During the second half of the nineteenth century, the press played a
leading role in the social movement that brought the harsh realities of
poverty to the public's attention. The camera became an important
instrument of reform through the photodocumentary, which tells the story
of people's lives in a pictorial essay. It responded to the same
conditions that had stirred Courbet,
and its factual reportage likewise fell within the
Realist tradition. Before then, photographers had been content to
present the romanticized image of the poor like those in genre paintings
of the day. The first photodocumentary was John Thomson's illustrated
sociological study Street Life in London, published in
To get his pictures, he had
to pose his figures.
(1849-1914) to rely
for the most part on the element of surprise. Riis was a police reporter
in New York City, where he learned at first hand about the
crime-infested slums and their appalling living conditions. He kept up a
steady campaign of illustrated newspaper exposes, books, and lectures
which in some cases led to major revisions of the city's housing codes
and labor laws. His photographs' unflinching realism has lost none of
its force. Certainly it would be difficult to imagine a more nightmarish
scene than Bandits' Roost (fig.
With good reason we sense a pervasive air of danger in the eerie light. The notorious gangs of New York City's Lower
East Side sought their victims by night, killing them without
hesitation. The motionless figures seem to look us over with the
practiced casualness of hunters coldly sizing up potential prey.
The invention of gunpowder flash ten years later allowed
Jacob Riis. Bandits' Roost, ñ.
Gelatin-silver print. Museum of the City of
The raw subject matter and realism of documentary photography had
little impact on art and were shunned by most other photographers as
well. England, through such organizations as the Photographic Society of
London, founded in
became the leader of the
movement to convince doubting critics that photography, by imitating
painting and printmaking, could indeed be art. To Victorian England,
beauty above all meant art with a high moral purpose or noble sentiment,
preferably in a classical style.
(1818-1875) fulfills these ends by presenting an
allegory clearly descended from Hogarth's Rake's Progress series
(figs. 839 and
840). This tour de force, almost
three feet wide, combines 30
negatives through composite printing: a young man (in
two images) is choosing between the paths of virtue or of vice, the
latter represented by a half-dozen nudes. The picture created a
sensation in 1857 and
Queen Victoria herself purchased a print. Rejlander, however, never
enjoyed the same success again. He was the most adventurous photographer
of his time and soon turned to other subjects less in keeping with
The Two Paths of Life (fig.
(1830-1901), who became
the most famous photographer in the world. He established his reputation
with Fading Away (fig. 1029),
which appeared a year after Rejlander's The Two Paths of Life. With six lines from Shelley's
"Queen Mab" printed below on the mat, it is typical of Robinson's
sentimental scenes. Like The Two Paths of Life, it is a
photomontage, but of only five negatives, and the scene is as carefully
staged as any Victorian melodrama. At first Robinson made detailed
drawings of his scenes before photographing the individual components.
He later renounced multiple-negative photography, but still contrived to
imitate contemporary genre painting in his pictures. When treating
elevated subject matter he continued to distinguish between fact and
truth, which to him was a mixture of the real and the artificial.
Oscar Rejlander. The Two Paths of
Life. 1857. George Eastman House, Rochester, New York
The mantle of art photography fell to
An intimate of leading poets, scientists, and
artists, she took up photography at the age of 48
when she was given a camera. She went on to
create a remarkable body of work. In her own day Cameron was known for her allegorical and narrative
pictures, but now she is remembered primarily for her portraits of the
men who shaped Victorian England. Many of her finest photographs,
however, are of the women who were married to her closest friends. An
early study of the actress Ellen Terry (fig.
1030) has the lyricism and grace of the
Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic that shaped Cameron's style (compare fig.
Peach Robinson. Fading Away.
print. Royal Photographic Society, London
The photographer who pursued ideal beauty with the greatest
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
who became the
bitter enemy of Robinson. Emerson espoused what he called Naturalistic
Photography, based on scientific principles and Constable's landscapes.
Nevertheless, he too contrasted realism with truth, defining truth in
terms of sentiment, aesthetics, and the selective arrangement of nature.
Using a single negative, Emerson composed his scenes with the greatest
care, producing results that were sometimes similar to Robinson's,
though of course he never acknowledged this. Most of Emerson's work was
devoted to scenes of rural and coastal life which are not far removed
from early documentary photographs.
The cudgel against art photography was taken up by
Peter Henry Emerson
In his best prints, nature predominates. He was a master at
distributing tonal masses across a scene, and his photographs (fig.
1031) are equivalent to
fine English landscape paintings of the period. Although the effect is rarely apparent in his work,
Emerson advocated putting the lens slightly out of focus, in the belief
that the eye sees sharply only the central area of a scene. When he gave
up this idea a few years later, he decided that photography was indeed
science instead of art because it was machine-made, not personal.
Peter Henry Emerson. Haymaking in the
Societe Francaise de Photographie, Paris
The issue of whether photography could be art came to a head in the
early 1890s with the Secession movement,
which was spearheaded in 1893
by the founding in London of the Linked Ring, a
rival group to the renamed Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain.
Stimulated by Emerson's ideas, the Secessionists sought a pictorialism
independent of science and technology. They steered a course between
academicism and naturalism by imitating every form of late Romantic art
that did not involve narrative. Equally antithetical to their aims were
Realist and Post-Impressionist painting, then at their zenith. In the
group's approach to photography as Art for Art's Sake, the Secession had
the most in common with Whistler's aestheticism.
To resolve the dilemma between art and mechanics, the Secessionists
tried to make their photographs look as much like paintings as possible.
Rather than resorting to composite or multiple images, however, they
exercised total control over the printing process, chiefly by adding special materials to their
printing paper to create different effects. Pigmented gum brushed on
coarse drawing paper yielded a warm-toned, highly textured print that in
its way approximated Impressionist painting. Paper impregnated with
platinum salts was especially popular among the Secessionists for the
clear grays in their prints. Their subtlety and depth lend a remarkable
ethereality to The Magic Crystal (fig.
(1854-1934), in which spiritual
forces are almost visibly sweeping across the photograph.
Among his proteges was the young
(1879-1973), whose photograph of
Rodin in his sculpture studio (fig. 1033)
is without doubt the finest achievement of the entire
Photo-Secession movement. The head in profile contemplating The
Thinker expresses the essence of the confrontation between the
sculptor and his work of art. His brooding introspection hides the inner
turmoil evoked by the ghostlike monument to Victor Hugo which rises
dramatically like a genius in the background. Not since The Creation
of Adam by Michelangelo (fig. 650),
who was Rodin's ideal, have we seen a more telling use
of space or an image that penetrates the mystery of creativity so
The Magic Crystal.
Royal Photographic Society, Bath
Through Kasebier and Alfred Stieglitz, the Linked Ring had
close ties with America, where Stieglitz opened his Photo-Secession
gallery in New York in
The Photo-Secession movement achieved its goal of gaining wide
recognition for photography as an art form, but by
1907 its artifices were regarded
as stilted. Though the movement lasted for a few more years, it was
becoming clear that the future of photography did not lie in the
imitation of painting, for painting was then being drastically reformed
Yet the legacy of the Photo-Secession was valuable, its
limitations notwithstanding, for it taught photographers much about the
control of composition and the response to light.
Rodin with His
Sculptures "Victor Hugo" and the
1902. Gum print. The Art Institute of Chicago.
(1830-1904), father of motion
photography. He wedded two different technologies, devising a set of
cameras capable of photographing action at successive points.
Photography had grown from such marriages. Another instance had occurred
earlier when Nadar used a hot-air balloon to take aerial shots of Paris
trial efforts, Muybridge managed in
to get a set of pictures of a trotting horse which
forever changed artistic depictions of the horse in movement. Of the
100,000 photographs he
devoted to the study of animal and human locomotion, the most
astonishing were those taken from several vantage points at once (fig.
1034). The idea was surely
in the air, for the art of the period occasionally shows similar
experiments, but Muybridge's photographs must nevertheless have come as
a revelation to artists. The simultaneous views present an entirely new
treatment of motion across time and space that challenges the
imagination. Like a complex visual puzzle, they can be combined in any
number of ways that are endlessly fascinating.
An entirely new direction was charted by
Muybridge left it to others to pursue these possibilities further.
Much of his later work was conducted at the University of Pennsylvania
in Philadelphia with the support of Eakins, then the head of the Academy
of the Fine Arts. Eakins was already adept at using a camera, and it
provided the subjects for several of his paintings; soon his interest in
science led him to take up motion photography. Unlike Muybridge's
succession of static images, Eakins' multiple exposures show sequential motion on one plate. In the end, photography for Eakins was
simply a means of depicting figures more realistically.
who developed motion photography into an art. A
noted French physiologist, Marey, like Muybridge, with whom he was in
direct contact, saw the camera as a tool for demonstrating the mechanics
of bodily movement, but he soon began to use it so creatively that his
photographs have a perfection not equaled for another
60 years (compare fig.
1237). Indeed, his multiple exposure of a man walking (fig. 1035a, b) satisfies both scientific
and aesthetic truth in a way that Emerson and the Secessionists never
from Human and Animal Locomotion,
George Eastman House, Rochester, New
It was Etienne-Jules Marey
The photographs of Muybridge and Marey convey a peculiarly modern
sense of dynamics reflecting the new tempo of life in the machine age.
However, because the gap was then so great between scientific fact on
the one hand and visual perception and artistic representation on the
other, their far-reaching aesthetic implications were to be realized
only by the Futurists.
1035 a, b. Etienne-Jules Marey.
Man in Black Suit with White Stripes Down Arms and Legs, Walking in Front of a Black Wall.