150 Years of Photographic Visions
THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY 1839-1989 Edited by Mike Weaver, New Haven: Yale University Press, 472 pp., $50 ON THE ART OF FIXING A SHADOW: ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Essays by Sarah Greenough, Joel Snyder, David Travis, and Colin Westerback, Chicago: The National Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, in association with Bulfinch Press, 510 pp., $75
DECADE BY DECADE: TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHY
Edited by James Enyeart, Boston: Bulfinch Press in association with the Center for Creative Photography, 245 pp., $40, paper
THE DAGUERREOTYPE: A SESQUICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
Edited by John Wood, Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 228 pp., $50
O SAY CAN YOU SEE: AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS, 1839-1939 ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE GEORGE R. RINHART COLLECTION
Text by Thomas Weston Fels, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 143 pp., $50
THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF INVENTION: AMERICAN PICTURES OF THE 1980s
Text by Joshua P. Smith, Introduction by Merry A. Foresta,
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 227 pp. $39.95
AT 3 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 19, 1839, in a muggy meeting room in Paris, the French nation gave photography to the world. The inventor, Louis Jacques Mand'e Daguerre, was scheduled to make the presentation but pleaded illness. In his stead, Fran,cois Arago, the leading scientist and statesman who had engineered French sponsorship of photography, stepped forward to demonstrate how photographs were made and conjecture about future applications.
Within an hour of Arago's demonstration, chemists' shops were thick with would-be photographers, eager to obtain the means to make sun-pictures. ``Daguerreotypomania'' had struck. Photography even became the subject of popular song. In a London music hall, one could hear the lines: Men's heads will be done by a
``stroke of the sun'' And I fear by these facts you'll
be stagger'd, But it's truth on my word, that
without steel or sword By copper and silver you're
For the most part, Arago's predictions of photography's scientific applications have been realized during the last 150 years. But photography's future importance to the arts lay beyond his ken. Arago viewed photography as a servant to the arts, not as an art medium in its own right.
Several books commemorating the 150th birthday of photography have chosen to record the evolution of photography as a medium of expression. Indeed, The Art of Photography, 1839-1989, edited by Mike Weaver, expands the notion of art to include photojournalistic concern with communication and description.
Weaver has concocted an inventive collaboration of texts. Short essays by contemporary scholars are illustrated with images and excerpts from historical writings on photography. Appropriately, the lead essay is by venerable historian Beaumont Newhall, whose history of photography remains the standard in the field.
``The Art of Photography'' is a whale of a book, charged with integrating 30 essays, 400 black-and-white illustrations, and 100 color plates. Yet for all its literal and intellectual weight, the book manages to be an exultation of photography. Credit for much of the book's vivacity goes to Daniel Wolf, the New York collector, whose savvy sequencing of the 500 images is intelligent, even witty.
Although On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography is also an anthology of essays and pictures, it takes a different tack. Four prominent curators were asked to ponder the major historical changes in photographic history. If Mike Weaver's book celebrates photography, ``On the Art of Fixing a Shadow'' can be said to commemorate it. The essays and the bountiful illustrations (198 color and 252 duotones) are graver, responsive, perhaps, to a decade of postmodern scrutiny. Although the historical periods discussed are roughly equal, ``On the Art of Fixing a Shadow'' features more work by modern and contemporary image-makers.
Decade by Decade, edited by James Enyeart, who was recently appointed director of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., is a historical survey of American photography drawn from the rich collection of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz. It celebrates not only the 150th birthday of photography, but also the completion of the center's outstanding new museum building, which opened in early 1989. The depth, diversity, and location of this collection serve as a reminder that while there is no one definitive collection of photographs, fine work is available throughout the country.
John Wood in The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial Celebration and Thomas Weston Fels in O Say Can You See: American Photographs, 1839-1939 each chose to mark the birthday of photography with books that function as counterpoints to the large anthologies. Both texts are devoted to seldom seen and one-of-a-kind images. The George R. Rinhart collection, one of the largest still in private hands, is the subject of the Fels text. Its gems include a series of early daguerreotypes of American abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a magisterial picture assumed to be that of James Forten, the African-American veteran of the Revolutionary War whose fortune, amassed from a successful sail-manufacturing business, helped fund abolition activities.
Similarly, Wood shares his enthusiasm for the daguerreotype by building his book around more than 100 fresh, unpublished daguerreotype images, including many hand-colored specimens. Among the nine essays is an intriguing text by Yale professor Alan Trachtenberg, who writes in depth about the dark psychological response of Americans to the daguerreotype.
The most challenging of the books prepared for the sesquicentennial is The Photography of Invention. Unlike the other works, this is not a historical survey, but an examination of photography in the 1980s. Joshua Smith's thesis is that during the last decade, photography came to be viewed as the equal of painting and sculpture, because nontraditional photographers succeeded in ``slowing down'' the photographic process, thus giving the medium a new aesthetic.
Whether one agrees with that hypothesis or not, the book amounts to a festival of contemporary photographic art. ``Made'' images, that is, pictures appropriated from the mass media or views of environments especially fabricated to be photographed, seem to have replaced images ``taken'' from everyday life.
Wisely, Smith illustrates the pervasiveness of this approach by mixing the works of well-known artists like Barbara Kruger and the Starn Twins with images by newcomers like Adrienne Salinger, Oliver Wasow, and Sandra Haber. In so doing, Smith has produced a book that not only summarizes major trends in the 1980s, but also gives bright inklings of photography as it heads toward its bicentennial.