Saturday, May 23, 2015

The History of Photograpy, Beaumont Newhall

I want to make a few remarks about this book. It's the go-to history of photography, and it's fundamentally flawed (in my opinion). Newhall had some serious biases, and they show.

There are, more or less, three remarks I want to make.

Remark The First

In the 4th edition we have chapters named Pictorial Effect and Photography as an Art. In the 5th edition, we have the same chapters named Art Photography and Pictorial Photography, respectively. What's interesting that the the adjectives "Art" and "Pictorial" are reversed in the 5th edition.

On the one hand, in reality, these two terms are -- largely -- interchangeable, in context. The folks who wanted photography to be Art (respected by the establishment, as well as doing whatever it is that Art does) felt that the proper path was to make Pictorial photographs (photographs that look like paintings). So, they don't mean quite the same thing, but they describe much the same set of people and ideas.

On the other hand, we pay historians to name things properly and put them in the right buckets and so forth, so I think a case can be made that Mr. Newhall has fallen down on the job when he's moving things around in 1981.

Some time in the first half of the twentieth century the word Pictorial came to mean "photographs I don't like", more or less. My guess is that the naming change in the 5th edition was, somehow, a reflection of this, but it's very late. Certainly the later of the two chapters (Photography as an Art in edition 4, and Pictorial Photography in the fifth) is largely concerned with the era of fuzzy gum-bichromate pictures, the body of work we now call Pictorialism. The 5th edition comes along quite late to be driving, or even closely following, this usage. So, I am not sure what's up.

Newhall never seems to use the word Pictorial or Pictorialist in the pejorative "those buggers making fuzzy gum prints" way, in either edition. Still, the word "Pictorial" is fraught, and I think it was fraught in 1980, so Newhall was up to something here.

Remark The Second

P.H. Emerson. Both Newhalls (Beaumont's wife, Nancy, wrote a remarkably thin biography of Emerson, which appears to be about half apologies for not being able to find anything out about great swathes of time, and inventing fantasies for what might have happened during them) seem to want Emerson to be very influential.

He just doesn't seem to have been. Yes, he wrote a great deal, and got in to spectacular fights. He was, briefly, well known and either respected or feared, possibly both. But he doesn't seem to have actually influenced anybody.

I love Emerson. He was just my kind of grouch. But he was also a nutter, and photographers generally seem to have simply ignored him in the long run. One can argue that he was the first to seriously espouse a philosophy that was to become Straight Photography 20 or 30 years later, when the time was right, but it seems certain that the Straight Photography people came up with it on their own.

It's not at all clear that Emerson deserves as much as a line in a definitive history of photography, and he almost certainly doesn't deserve the kind of coverage Newhall gives him.

Remark The Third

In the 4th edition we find this remark attributed to Stieglitz: "The result is the only fair basis for judgement. It is justifiable to use any means upon a negative or paper to attain the desired end."

I cannot find this remark quoted in the somewhat larger 5th edition.

This fits rather neatly with Newhall's bullshit narrative of Stieglitz single-handedly lifting Photography out of the mire of gum-bichromate fuzz. The brutal truth is that Stieglitz seems never to have told anyone how they ought to work. He simply didn't care what methods people used. He never did. Stieglitz himself usually shot straight, his primary change in methods over time was simply to shoot on clear days rather than foggy and rainy ones. Of course there were other vast changes in his life, Stieglitz was always in flux, but his approach to the physical acts involved in making photographs was largely similar across his career.

Stieglitz' main philosophical positions seem to have been:
  • Pictorial Photography is the thing.
  • No it's not, photographs that look like photographs are the thing.
  • Aww hell, whatever works, Georgia's tits are awesome (which they were).

(the last in unfair, actually, what he was actually doing was: we should make distinctively American Art and stop aping the Euros, and who cares if it looks like a painting or a photograph.)

1 comment:

  1. Nancy wrote one too, or is that one or two? Anyway if memory serves me well she charts the paths of several photographers as they struggle to come to terms with photography. What it is for them. In one of the essays she comments how many of the practitioners grew and formed through pictorial photography. How often it was a necessary phase in they're quest. The grappling.
    Transmitted to a modern context, we are seeing a massive historical change in photography, as great hoards of people have entered into the pursuit with access to once unimaginable tools. The grappling begins again and maybe through it all we'll see a strong new development of Straight photography. Maybe Majeed is in one such phase? And if so he's learning his craft well.

    The book? From Adams to Stieglitz