Friday, May 8, 2015

History of Photography

I now own both the 4th and 5th editions of Beaumont Newhall's book on the history of photography. The differences between them are not so dramatic as I thought at first but they are, I think, telling. More on that later, perhaps. In any case, I do think his book is deeply flawed. He wants very much to lump photographers in to specific movements, and to connect them up in a lineage of influence.

As the art historian Janson had observed, this basically doesn't work for art in the modern era. It's every man for himself in an ever changing stew of ideas and influences - and that's how it has been for the entire history of photography. Attempting to organize by movements is a doomed effort.

I propose a different system of organization, which also might provide a framework for thinking about your own work, if you're in to that sort of thing. It's basic reportage: who, where, what, how, and why.

The who and where are basic facts. For thinking about your own work, it's just You and Here.

The Why I think of as a philosophy. Why are you taking these pictures? What's your purpose? To record your children's lives? To communicate your reaction to this scene? To represent Nature? To emulate the Old Masters of painting?

The What is, in my system, What does it look like? It's an the aesthetic or a visual style, perhaps. Great depth of field, sharp everywhere? Soft, painterly?

How. This is simply the methods. Do you use a big film camera or a cell phone? Do you retouch? Dodge? Photoshop extensively? Manipulate negatives? Collage?

These three facets interact and overlap, of course. They inform and modify one another.

Interestingly, breaking down and organizing the history of photography along the boundaries suggested by these three aspects, you get three completely different histories.

If Pictorialism is a set of methods, then these guys are the Pictorialists. If it's a philosophy or an aesthetic, you get two different groups. The same goes for straight photography, and so on.

Personally, I think straight photography is a philosophy, and pictorial photography is an aesthetic, so setting them up against each other as a sequence of competing movements is idiotic and wrong headed.

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