The History of Photography
As a practitioner of the photographic medium, I constantly reconsider the history of the discipline. Tracing the medium’s trajectory to present is a constant source of wonder and inspiration.
–Nicephore Niepce, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826
One of my favorite photographic historians is Geoffrey Batchen. Notable works include Burning with Desire (1999), Each Wild Idea (2001), and Photography Degree Zero (2011).
In Burning with Desire, Batchen explores the connection between the identity of photography and its moment of conception. He investigates the “appearance of a regular discursive practice for which photography is the desired object,” ultimately begging the question:
“Why should the ardent desire have arisen at this time?” (7).
Most importantly, what might this indicate about the nature of photography? If the photograph as medium is inscribed in this moment of socio-cultural specificity, what might this mean today?
William Henry Fox Talbot and the Glass House, Photographic Experimentations
As part of this conversation, Batchen considers the work of proto-photographer William Henry Fox Talbot.
– William Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, 1835
“Where Niepce and Daguerre both take picture from their windows, Talbot makes an image of his window. He tells us that photography is about framing, and then shows us nothing but that frame: he suggests that photography offers a window onto the world, but then shows nothing but that window.
This deceptively simple image articulates photography not as some sort of simply transparent window onto the real, but as a complex form of palimpsest. Nature, camera, image, and photographer are all present even when absent from the picture, as if photography represents a perverse dynamic in which each of these components is continually inscribed in the place already occupied by its neighbor.”
-Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea, 10.
Batchen ultimately argues that the photographic medium was born of and shaped by the tensions of cultural rupture. As society contemplated modernity, both individual and society questioned their place in what seemed an infinitely expanding universe. Individuals reconsidered how they might be able to describe such a world, how they might understand and share their changing vantage point.
“Never did I find language so imperfect as at present.”
– Thomas Watling, Letter from Botany Bay, 1794
Batchen proposes that the unresolved binaries of this transitory moment are inextricably intertwined with the photographic medium:
“We are given a sense here of the desire to photograph as something appearing on the cusp of two eras and two different world views, something uncomfortably caught within the violent inscription of our modern era and through the remnants of the Enlightenment” (22).
Though the photographic medium has continuously evolved over its history, Batchen asserts that this tension remains essential to its core. As a photographer in 2012, I am most inspired by this consideration of the medium in a historical context. Understanding the medium’s history and identity is the only way one can look forward, particularly in our own moment of rupture.
I am most inspired by the novels I read on a daily basis. I enjoy both classical and contemporary literature; however, I often find analysis of contemporary authors most influential in my own work. Exploring the various narrative voices being put forth in a distinct medium allows me to consider some of the themes of our time, the penchants and attitudes of today’s storytellers.
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” – Patrick LaGrange
“I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny, inner wrist;
-steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
-gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
-a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
-another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
-bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
The last thing isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you’ve witnessed.
We live in time- it holds us and moulds us- but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing- until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”
– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
Of course, as contemporary authors use and reveal the language of a cultural moment, universal themes emerge. These fundamental human quandaries transcend hardcovers just as the photograph often indicates much more than what occurred in 1/125th of a second.
An excerpt from Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray:
“Maybe instead of strings its stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they were all part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, and that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to God or whoever my look like a letter, or even a whole word.”
The Documentary Style
Walker Evans is one of the greatest figures within the documentary photography tradition, in American and beyond. The photographs shown below were initially published in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a collaboration with James Agee during the years 1936-1941.
During this period, Evans worked for the Farm Security Administation, photographing the Depression for the Works Progress Administration.
As a project of the New Deal, the enterprise was incredibly complicated and most unique. Many of the nation’s most renowned photographers were under contract, balancing their own practice with that which was dictated by Roy Stryker’s rigorous scripts.
Complications aside, the initiative produced some of the most treasured relics of American history, not to mention a zenith within the documentary tradition.
Walker Evans, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936
Evans famously stated that “documentary,” was a both “sophisticated and misleading” as misnomer. He repeatedly sought to clarify that he worked in “the documentary style.” This term acknowledges the gap between reality and document, even when media is used in a most simple and direct approach.
Regardless, Evans strove to produce authorless photographs. His images capture a most detailed observation of the world. He sought to produce images of precise description, even though they would forever remain distinct from reality itself. He still desired to represent the world he saw with as much accuracy as possible, even if it would never be the same thing once photographed.
“It is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt.”
“I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the time, until I discovered I didn’t need to.
If the thing is there, why there it is!”
– Walker Evans
Jack Delano also produced amazing work under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration:
Together, the FSA Administration photographers produced an impressive and formidable amount of work. Often Evans stands out, as his fame grew over the centuries, with further work and commitment to the medium. However, it would be a mistake to examine his work alone from the cohort of FSA photographers.
Recently, I have been particularly fascinated with the color images produced by FSA photographers. Many of these photographers, like Jack Delano, worked in both black&white and color, providing two very different visual impressions of America.
The discrepancy between black & white and color photographs begs questions as the very nature of a color photograph. It lays bare the importance of photographic syntax. Every technological change, every shift in palette and perspective: these all contribute to the reconstructed realities within a frame. Each becomes a tool of description, shaping photographic meaning.
To revisit the work of Walker Evans, I have included a few of his subway portraits below.
These images, published in Many Are Called, made me want to be a photographer.
They made me want to do more than just photograph: I already did that. They made me want to spend a lifetime doing so.
This work demonstrates how photography can be transformative, both as science and poetry, in its observation of the everyday.
It made me want to dedicate all my waking hours to this formalized practice of discovery.
Evans took approximately 600 photographs in the New York subway over the years 1938-1941.
He concealed the camera beneath his trench coat, bringing up questions of voyeurism.
However, he waited until 1966 to exhibit and publish the work, allowing time to mask those depicted in the work.
The title Many Are Called refers to the Bible:
“For Many are called, but few are chosen.”
I certainly cannot pretend to be any sort of a Biblical expert. Research helps; however, as the world’s most widely read text, the Bible’s text remains subject to a vast array of interpretations. Meaning varies, complicating how one might understand Evans’ biblical reference here.
That being said, I personally believe Evans references Matthew 22:14 for two different reasons: first, to counteract its selectivity with his democratic approach, echoing that of the subway itself; second, to create a parallel between the most mundane commute and the most significant of passages.
Evans reveled in the fact that everyone rode the subway: all the disparate characters of the eclectic city were present. Without even looking through the viewfinder, he would photograph them all. He acted against the notion that just a few would be chosen, embracing the array of humanity presented to the lens, those made visible without the usual photographic process of selection and capture. The subway’s chaotic democracy was largely what drew Evans to the project in the first place. It provided a most convenient receptacle to contemplate the vast nature of humanity.
“To a right-minded man, a crowded Cambridge horse-car is the nearest approach to heaven upon earth.”
-Henry James, as recorded by E.L. Godkin
Of course, with this biblical reference, he presented the day’s commute as metaphor for the precious journey and passage of human life. He photographed ordinary routine as the most poignant of moments, depicting subways riders in moments of deep reflection. Their moments of contemplation, racing towards the unnamed destination, mirror time spent within a confessional booth. Suddenly, moments of self-reflection in transit speak volumes.
Photography as Typology
August Sander was German documentary/portrait photographer. Born 1876, his most significant work was made in just before & during the era of Germany’s Weimar republic (1919-1933). First published in Face of Our Time (1929), his ambitious portraiture project People of the 20th Century sought to create a photographic typology of his society.
Sander’s work was tragically inhibited by the political constraints of his era. The Nazis repressed his work, seizing all the copies they could find of his book and destroying his studio between 1936-1944.
Fortunately, some of his work remains:
Anton Raderscheidt, Painter as Painter 1926
Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance 1913
The simplicity of Sander’s approach transforms individuals into the pure embodiment of their roles. People become archetypes as they perform their social identities for the camera. With this assigned role, the excuse to enact stature, something more comes through.
The encyclopedic attempt to classify a society, and those who comprise it, becomes most poignant. Almost by accident, the distanced gaze becomes shockingly intimate.
Further, I find such typographic enterprises fascinating in how they seemingly exist counter to the narrative structure. Or do they? Photographic projects often pursue one of these routes: narrative and typography are the two most prevalent modes of contemporary photography. In essence and intention, the two seem pitted against one another. Of course, it quickly becomes more complicated than that, particularly in the paradigms I espouse.
Rineke Dijkstra continues Sander’s tradition of the photographic typology while adding her own contemporary perspective.
Dijkstra’s beach portraits depict adolescents on the waterfront, just before tide’s edge. Her subjects are photographed from a slightly low perspective, with exquisite lighting illuminating the figure before an oceanic backdrop. Suddenly, awkward teenagers assert contrapposto, reminiscent of classical Greek sculpture. Even more extraordinary, these young adults mirror paradigms of art history while retaining their own fundamental uncertainty. Dijkstra’s subjects are a mix of classic and insecure, both timeless and contemporary.
The constant variables in her beach portraits is the setting and age of the subject: all are young adults on the waterfront. Her subjects are photographed with precision, in a constant manner of exactitude. Beyond these variables, she travels the globe. Unlike Sander, she does not seek to create a typography of a society. Her work examines people of a certain age in a particular public setting. Other works vary in their approach: she may examine fatigue, childbirth, or follow the process of aging. However, all work utilizes the style of the typography in order to examine moments of transition.
The Intimate and Ordinary
In 2008, I began photographing the interiors of my youth. During a time of turbulence, I began to reconsider the stability of this space, the very wallpapers that surrounded.
Shellburne Thurber, Mitchell Ward House
At the time, I was fortunate enough to study with Jim Dow.
In teaching me large format photography, Jim taught me the exquisite nature of detail. I learned to celebrate mere centimeters: to extol the minute and explore most tiny and revelatory spaces.
Jim Dow, Cactus Barbershop
Jim Dow, Nora’s Poolroom
I was suddenly aware of how ordinary places gathered layers of cultural significance, largely through the efforts of those who cultivated their being.
His work was published in the Where We Live, a publication of images from the Berman collection.
To this day, Where We Live is one of the books that has inspired me most.
-Jack D. Teemer, Baltimore
I was incredibly thrilled to see such exacting, insightful gazes at the ordinary. The images were neither condescending or overtly laudatory.
They were just truly where we live, in genuine space.
Alex Harris, Red White Blue and God Bless You
(images above and below)
Eloquent, understated, and beautiful: no exaggeration need apply. The existence of place- and those who implicitly rely upon these foundations- speaks volumes.
Where We Live also opened up the idea of photographic portraiture for me. So often the portrait is the most enticing of images, that which has the most immediate appeal.
These complicated, environmental portraits from within the domestic space surprised me.
Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home
Below, images from Mitch Epstein’s Family Work:
I was particularly drawn to Mitch Epstein’s work, as he integrated nuanced portraiture with still life images, both loaded with metaphor.
The Social Landscape
As a photographer, I currently seek to consider how individuals interact with their landscape.
Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places
I continue to look to those who have photographed people and place before me, using open-ended inquiry to describe a most specific moment.
Larry Sultan Homeland
Mitch Epstein, American Power
Working in this mode, the work of Joel Sternfeld had been particularly resonant:
Questions remain regarding both narrative and typography. How do the two ways of thinking interact in this documentary tradition?
Many of my favorite photographers seem to utilize the approach of the typography in their individual images. Photographers like Alec Soth then carefully sequence these images to create meandering visual narratives. The result becomes a visual poem.
Alec Soth, Sleeping by the Mississippi
I have recently been interested in the work of Paul d’Amato, as well:
His portraiture is quite masterful:
Finally, I would like to end with Paul Graham’s work. In both A Shimmer of Possibility and American Night, he has played with the medium itself to construct social documentary work. He innovates while retaining the essence of his photographic vision. It is exciting to see photographers working in new ways, adding fresh perspectives on both the medium and where we live.