It is easy to forget that photos are a construct, and like any other kind of art a form of artistic expression in which the viewer is obligated to see what the artist presents. “Nothing is so beautiful as the truth; but one must choose it,” stated Benito de Montfort, President of the Societe Heliographique, an early photographic society in Paris. Early Photography/ Eight Months Out: Recent Acquisitions at the Clark Art Institute, the inaugural photography exhibition of the new collection, presents a range of truths in the fledgling medium. The exhibition, consisting of 35 photographs collected during an eight month period last year, was organized by James A. Ganz, associate curator of prints, drawings, and photographs. Ganz is also overseeing the new collection at the Clark.
The mid-19th century spirit of exploration and the recording of the untrammeled wilds is exemplified by early landscape photographs. In America, images such as 1867’s Multnomah Falls Cascades, Columbia River, Oregon by Carleton Watkins, contributed to the construction of a national identity. With his flawless photographic technique, Watkins conveys the vertical strength and power of the falls surrounded by pristine nature. The image perpetrates the concept of the intrepid artist returning with information about the unexplored areas of America, which were in actuality quickly becoming developed. Photographs such as this one placed an emphasis on the importance of the land, in preserving it in a time of development, and were part of the successful campaign to make Yosemite a national park. The image purports to be documentary in nature, but it really functions as a grand portrait of the west which celebrates American territory and ownership of the land.
Images of the American landscape reveal evolving attitudes toward nature and science. Mid-nineteenth century photographers attempted to capture and accurately record the natural world for a whole generation of explorers, botanists, geologists and naturalists. As the process was in its infancy, early photographers themselves had to be scientists, inventors and intrepid travelers, as well as artists. Explains associate curator James Ganz, “These photographs used the wet plate process, which meant that a wet glass negative was placed in the camera and then had to be processed immediately in a darkroom set up at the location. Expeditions required mules and assistants and the success of photographs depended on the time of day and weather.”
Wet plate prints required knowledge and care in order to treat them successfully at various stages with collodion, silver nitrate, pyrogallic and acetic acids, sodium thiosulfate and finally a protective coat of varnish. But the 19th century impulse to document and the allure of geographical images legitimated the labors of capturing photographs.
Photographed almost 150 years ago, early images of Egypt still capture the imagination. Journeying across the years, we all become armchair travelers. The Pyramids of El-Geezeh from the South West (1858) by Francis Frith and The Nile (1853-54) by John Beasley Greene drop us in the middle of Egypt. These early images of the pyramids and the tranquil Nile were documentary in nature, illuminating an exotic and mysterious landscape in exacting detail. Their original audience was interested in acquiring accurate photographs instead of artistic renditions of sites. Ganz explains, “The photographs would have been bound into a book and bought by anyone interested in the subject matter, the location or archaeology. The volume would also have gone into the cabinets of book collectors.” Greene, an American who was trained as an archaeologist, made two expeditions to Egypt and Nubia, returning with more than 200 negatives of landscapes and monuments. Exacting and powerful, these images artistically capture the period’s spirit of exploration.
As some photographers focused on documenting the land, others forged ahead on the artistic front. As a new medium lacking any tradition of its own, photography allowed artists the freedom to experiment. Julia Margaret Cameron dressed her parlormaid as an angel for The Angel at the Sepulchre, a role traditionally reserved for male figures. In this sensitive and softly lit photograph, Cameron blends representations in painting with new ideas, simultaneously conjuring notions of the Victorian archetype of Mary Magdalen in the image of the angel. “Cameron saw herself as artist and wanted to educate viewers. She was one of the first photographers to have a statement of purpose and artistic program,” states Ganz. Cameron wrote of her aims, “My aspirations are to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.”
Early Photography also presents slices of life at the turn of the century. The darker side includes images of mental patients and the documentation of scientific studies. Volumes with portraits of literary figures with accompanying text present the intellectual climate of the day.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue, given a box camera at age seven, spent a lifetime capturing the idiosyncratic behavior of upper class Europe with a timeless sense of humor. He took snapshots of promenading women of the Belle Epoque, intent on capturing the “well-dressed, fashionable, eccentric, elegant, ridiculous or beautiful woman.” He wrote in his diary, “The Acacias has three lanes: one for automobiles, one for carriages and horses, and one for pedestrians. People call this third lane the ‘Path of Virtue.’ And that’s where I am. I’m sitting on an iron chair on the ‘Path of Virtue’ with my camera…ready for action the moment I see someone really elegant coming along.” One such anonymous but extravagant figure is caught in Woman Wearing Foxes, Bois de Boulogne, in which an ostentatious figure wrapped in fur muffs walks two lap-sized dogs down the middle of the street. Ganz says, “To me, this images points the way to the 20th century. It was taken when Lartigue was only 17. As a child he would form photographs in his mind by looking at people and blinking hard, as if to capture the image with just his visual memory. He became famous, and this image has been reprinted many times; however, this print is vintage and very rare.” With the emphasis on line, contrast and a sense of spatial ambiguity, Lartigue combines modernity with the opulence of the age.
EugÃ¨ne Atget, photographing Paris during the same period, presents just the opposite viewpoint in his images of the disappearing world of old Paris, which was in the process of being superseded by a quickly evolving modern city. Atget spent his career documenting the city, and though he produced more than 10,000 views, he never once photographed the Eiffel Tower. His interest lay in the old areas that were about to be cleared and renovated to create the wide avenues of modern Paris. The old lanes and backstreets with their small shops are depicted in Corner of the Rue de Seine and the Rue de l’Ã‰chaudÃ©, circa 1919. At first glance, there are no figures to be found, just the crumbling walls and peeling posters of the street. Explains Ganz, “The long exposures used by Atget resulted in seemingly depopulated views of Paris. But when you carefully examine the photographs, you can see shadowy ghosts where the people have passed by but not stood still long enough to be captured in the final image.” In these photographs, art and documentation work together to create a real, yet dreamlike city.
Far from exerting limitations on the range of meaning, Early Photography/ Eight Months Out: Recent Acquisitions explores a myriad of paths taken by photography in its infancy. The exhibition, at the Clark, runs through June 18, 1999.