sometimes resulted. For instance, nine Le Gray
calotypes, submitted to the 1859 Salon, were first displayed among
the lithographs and then, when their technique became known, were
removed to the science section. For the remainder of the century,
photographers attempted to have camera images included in the fine
arts sections of the expositions, but indecision on the part of
selection committees continued. On the other hand, exhibitions
organized by the photographic societies in the 1850s at times
included many hundreds of images that were displayed according to
the conventions of the academic painting salons, eliciting criticism
in the press and eventual repudiation in the late 1880s. "How is it
possible," wrote an English reviewer in 1856 "for photographs, whose
merit consists in their accuracy and minuteness of detail, to be
seen to advantage when piled, tier upon tier, on the crowded walls
of an exhibition room?" As if in answer to this criticism,
photographers turned to the album as a format for viewing original
Photography and the Nude
That camera studies of both nudes
and costumed figures would be useful to artists had been recognized
by dagucrreotypists since the 1840s; Hermann Krone's Nude Study is
typical of the conventional Academy poses produced for this trade. A
calotype of a woman with a pitcher, by former French painter Julien
Vallou de Villeneuve, exemplifies the numerous studies on paper of
models costumed as domestic servants—designed to serve the same
clientele—that probably were inspired by the work of French painters
like Francois Bonvin; these simply posed and dramatically lighted
figure studies continued a tradition of painted genre imagery with
which photography—on the occasions when it was judged to be art—was
invariably associated. Even well-known photographers provided
studies of all aspects of the human figure for artists, as can be
seen in Rejlander's Study of Hands.
Predictably, photographs of nudes
appealed to others besides graphic artists. Indeed, soon after the
invention of the medium, daguerreotypes (followed by ambrotypes.
albumen prints, and stereographs, often hand-colored to increase the
appearance of naturalness) were made expressly for salacious
purposes. Photographic journals inveighed against this abuse of the
camera, and some studios were raided as a result of court findings
in Britain and the United States that photographs of nudes were
obscene, but erotic and pornographic images continued to find an
interested market. More to the point is the fact that to many
Victorians no clear distinctions existed between studies of the nude
made for artists, those done for personal expression, and those
intended as titillating commercial images. In a milieu where people
were scandalized by realistic paintings of unclothed figures except
in mythological or historical contexts, where Ruskin was allowed to
destroy J. M. W. Turner's erotic works, it would have been too much
to expect that the even more naturalistic camera depiction of nudity
would be accepted, no matter what purpose the images were designed
This was true even when such images
were conceived with high artistic principles in mind, as with
Rejlander's Two Ways of Life, to be discussed shortly. The same
Victorian moral code no doubt accounts for Lewis Carroll's decision
to destroy the negatives of his own artistically conceived images of
nude young girls which he realized "so utterly defied convention,"
and to have the photographs of the daughters of his friends,
including Beatrice Hatch, painted in by a colorist who supplied the
fanciful outdoor decor. In this context, a comparison between the
painted and photographed nudes by the American painter Thomas Eakins,
who made some 200 such camera studies, is instructive. Photographs
of a group of swimmers—made by Eakins or a student—for the painting
The Swimming Hole capture movement and anatomical details with
lively accuracy. Nevertheless, the painter, apparently concerned
with avoiding anything that his Philadelphia patrons and critics
might find offensive, discreetly (but unavailingly) rearranged the
poses of the nude boys in the final work.
JULIEN VALLOU DE VILLENEUVE
French lithographer, photographer
and painter. From his debut at the Salon of 1814 as a painter he
regularly exhibited lithographed images of daily life, fashion,
regional costumes and erotica, many done after the work of English
and Dutch artists. He also published his own lithographed
compositions, mostly 'female types'. With Achille Deveria and others
he contributed to the compendium of romantic erotica called Imagerie
galante (Paris, 1830), which provocatively updated an erotic mode
found in 18th-century engravings. The subjects were pictorial
versions of stock characters from popular novels and plays.
JULIEN VALLOU DE VILLENEUVE. Woman with Pitcher, c. 1855.
Calotype. Bibliotheque Nationalc, Paris.
OSCAR GUSTAV REJLANDER
Oscar Gustave Rejlander (Sweden
1813 – Clapham, London on 18 January 1875) was a pioneering
Victorian art photographer.
His exact date of birth is uncertain, but was probably 1813. He was
the son of Carl Gustaf Rejlander, a stonemason and Swedish Army
Officer. He studied art in Rome where he saw photographs of the
sights, and then initially settled in Lincoln, England. He abandoned
his original profession as a painter and portrait miniaturist,
apparently after seeing how well a photograph captured the fold of a
sleeve. Other accounts say he was inspired by one of Fox Talbot's
He set up as a portraitist in the industrial Midlands town of
Wolverhampton, probably around 1846. Around 1850 he learned the wet-collodion
and waxed-paper processes at great speed with Nicholas Henneman in
London, and then changed his business to that of a photography
studio. He undertook genre work and portraiture. He also created
erotic work, using as models the circus girls of Mme Wharton, street
children and child prostitutes - his Charlotte Baker series remains
Rejlander undertook many experiments to perfect his photography,
including combination printing from around 1853, which it is
possible he may have invented. He was a friend of photographer
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better know by the nom de plume Lewis
Carroll), who collected Rejlander's early child work and
corresponded with him on technical matters. Rejlander later created
one of the best known & most revealing portraits of Dodgson.
His early work only slightly sullied his later reputation, and he
participated in the Paris Exhibition of 1855. In 1857 he made his
best-known allegorical work, The Two Ways of Life. This was a
seamlessly montaged combination print made of thirty-two images
(akin to the use of Photoshop today, but then far more difficult to
achieve) in about six weeks. First exhibited at the Manchester Art
Treasures Exhibition of 1857, the work shows two youths being
offered guidance by a patriarch. Each youth looks toward a section
of a stage-like tableaux vivant - one youth is shown the virtuous
pleasures and the other the sinful pleasures. The image's partial
nudity was deemed 'indecent' by some - and those familiar with
Rejlander's more commercial work might also suspect that prostitutes
had been used as cheap models. But the 'indecency' faded when Queen
Victoria ordered a 10-guinea copy to give to Prince Albert.
Despite this royal patronage, controversy about The Two Ways of Life
in strait-laced Scotland in 1858 led to a secession of a large group
from the Photographic Society of Scotland, the secessionists
founding the Edinburgh Photographic Society in 1861. They objected
to the picture being shown with one half of it concealed by drapes.
The picture was later shown at the Birmingham Photographic Society
with no such furore or censorship. However the Photographic Society
of Scotland later made amends and invited Rejlander to a grand
dinner in his honour in 1866, held to open an exhibition that
included many of his pictures.
The success of The Two Ways of Life, and membership of the Royal
Photographic Society of London, gave him an entree into London
respectability. He moved his studio to Malden Road, London around
1862 and further experimented with double exposure, photomontage,
photographic manipulation and retouching. He became a leading expert
in photographic techniques, lecturing and publishing widely, and
sold portfolios of work through bookshops and art dealers. He also
found subject-matter in London, photographing homeless London street
children to produce popular 'social-protest' pictures such as "Poor
Joe" and "Homeless".
He married Mary Bull in 1862, who was twenty-four years his junior.
Mary had been his photographic model in Wolverhampton since she was
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson visited Rejlander's Malden Road studio in
1863 and was inspired to set up his own studio. Around 1863
Rejlander visited the Isle of Wight and collaborated with Julia
Some of Rejlander's images were purchased as drawing-aids to
Victorian painters of repute, such as Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. In
1872 his photography illustrated Darwin's classic treatise on The
Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
He became seriously ill from about 1874. Rejlander died in 1875 with
several claims on his estate, and costly funeral expenses. The
Edinburgh Photographic Society raised money for his widow on
Rejlander's death, and helped set up the Rejlander Memorial Fund.
Rejlander's ideas and techniques were taken up by other
photographers and this, to some extent, justifies labelling him as
the father of art photography.
OSCAR GUSTAV REJLANDER. Study of Hands, c. 1854.
Albumen print. Gernsheim Collection, Humanities Research Center,
University of Texas, Austin.
With works of art in all media
attracting the interest of the urban bourgeoisie during the second
half of the 19th century, critics became more vocal in their
exhortations to photographers as well as painters to select themes
and treatments that not only would delineate situations
naturalistically but would also embody uplifting sentiments.
Especially in England, articles and papers read before the
professional photographic societies as well as reviews of annual and
special exhibitions translated traditional precepts of art into
huffy "dos and don'ts" for photographers. The demand that
photographs be at once truthful, beautiful, and inspirational
influenced the making of still Iifes, genre scenes, portraits of
models in allegorical costume, and finally, composite images that
aimed to compete with the productions of "high art." To overcome the
sharp definition decried by some as being too literal for art,
photographers were urged to use slower collodion or inferior optical
elements, to smear the lens or kick the tripod during exposure, or
to blur the print during processing.
Efforts to transcend the
litcralness of the lens without aping too closely the conventions of
graphic art were most successful in France. As a consequence of
their art training, the several painters associated with Delaroche
who became adept at the calotype process around 1850 understood the
importance of "effect"—a treatment that involved the suppression of
excess detail. For example, in Young Girl Seated with a Basket,
Negre concentrated the light on the head, hands, and basket rim
purposefully leaving the texture of wall and background indistinct.
His choice of subject—an Italian peasant in France—derived from the
painting tradition that counted Murillo and Bonvin among its
advocates and conformed to the idea that lower-class themes were
acceptable in art as long as they were treated picturesquely. This
concept also had inspired Hill and Adamson in their photographs of
the fishcrfolk of Newhaven and William Collie in his calotypes of
rural folk on the Isle of Jersey.
CHARLES NEGRE. Young Girl Seated with a Basket, 1852.
Salt print. Collection Andre Jammes, Paris; National Gallerv of
While a variant of this theme
appealed to Baron Humbert de Molard, a founding member of the
Societe Frangaise de Photographic who posed gamekeepers, hunters
milkmaids, and shepherds against real or reconstituted rural
backgrounds, genre scenes generally were made less frequently in
France than in England and the United States, where a taste for
narrative content was explicit. Still another variety of posed
imagery involving humble pursuits used more sophisticated settings
and pas-times, as in an 1850 calotype, Chess Game by Alois Locherer;
later German examples of the same type in collodion were called
Lebende Bilder (Living Pictures) be-cause they portrayed costumed
models, often artists and students, posing as knights, literary
figures, or as wellknown painting subjects. These genre images with
their artistic intent should not be confused with the posed
portraits of men and women in ethnic costume meant as souvenirs for
tourists or as reflections of nationalistic aspirations among
middle-Europeans who had not yet established political identities.
HUMBERT DE MOLARD. The Hunters, 1851.
Societe Franchise de Photographic, Paris
ALOIS LOCHERER. Chess Game, c. 1850.
Calotype. Gernsheim Collection, Humanities Research Center,
University of Texas, Austin.
Before discussing the irruption of
storytelling imagery that characterized English photography during
the collodion era, the photographic still life as an acceptable
artistic theme should be mentioned. Tabietop arrangements of
traditional materials—fruit, crockery, statuary, subjects that had
appealed to Daguerre and Talbot as well as to conventional
painters—continued to attract photographers on the continent during
the calotype and collodion eras. While these arrangements also made
it possible for photographers to study the effects of light on form,
the conventions of still life painting appear at times to have been
transferred to silver with little change in style and iconography;
other works, exemplified by Krone's Still Life of the Washerwoman,
are captivating because they embrace less conventional objects.
HERMANN KRONE. Still Life of the Washerwoman, 1853.
Albumen print. Deutsches Museum, Munich.
ROGER FENTON. Still Life of Fruit, c.
Albumen print. Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England.
Arrangements of flowers, which at
first might seem to be singularly unsuitcd to a monochromatic
medium, were successfully photographed perhaps because in some cases
the images were regarded as documents rather than purely as artistic
expressions. In the early 1850s, close-up studies of leaves,
blossoms, and foliage arranged by Adolphe Braun in formal and casual
compositions were highly praised for their intrinsic artistry as
well as their usefulness; these prints may have inspired Eugene
Chauvigne and Charles Aubry, among others, to attempt similar
themes. In the dedication to Studies of Leaves, Aubry wrote that
they were made to "facilitate the study of nature" in order to
"increase... productivity in the industrial arts." Nevertheless,
other flower still lifes by the same artist included skulls and
props, suggesting that he also wished them to be comparable to
painted counterparts, although the simple arrangements and crisp
detailing of foliage in the studies suggests that his work was most
original when not competing with paintings of similar themes. But,
as always, there are exceptions. A group of large-format
"after-the-hunt" still lifes by Eraun, portraying arrangements of
hung game, waterfowl, and hunting paraphernalia, successfully
emulated works of graphic art that had been popular with painters of
Northern Europe for two centuries.
That painters and photographers both drew upon a common tradition
can be seen in an oil painting of the same theme by Valentin
Gottfried, who worked near Strasbourg in the late 17th and early
18th centuries. For his images, Braun printed collodion negatives of
approximately 23 x 30 inches on thin tissue, using the carbon
process to achieve a broad range of delicate tones. After-the-hunt
scenes similar in size and generally less complex in arrangement
were made also by Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, Fenton, William Lake
Price, Louise Laffon, Charles Philippe Auguste Carey, and others,
but the difficulties of transcribing this theme from painting to
photography is apparent in the many cluttered compositions and lack
of saving gracefulness.
ADOLPHE BRAUN. Flower Study, c. 1855.
Modem gelatin silver print. Private collection.
CHARLES AUBRY. Leaves, 1864.
Albumen print. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
ADOLPHE BRAUN. Stil lLife with Deer and Wildfowl, C. 1865.
Carbon print. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; David Hunter
McAlpin Fund, 1947.
VALENTIN GOTTFRIED. Hunt Picture, late 17th-early 18th century.
Oil on canvas. Musee des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, France.
CHARLES PHILIPPE AUGUSTE CAREY. Still Life with Waterfowl, c. 1873.
Albumen print. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
Convinced that visual art should
uplift and instruct, some English photographers specialized in
producing reenacted narratives synthesized in the darkroom, an
enterprise known as combination printing. By staging tableaux and
then piecing together separate images to form a composition,
photographers were able to choose agreeable models and control the
narrative content of die work. The technique was adopted
briefly—with unfortunate results to be discussed shortly—by
Rejlander, but its high esteem during the 1860s was die result of
the tireless efforts of Robinson, who saw himself both as a
theoretician with a mission to elevate photography and as a
practitioner. He wrote numerous articles and eleven books on
aesthetics and techniques, several of which were translated into
French and German. His first and most widely read work, Pictorial
Effect in Photography, Being Hints on Composition and Chiaroscuro
for Photographers, of 1869, emphasized traditional artistic
principles of pictorial unity and concluded with a chapter on
However, Rejlander was the first to
make imaginative use of combination printing despite what some may
consider the flawed judgment that led him in 1857—two years after
his first attempt—to work on a major opus entitled Two Ways of Life.
At least five versions existed of this large bathetic composition
(31 x 16 inches) formed from some 30-odd separate negatives posed
for by 16 professional and other models. Loosely based on Raphael's
School of Athens fresco, it represents an allegory of the choice
between good and evil (also between work and idleness) that was
meant to compete thematically and stylistically with the paintings
and photographs entered in the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition
of 1857, and, incidentally, to serve as a sampler of photographic
figure studies for artists. With such vaunting, if disparate
ambitions, it is little wonder that despite the seal of approval
from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who purchased a version,
critics termed it unsuccessful as allegory; works of "high art,"
they claimed, should not be executed by "mechanical contrivances."
When exhibited in Edinburgh in 1858, the partially nude figures were
covered over while a discussion ensued as to whether or not the work
was lascivious. Reacting to the criticism, Rejlander deplored "the
sneering and overbearing manner in which . . . [critics] assign
limits to our power," but he refrained from further grandiose
compositions. Though sentimental at times. Rcjlander's less
ambitious combination prints—Hard Times with its social and surreal
overtones is one example—and his many posed figure pieces, including
studies of workers, are among the thematically and visually more
interesting works of this nature.
After seeing Rejlander's work,
Robinson, a fellow painter-turned-photographer who had started as a
portraitist but had set his sights on a higher purpose, adopted
combination printing. Claiming that "a method that will not admit of
modifications of the artist cannot be art," he first worked out
preliminary sketches into which the photographic parts were fitted
in the manner of a puzzle or patchwork quilt. Fading Away, his
inaugural effort created from five different negatives—also acquired
by the royal couple—was praised for "exquisite sentiment" by some
and criticized as morbid by others. Though Robinson avoided such
emotion-laden subjects again, for 30 or so years he continued to mix
the "real with the artificial," as he described it, using models
"trained to strict obedience" in order to produce scenes agreeable
to a public that esteemed engravings after the genre paintings of
Sir David Wilkie and Thomas Faed.
OSCAR GUSTAV REJLANDER. Hard Times,
Albumen print. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman
House, Rochester, N.Y.
HENRY PEACH ROBINSON. Preliminary Sketch with Photo Inserted, c.
Albumen print and pastel collage on paper. Gernsheim Collection.
Humanities Research Center, University of Texas. Austin.
HENRY PEACH ROBINSON. Fading Away, 1858.
Albumen composite print. Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England.
HENRY PEACH ROBINSON
Henry Peach Robinson (born July 9,
1830 in Ludlow, Shropshire - died February 21, 1901) was an English
Pictorialist photographer best known for his pioneering of
combination printing - joining multiple negatives to form a single
image, the precursor to photomontage. According to his letters, he
was influenced by the paintings of J.M.W. Turner.
Robinson was the eldest of the four children of John Robinson, a
Ludlow schoolmaster, and his wife Eliza. He was educated at Horatio
Russell's academy in Ludlow until he was thirteen, when he took a
year's drawing tuition with Richard Penwarne before being
apprenticed to a Ludlow bookseller and printer, Richard Jones.
While continuing to study art, his initial career was in
bookselling, in 1850 working for the Bromsgrove bookseller Benjamin
Maund, then in 1851 for the London-based Whittaker & Co. In 1852 he
exhibited an oil painting, On the Teme Near Ludlow, at the Royal
Academy. That same year he began taking photographs, and five years
later, following a meeting with the photographer Hugh Welch Diamond,
decided to devote himself to that medium, in 1855 opening a studio
in Leamington Spa, selling portraits.
In 1859 he married Selina Grieves, daughter of a Ludlow chemist,
John Edward Grieves.
In 1864, at the age of thirty-four, Robinson was forced to give up
his studio due to ill-health from exposure to toxic photographic
chemicals. Relocating to London, Robinson kept up his involvement
with the theroetical side of photography, writing the influential
essay Pictorial Effect in Photography, Being Hints on Composition
and Chiaroscuro for Photographers, published in 1868. Around this
time his health had improved sufficiently to open a new studio in
Tunbridge Wells with Nelson King Cherrill, and in 1870 he become
vice-president of the Photographic Society.
The partnership with Cherrill dissolved in 1875, Robinson continuing
the business until his retirement in 1888. Following internal
disputes within the Photographic Society, he resigned in 1891 to
become one of the early members of the rival Linked Ring society, in
which he was active until 1900, when he was also elected an honorary
member of the Royal Photographic Society.
He died and was buried in Tunbridge Wells in early 1901.
HENRY PEACH ROBINSON. A Holiday in the Wood
Narrative, Allegorical, and Genre
The precepts that photographic art
should deal with suitable themes, that the image be judiciously
composed and sharply defined, dominated the theoretical ideas of a
generation of amateur photographers in England. Among them, William
Grundy specialized in what the French publication La Lumicre called
"a peculiar type of rustic humor" while Price, a watercolorist and
author of a popular manual on artistic photography, produced besides
landscapes and still lifes, literary' figure pieces of which Don
Quixote is an example. Though some critics denounced this kind of
photography as inadequate for conveying moral messages, theatrically
contrived literary and allegorical subjects continued to appeal, as
can be seen in Silvy's portraits of a middle-class sitter, Mrs.
Leslie, garbed in the mantle of truth. In its concentration on
narrative, its avoidance of sensuous and atmospheric effects, its
preference for sharp definition, the work of the English Pictorial
photographers of die 1860s and '70s mimics effects and themes found
in both Pre-Raphaelite and academic paintings.
A different concept of photographic
aesthetics informed literary and allegorical images by Julia
Margaret Cameron, whose purpose fully out-of-focus technique was
derided by Robinson as inexcusable. Cameron drew upon an extensive
knowledge of the Bible and English literature for her themes, using
the same props, draperies, and models time and again. The Rising of
the New Tear, one of many images using the children of her friends
and servants, reflects the ideas of her artistic mentor, the painter
George Frederic Watts, whose great admiration for the themes (
Renaissance art communicated itself to the photographer through his
canvases, writings, and close friendship Cameron's intuitive empathy
as well as her understanding that light can mystify and illuminate
invests these tableaux with more interest than their derivative
subject matter deserves. Imaginative handling of tonal contrast
characterizes the large body of work produced by Clementina, Lady
Hawarden, whose posed and costurned figures reveal an ardent
sensuality different from that seen in Cameron's narrative works.
WILLIAM LAKE PRICE. Don Quixote in His
Study, c. 1890.
Albumen print. Gcrnsheim Collection, Humanities Research Center,
University of Texas, Austin.
WILLIAM GRUNDY. A Day's Shooting, c. 1857.
Albumen print. BBC Hulton Picture Library/Bettmann Archive.
CAMILLE SILVY. Mrs. John Leslie as Truth, March 16, 1861.
Albumen print. National Portrait Gallery, London.
CLEMENTINA, LADY HAWARDEN. Young Girl with Mirror Reflection, 1860s.
Albumen print. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Picturesque genre images were made
in Italy for the tourist trade rather than as examples of high art.
Most were contrived reenactments, similar in theme and treatment to
the theatrical vignettes staged in the Naples studio of Giorgio
Sommer. Given titles like The Spaghetti Eaters or Shoeshine and
Pickpocket, they were supposedly humorous reminders of what
travelers from the north might expect to find in Italian cities.
Staged and unstaged images of bucolic peasant and street life,
produced by the Alinari brothers in Florence and by Carlo Naya in
Venice, were intended for tourists who wished to point out to the
folks back home both the simple pleasures and sharp practices one
might expect when visiting Italy. Naya, a well-educated dilettante
who at first regarded photography- as a curiosity rather than a
livelihood, eventually was considered by his contemporaries to have
"transformed this art into an important industry while retaining its
aesthetic character." In effect, by posing the beadworkers, beggars,
and street vendors of Venice against real and studio backgrounds, he
transformed social reality into mementos for tourists.
GIORGIO SOMMER. Shoeshine and Pickpocket, 1865-70.
Albumen print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Abbott Lawrence Fund.
CARLO NAYA. Children on a Fish Weir, Venice, c. 1870s.
Albumen print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Abbott Lawrence Fund.
Artistic Photography in the United
"The sharp contest going on abroad
between advocates of painting and photography" was less engaging to
most Americans. A number of photographers—among them, George N.
Barnard, Gabriel Harrison, Alexander Hcslcr, and John Moran—were
convinced that both media spoke the same language and addressed the
same sentiments; but even though they were concerned with
photography as art, the prevailing climate was one of indifference
to theoretical issues. This probably was due to the low esteem for
die arts in general in America, to the continued success of
commercial daguerreotyping long after its eclipse in Europe, and to
the upheaval caused by the Civil War. The situation began to change
toward the end of the 1860s, largely through the urging of
publications such as the Philadelphia Photographer that
photographers give greater consideration to photographic aesthetics.
On the other hand, painters in die
United States were not in the least hesitant about using photographs
in their work. Agreeing with Samuel F. B. Morse's judgment of the
medium as a utilitarian tool that would supply "rich materials . . .
an exhaustive store for the imagination to feed upon . . . [and]
would bring about a new standard in art," portrait and genre
painters began to copy from photographs soon after the daguerreotype
was introduced. The lucrative business of enlarging and transferring
photo-graphic portraits to canvas,, continued, but even before the
Civil War, landscape painters— including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas
Cole, and Frederic E. Church—also welcomed the photograph as an
ally. It served landseapists particularly well in their endeavors to
represent scientific fact animated by heavenly inspiration— a visual
concept reflective of Ralph Waldo Emerson's New World philosophy of
the divinity of the native landscape. In terms of style, the
stereograph was especially important. Contemporary critics noted the
minutely detailed foregrounds, misty' panoramic backgrounds, and
powerful illusion of depth in the work of Church and Bierstadt, the
two most renowned painters of their era. These effects are exactly
those of the stereograph image seen on a much reduced scale through
the viewing device. Furthermore, references in Church's diaries and
the evidence of a large collection of photographs found in his
studio reinforce the suspicion that this painter, along with many
others, collected stereographs and regular-format photographs for
information and, at times, to paint over. Also, between 1850 and
1880, artists explored the West and the Northeast in the company of
photographers, resulting in an opportunity for interchange of ideas
and images that affected both media.
Curiously, American photographers
did not at first manifest the widespread interest in genre themes
apparent in painting at mid-century. Individual daguerreotypists who
were determined to rescue the medium from what they called "Broadway
operators" arranged mundane, sentimental, and allegorical subjects.
Three Pets, a daguerreotype by Hesler, which was awarded a gold
medal at the 1851 London Great Exhibition and then reproduced as a
crystallotypc in American Photography and Fine Art Journal, is an
example of the sentimental subjects chosen by this individual to
demonstrate the artistic possibilities of the medium. In concert
with Marcus Aurelius Root and Henry Hunt Snelling (early critics and
historians of the medium), Hesler urged photographers to interest
them-selves in something more than paltry gain.
ALEXANDER HESLER. Three Pets, c. 1851.
Crystalotype from original daguerreotype in Photographic and Fine
Arts Journal, April, 1854.
International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House,
A similar motive prompted Harrison,
a prominent New York daguerreotypist, to improve his compositions by
studying the works of European and American painters. In selecting
allegorical subjects such as Past, Present and Future, this friend
of Walt Whitman, who furnished the portrait of the poet for the
frontispiece of Leaves of Grass, hoped to show that photographs
could reflect "merit, taste and a little genius," that they might
embody the unifying thread of human experience that he perceived in
the poetry. According to the Photographic Art Journal, Harrison's
images on metal were eagerly collected by contemporary painters in
New York, but even this recognition was insufficient to sustain him
in his pursuit of art photography.
Aside from these examples, posed
genre compositions and combination printing were not widely favored
in the United States at this time owing to both the general distrust
of mannerism in the arts and the firm conviction that the camera
should not tamper with reality. The Philadelphia Photographer may
have believed that such practices would improve the quality of
photographic expression, but the more common view, enunciated by
Holmes, was that composite images were "detestable—vulgar
repetitions of vulgar models, shamming grace, gentility and emotion
by the aid of costumes, attitudes, expressions and accessories."
Indeed, this enthusiastic realist was scornful of any kind of hand
manipulation on photographs; his preference for the stereograph to
other formats was in part because it was too small for retouching.
GABRIEL HARRISON. Past, Present, Future, c. 1854.
Crystalotype. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman
House, Rochester, N.Y.
Genre photographs became more
acceptable after the Civil War, but the most proficient producer was
the Canadian William Notman. His Montreal studio was claimed to be
"all alone in this branch of photography on our side of the water,"
and was outfitted with a full complement of properties and a wind
machine for creating the illusion of snowy outdoor climate and
landscape, as in Caribou Hunting: The Return of the Party. Both
Notman and James Inglis, also of Montreal, were among the very few
who made composite images using methods akin to those of Rejlander
and Robinson in that they pasted prints into place and retouched and
rephotographed them to form compositions such as Inglis's Victorian
Rifles of 1870, truly a pastiche of handwork and photochemical
notwithstanding, stereograph format and genre themes were made for
each other. By the 1860s, when many painters were turning away from
narrative and sentimental subjects, publishers of stereographs were
discovering the public taste for pictures of love, death, domestic
tribulation, and rustic humor—a taste that formerly had been
satisfied by lithographic prints as well as works in oil. Since
these images were considered popular entertainment rather than "high
art"—in effect, forerunners of the situation comedies and dramas of
television— viewers did not fault the stiff postures, exaggerated
perspective, or absence of atmosphere. Made in Europe also, most
notably by the London Stereograph Company and the German firm of
Loescher and Petsch, their chief appeal was in the United States
where it was said that no parlor was without a stereoscope.
WILLIAM NOTMAN. Canbou Hunting: The Return of the Party, 1866.
Albumen print. Notman Photographic Archives, McCord Museum, McGill
JAMES INGLIS. Victorian Rifles, 1870. Composite albumen print;
painting by W. Lorenz.
Notman Photographic Archives, McCord Museum, McGill University,
Large-scale manufacturers, notably
the Weller and Mclcnder companies, produced a considerable portion
of the genre subjects in the United States before 1890, but local
photographers turned out a variety of such images, often stressing
regional characteristics. An exceptionally popular subject—one that
figured also in regular-format photographs of the time, was the
"spirit" image. Dealing with some aspect of the supernatural, as in
The Haunted Lane published in 1880 by L. M. Melendcr and
Brother, these pictures were made by allowing the model for the
"spirit" to leave the scene before exposure was completed and by
resorting to complicated techniques. They were taken seriously by
many photographers and appealed to the same broad audience for whom
seances, Ouija boards, and spiritualism seemed to provide a release
from the pressures caused by urbanization and industrialization.
L. M. MELENDER and BROTHER. The Haunted Lane, c. 1880.
One-half of an albumen stereograph. Library of Congress, Washington,
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
The most irresistible protest
against these developments was embodied in the theory of
"naturalism" proclaimed by the English photographer Peter Henry
Emerson. 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, an etching
of 1879 by Bastien-Lepage, is both visually and ideologically a
forerunner of In the Barley Harvest, 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 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 with both the immediacy of real life and a transcendent
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, 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.
PETER HENRY EMERSON. In the Barley Harvest from Pictures of East
Anglian Life, 1888.
Gravure print. Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England.
LIDELL SAWYER. In the Twilight, 1888.
Gravure print. Gernsheim Collection, Humanities Research Center,
University of Texas, Austin.
FRANK M. SUTCLIFFE. Water Rats, 1886.
Albumen print. Private Collection.
Art Works in Photographic
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 is
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
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 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.
JAMES ANDERSON. Michelangelo's Moses from the Tomb of Julius II,
Albumen print. Collection Centre Canadien d'Architecture/ Canadian
Centre for Architecture, Montreal.
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
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
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.
CHARLES NEGRE. Market Scene at the Port de L'Hotel de Ville, Paris,
Salt print. Collection Andre Jammes, Paris; National Gallety of
CHARLES NEGRE. Deux Pifferari dans la cour du 21 quai Bourbon vers
Peter Henry Emerson
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
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