GEORGE EASTMAN stands on the deck of a ship, poised to take a picture, his camera pointed directly at the viewer. The very shape of the photo imitates the portholes of the ship, underscoring the reflexiveness of the image: This is a photo about photography. Part of the traveling exhibition ``American Photography: 1839-1900,'' currently on view at Chicago's Terra Museum of American Art, the picture of Eastman taken by Frederick Fargo Church says much about the history of photography as art form, as documentary medium, and as recreational activity.
That small, easy-to-use Kodak camera of Eastman's (circa 1880) revolutionized an already revolutionary technology. It took photography out of the studio (and off the tripod) and placed it in the hands of anyone who wanted to record an image.
The slogan he coined for it was: ``You press the button, we do the rest.'' Everyone could document the history of their own lives.
The exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of the ``democratic art'' - spanning six decades, from some of the earliest extant experiments in the United States (circa 1840) to the eventual acknowledgment of photography as an art form at the turn of the century.
Photography may not have originated in the US, but it found its own nature here. As viewers are assured by wall placards throughout the exhibition, amateur and professional photographers were steeped in the idealism of Jacksonian democracy (the embrace of the common man), and pressed into the historical necessity of documenting ``manifest destiny'' - the US expansion westward, leading to control of the continent.
The history of American photography corresponded to the expansion of the United States, and the excitement of a show like this one lies not so much in the developing artistry of photographers as in the history they captured.
Scores of fascinating images, however, are found among the roughly 200 photos. Exotic words like daguerreotype, calotype, crystalotype, albumen print, etc., named the evolving processes.
Daguerreotypes, imported from France, were made with silverized copper plates. Portraits of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, Edgar Allen Poe, and Daniel Webster as well as lesser known ladies and gentlemen radiate soft light. That silvery light sometimes obscures the features a little, but what is lost in accuracy is made up in grace.
IN 1851 American photographers triumphed in an exhibition at London's Crystal Palace, taking many of the prizes and establishing the reputations of several Americans.
One of the most attractive of these prize-winning pictures is John Whipple's ``The Moon.'' A later, even more dazzling picture of the moon taken by Lewis Rutherford in 1865 must surely have been as astonishing in its time as the picture of Earth taken from space was in ours.
PHOTOGRAPHY could capture real life more accurately than painting, and eventually anyone could learn to handle a camera. Professionals experimented with ``serial panoramas,'' and, though many of the most famous of these have been lost, the exhibition includes several impressive examples.
Early photographers experimented along wholly different lines as well - borrowing composition and subject matter from painting. Political allegory looks strange and quaint in the pre-Civil War daguerreotypes by George N. Barnard (``Woodsawyers Nooning,'' about the Jacksonian democrat''), Alexander Hesler (``Driving a Hard Bargain,'' meant to symbolize Manifest Destiny), and Gabriel Harrison. Harrison's photos are formal, sentimental, and extravagant. One picture, for example, shows his young daughter hugging a bust of George Washington; he called it ``Photography Espousing Truth.''
Among the most vivid photographs are those of Mathew Brady, who brought to portraiture the lessons learned from his mentor, the painter William Page. The figure is arranged against a carefully ``composed'' empty space, conferring a riveting power upon the emergent image.
There is so much here - the opening of the West, portraits of Indian warriors, and the heart-rending spectacle of the Civil War. The war photographs (albumen prints) by Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, J. Reekie, and others capture the terrible ironies and sorrow of armed conflict without the romanticized gallantries of painting. Some of the photographs are still difficult to look at because of the horrors they portray.
The documentary capabilities of war and postwar photography, as it seized moments of time and preserved them in light and shadow, can be reseen as the astonishing phenomenon it is in so thorough a survey as this exhibition offers. The exhibit is organized in a clear, logical fashion, with plenty of detailed information decorously displayed to help educate the viewer in the history of American democracy as well as of the most ``democratic art.''
The exhibition continues at the Terra through July 8 and then travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art in Stamford, Conn. (July 27-Sept. 30); the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio (Oct. 27-Dec. 30); the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Jan. 25, 1991-March 17); and the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts (April 13-June 16, 1991).