Some thoughts on the history of photography, and the documentation of the urban environment…
An historical and contemporary perspective concerning the use of photography and its role in documenting the urban environment.
Since 1839, when photography was initially developed as a means to visually represent reality, photography has been a vital means of communication and expression. Photography is at once a science and an art, and both aspects are in-separately linked throughout its rise from a substitute for skill of hand to an independent art form.
Since photography’s invention, it has been the world’s ubiquitous picture making system. It has, in the process, affected a profound transformation of our knowledge and opinions concerning the structure and meaning of our visual experience.
The incentive to work out a practical technique was stimulated by the unprecedented demand for pictures from the rising middle class of the late nineteenth century. The middle class wanted inexpensive portraits, the mechanical devices to eliminate the need for lengthy artistic training, were put in its hands, so that every man could become something of an artist. With this demand, two mechanical means of reproduction had been developed, the camera Obscura and the camera Lucida. Both instruments could project an image, by which a drawing could be traced, but the means to capture the image and fix it permanently had not yet been developed.
Joseph Nicephore Niepce of Chalon-sur Saone France, was more successful. The only example of his work that remains appears to have been made in 1826, and succeeded in permanently fixing the cameras image. This first image was made on a polished pewter plate from engravings (Niepce had fixed the negative image but not the positive) and is identified as a view from his window at Gras, taken by Niepce in 1826, with an exposure of eight hours. He continued his work in France in 1829, determined to concentrate on what he called “view points”, (ponts du vue) with the “sole object to copy nature with greatest fidelity”.
Moving almost a century ahead, photography had been argued that the medium was a fine art, but had not gained that acceptance. In 1912, an exhibition of photographs was held where nearly all the work shown was considered as “straight” photography, photography that not been supplemented by manipulation. Straight photography made asethetic use of the functional properties of the photographic technique with the appreciation of both the camera’s potentials and limitations, and had divorced itself from the canons guiding the asethetic of the other visual arts. Importance was placed on the purity of tone which belongs especially to the photographic medium, as well as its ability to record faithfully in great detail the surrounding scene.
The growing appreciation of straight photography brought about the recognition in the late 1920’s, of photographers of an older generation whose work had been overlooked by the earlier, painterly pictoralists.
Jean Eugene Auguste Atget was virtually unknown when he died in 1927, with not one of his hundreds of photographs of Paris that he had taken since 1898 having been published. Atget’s ambition was in “creating a collection of everything artistic and picturesque in and about Paris”. A great deal of Atget’s work involved photographing the historic architecture of Paris in detail, shop fronts, and carriages, the little people peddling umbrellas or lampshades, he photographed inside palaces, bourgeois homes and rag pickers hovels. He was a collector, as well as a picture maker, un Imagier.
His technique was simple, using a view camera, always on a tripod, with plates 18×24 centimeters (7 1/8″x 9 3/8″). His lens was a rapid rectilinear, used well stopped down, possibly of a focal length fairly short, a wide angle, because so many of his photographs show a steep perspective. Glass plates were used to make the exposure and printed by daylight on printing out paper, toning them with gold chloride. In an Atget photograph, every detail stands forth with remarkable clarity.
Among the thousands of photographs that Atget had taken, there are those that reach beyond the record and approach the lyric, he had a remarkable vision, finding human quality where no human being appears. Out of doors he worked early in the morning, and his pictures have the atmosphere of early light. His work had no reference to any graphic medium other than photography. His example inspired many photographers and influenced the development of documentary photography.
Atget’s work is unique on two levels, he was a maker of a great visual catalog of the French culture, as it survived in and near Paris the first quarter of the twentieth century. In addition, he was a photographer of such authority and originality that his work remains a benchmark against which much of the most sophisticated contemporary photography measures itself. Where other photographers had been concerned with describing specific facts (documentation), or with exploiting their own individual sensebilities (self expression), Atget encompassed and transcended both approaches when he set set himself the task of understanding and interpreting in visual terms, a complex, ancient and living tradition. The pictures he made with this concept are “seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious and true.”
The quality and authenticity implicit in the sharply focused, straight photograph often gives special value as evidence of proof. Such a photograph can be, according to the dictionary definition, “documentary”, for Webster defines the noun “document” as an “original or official paper relied upon as the basis, proof, or support of anything else; in its most extended sense, including any writing, book, or other instrument conveying information.”
The documentary photographer seeks to convey more than information through his photographs, his aim is to persuade and to convince. The United States Congress was persuaded top set apart the Yellowstone region as a national park by the convincing evidence of William H. Jackson photographs. Documentary photography then, is an approach which makes use of the artistic faculties to give “vivification to fact”, to use Walt Whitman’s definition of the place of poetry in the world.
Bernice Abbott is the person responsible for obtaining and publishing Atget’s work. In 1929, Abbott came back from Paris to photograph New York city. She writes that to make a portrait of a city is a life’s work and no one portrait suffices, because the city is always changing. Everything in the city is a part of its story, its physical body of brick, stone, steel, glass, wood, its lifeblood of living, breathing men and women. Street vistas, panoramas, bird’s eye views and worm’s eye views, the noble and the shameful, high life and low life, tragedy, comedy, squalor. wealth, the mighty towers of skyscrapers, the ignoble facades of the slums, people at work, home and play.
In her instruction manual, “A Guide to Better Photography”, she advises the photographer to use a large format camera, so that the records will be fully detailed and rich in information. Such photographs can be read, they are not mere illustrations, but actual source material.
The deep respect for fact, and the desire to create active interpretations of the world in which we live, are the qualities of documentary photography as well as historical, factual and realistic.
Roy Stryker points out that “documentary photography is an approach not a technique, an affirmation, not a negation…, the documentary attitude is not a denial of the plastic elements which must remain essential criteria in any work. It merely gives these elements limitations and direction. Thus composition becomes emphasis, and line sharpness, focus, filtering, mood- all these components are included in the dreamy vagueness ‘quality’- are made to serve an end, to speak as eloquently as possible, of the thing to be said in the language of pictures. The question is not what to picture, nor what camera to use. Every phase of our time and our surroundings has vital significance, the job is to know enough about the subject matter to find its significance in itself and its relation to its surroundings, its time, and its function.” 13
Under the direction of Stryker, the federal Government turned to photographers for help in fighting the depression using photographers to document the plight of the nation. One of these photographers was Walker Evans.
It was at this point that serious photographers discovered the poetic use of bare faced facts, facts presented with such fastidious reserve that the quality of the picture seemed identical to that of the subject. This new style came to be called documentary photography. This approach is most clearly defined by the work of Walker Evans. Evans’ work, at first seems to be an antithesis of art, it was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities taht seems more appropriate to a book keepers ledger, than to art. In time however, Evans’ photographs are seen immensely rich in expressive content. His work constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found statistics or fairy tales.
The following text will present some contemporary thoughts on photography by Susan Sontag. Hopefully this section may provide some insight into the use, role and interpretation of photography in our society today, and provide some thought as a visual tool.
In her book, “On Photography”, Susan Sontag explains that being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older artisan’s images. For one thing, there are many more images around claiming out attention. The inventory started in 1839, and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.
Movies and TV flicker and go out, but with still photographs, the image is also an object. Photographs seem not so much to be statements, but rather pieces of an environment. Photographs furnish evidence.
The picture may distort, but there is always the presumption that something exists, or did exist which is like what is in the picture. A photograph seems to have a more innocent, therefore, a more accurate relation to the visible reality than do other mimetic objects. Painting and prose are a narrow selective interpretation, whereas a photo can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.
In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense of capturing reality, not just interpreting it, photos are an interpretation of the subject. Photographs may be more memorable than moving pictures, because they are a slice of time, and not a flow. Television is a stream of under selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor.
Photographs are a privledged moment.
Photographs are valued because they give information. They tell one what there is, they make an inventory. To architects their value is inestimable. Any inventory of America is inevitably unscientific, a delirious confusion of objects.
In addition to romanticism about the past, photography offers instant romanticism about the present. In America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past, but the one who invents it. As Bernice Abbott writes, “the photographer is the contemporary par excellence, through his eyes the now becomes the past.”
Abbott’s purpose in photographing New York, “I wanted to record it before it changed completely.” Abbott, different than Atget photographing a time worn and vanishing Paris, set down the ceaseless replacement of the new, documenting ten years of the chronic self-destruct quality of American experience, in which even the recent past is used up, swept away, torn down, etc..
The past itself, ans historical change continues to accelerate, has become the most surreal of subjects, making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing. From the start, photographers not only set themselves the task of recording a disappearing world but were so employed by those hastening its disappearance.
In principle, photography executes the surrealist mandate to adopt an uncompromisingly egalitarian attitude toward subject matter. Everything is real. Thus, Atget specialized in the marginal beauties of gaudy or fantastic window displays, the raffish art of shop signs and carousels, ornate porticoes, stucco ornaments on the facades of run down buildings, etc.. Bleak factory buildings and billboard cluttered avenues look as beautiful, through the camera’s eye as churches and pastoral landscapes.
Photographs when old and faded often look better. In this, as in other ways, the art of photography resembles architecture, whose works are subject to the same inexorable passage of time., many buildings, not only the Parthenon, probably look better as ruins.
Because of the rapidity with which the camera records anything, photographers made seeing into a new kind of project, as if seeing itself, pursued with sufficient avidity and single mindedness, could reconcile the claims of truth and the need to find the world beautiful. Once an object of wonder because of its ability to render reality faithfully, the camera has ended by effecting a tremendous promotion of the value of appearances. Photographs do not simply render with reality- realistically. It is reality which is scrutinized, and evaluated, for its fidelity to photographs.
The supposition what cameras furnish is impersonal, an objective image, yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence, not only of what is there, but of what an individual sees, not just a record, but an evaluation of the world. It becomes clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing”, which was both a new way for people to see and a new activity for people to reform.
Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty as everybody sees, but neglects as too ordinary . Photographers were supposed to do more than just see the world as it is, they were to create interest, or new visual decisions. Photographs do more than redefine ordinary experience and add vast amounts of material we never see at all. Reality as such, is redefined, as a record for scrutiny, a target for surveillance. The photographic exploration and duplication of the world fragments continuities and feeds the pieces the pieces into a dossier, thereby, thereby providing possibilities of control that could not be thought with previous systems of recording information, writing. Photographic recording is always, potentially, a means of control.
Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it, a key procedure of a modern society, In the form of photographic images, things and events are put to new uses, and assigned new meanings.
Of two attitudes, aesthetic and instrumental, cameras implement the instrumental view of reality by gathering information that enables us to make accurate and much quicker response to whatever is going on.
“It has quite justly been said of Atget that he photographed deserted Paris streets; it is photographed for the purpose of evidence.” (Walter Benjamin) With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance.
“Life itself is not the reality. We are the ones who put life into stones and pebbles.” (Frederick Sommer) “Photography is a tool for everybody knows about, but isn’t attending to.” (Emmett Gowin) Photography is commonly regarded as an instrument for knowing things. When Thoreau said, “You can’t say more than you can see,” he took for granted that sight had pride among place among the senses.
What it once took a very intelligent eye to see, anyone can see now. Instructed by photographs, everyone is able to visualize. Photographs are often involved as an aide to understanding and photographs are messages, the message is both transparent and mysterious. “A photograph is a secret about a secret,” as Diane Arbus has observed, “the more it tells you, the less you know.” Despite the allusion of giving understanding, what seeing through photographs really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment.
The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces. Photography is an acquisition in several forms. One form, through image making, we can acquire something as information (rather than experience). Indeed, the importance of photographic images as the medium through which are more events enter our experiences, finally, only a by-product of their effectiveness in furnishing knowledge dissociated from and independent of experience. This is the most inclusive form of photographic acquisition.
Through being photographed, something becomes a part of a system of information, fitted into schemes of classification and storage which range from crudely chronological order to dogged accumulations and meticulous filing. 14
These observations are simply that, but may help in understanding the use of photography in documenting the urban environment, or anything else for that matter. 1985 ©jeffrey lamb 2007and at some point i will footnote all the text, i did not write it all
i researched this and put it down… later