Early Images Freeze Both History and Beauty
NEW YORK — `A NEW art in an old civilization," a French chemist wrote in the 1830s, shortly after the invention of photography. An exhibition of 235 prints at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, called "The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century," showcases both this "new art" and "old civilization."
Throughout its history, photography has played the dual roles of expressing an artist's aesthetic vision and documenting the past. The photographer Minor White argued for the camera as an artist's tool when he said, "I don't take pictures, I make them." Photojournalist Robert Capa asserted the opposite view: "The pictures are there, and you just take them. The truth is the best picture...."
This exhibit should end the perennial debate. It makes clear that the force of truth and the finesse of art are by no means mutually exclusive.
From its infancy, photography has managed to combine realism and artifice. In the earliest works of William Henry Fox Talbot, the British inventor of the paper negative, images have both historic interest and artistic merit. When the process was little more than a chemical formula, Talbot achieved an image such as "The Open Door," (1843-44), as perfectly composed as a 17th-century Dutch painting.
When others were calling photography a mere mechanical trade or hobby, Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was among the first to stake out the territory of high art. "I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me," she said, intentionally capturing her famous subjects, Tennyson for example, in soft focus to express both the exterior physique and inner psyche.
The exhibit includes striking portraits by 19th-century French masters such as Nadar (the bohemian who inspired Puccini's opera) and Daguerre, who developed - at the same time as Talbot - a form of photography on polished metal plates. In contrast to the British photographs, which have a diffuse, gauzy quality due to fibers in the paper, daguerreotypes demonstrate an exactitude of fine detail that surpasses engraving.
Even the avowedly documentary pictures go beyond mere transcription. Timothy O'Sullivan's "Shoshoni" group portrait of native Americans straightforwardly records a vanishing breed. In addition, it uses a device from Renaissance art, clustering members of the tribe in a pyramidal composition under an inverted triangle of two diagonal poles that, ironically, bear the United States flag.
Some of these historical scenes are important precisely because of their powerful content rather than conscious design. "Emancipated Slaves" is a harrowing portrait of a freed slave whose forehead is branded with his former owner's initials.
This exhibition from the most important private collection of early prints includes illustrious names in the first century of photography, from Civil War documentarian Mathew Brady to 20th-century masters like Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston.
After the turn of the century, the bifurcated streams of photography became a torrent in the direction of photography as subjective art rather than objective reporting.
Pictorialists on display here, such as Clarence White and Steichen, consciously emulated the grand tradition of Salon painting with their misty landscapes and moody portraits. Narrative content took a back seat to carefully constructed tableaux enhanced by darkroom manipulation for expressive effect. The photographer-as-poet dominated the shutterbug-as-stenographer, firmly establishing the medium as a fine art.
The collection also demonstrates how, in the 1920s, photography moved to the forefront of avant-garde art. Dadaist Man Ray placed objects on sensitized paper to produce Cubist-inspired photograms, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy reduced images to Bauhaus essentials, and Alexander Rodchenko emphasized Constructivist formalism. Paul Strand made the first intentionally abstract photograph in 1916 with his "Pears and Bowls," emphasizing the pure, geometric forms of ordinary objects.
"Make it new," Ezra Pound advised budding Modernists. Photographers took his advice, using radical cropping and unexpected camera angles to expose new views of reality invisible to the jaded eye. Innovation more than reportage characterizes the collection's photographs from 1900 to 1936. One standout is Weston's semi-abstract image of a toilet, its curves and flowing rhythms compared by the photographer to the Victory of Samothrace.
What this century of photographs reveals is history conveyed with a you-are-there veracity that cannot fail to engage our voyeuristic interest. Beyond that, these photographs illustrate that art from one period or style to another is not necessarily better or worse, just different. From the earliest to the latest images exhibited, primitivism does not "progress" to sophistication, nor crudity to perfection.
The best photographs in the collection exude multiple levels of meaning. As 20th-century photographer Diane Arbus once said, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells the less you know." Lewis Carroll's image of the 7-year-old Alice (who inspired his "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland") as a street waif implies a world of childlike fantasy.
In Talbot's diary of 1839, the pioneer of photography jotted the words: "Make picture of kaleidoscope." The pictures produced by his invention are, in effect, a kind of kaleidoscope. Photography reveals the shifting face of appearances in all their variety of shapes and shades, truth and fiction. Beneath the variety, however, is a unity of effect. It was also Talbot who called his prints calotypes from the Greek word meaning beauty.
* "The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century. Selections from the Gilman Paper Company Collection" remains at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 4. It will visit Edinburgh from Aug. 7 to Oct. 2, then the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.