In these days of Instagram, Photoshop and Flickr, with a camera on every smartphone, practically everyone is a photographer. And, while the earliest pinhole cameras first came into use in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, technology today enables sophisticated digital imaging that is used in both life-saving applications as well as simply hedonistic entertainment. We are now constantly bombarded with photographic images on a daily basis across all media – online and offline.
The large coffee table photography books that were once ubiquitous have also been somewhat displaced with streaming, cloud-based collections or website portfolios. The jury’s still out on whether the physical books will become entirely extinct or not.
Given all this, it might seem anachronistic to be reviewing a physical photography book from 2004. That said, this one is a classic to be enjoyed by all – whether you’re a dabbler, curious about the history of photography, a photography student or a creative in other media.
Published as a joint collaboration between the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia and the Aperture Foundation, this is a hefty anthology filled with the text and images of 150 ground-breaking photographers from the early-19th century to the late-20th century. It was curated by Brooks Johnson, the Curator of Photography at the Museum for 30+ years. Some of the photographs included in the book can be viewed digitally here.
Arguably, the best parts of the book, besides the stunning photographs, are the insightful narratives that accompany those photos. From discussing the image and the inspiration behind it to the nature of the visual medium and the state of photography as an art form, each featured photographer provides a unique perspective in prose that is sometimes lyrical, sometimes philosophical. Regardless of which creative medium you prefer (words, visual or aural), the ideas here will inspire all artists or appreciators of art.
And, one more thing about photography anthologies such as this: while almost all the photographers included here have published their own books or shared their insights in interviews, bringing them all together like this allows us to look at the history of the field as a whole, view all the contributions over time as a collective, and understand and see how some have influenced others.
For example, here is Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), whose images of “the decisive moment” brought out some of those instances of life that escape the ordinary, distracted eye:
Sometimes, it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes, you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture – except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps, someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the view-finder. You wait and wait, and then, finally, you press the button – and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace on it the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.
He could well have been talking about the art of creative writing here, which, without that decisive moment, can also be formless and lifeless.
Here’s Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934), one of the earliest women photographers who, like her predecessors, Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron, was not just modest, but rather self-effacing about her efforts and skills. Yet, she appreciated that photography required, as other creative forms of expression, the cultivation and cherishing of the faculties of observation, emotions and intellect.
An artist must walk in a field where there is something more than chemical formulae, theatrical effects, affected and monotonous posing. He must see nature through the medium of his own intellectual emotions, and must guard that they be not led into artificial channels. Technique is not art, but manual skill; a proficiency of labor, which can be acquired…. without a glimmer of artistic feeling….
I earnestly advise women of artistic tastes to train for the unworked field of modern photography. It seems to be especially adapted to them, and the few who have entered it are meeting with gratifying and profitable success.
Thomas Struth (1954-present) is a more contemporary photographer who bridges the gaps between more traditional forms of art and photography. His works have been compared with paintings. Rather than nostalgic images, he aims to record things that he believes will be lost due to the changes in our everyday worlds.
For I do believe that in photographs like those of the 19th century English photographer, Thomas Annan, or Eugène Atget, you can read the motivation of the person who made the image in them; the psychological, emotional or intellectual scaffolding that the person saw in the environment. And there is the matter of how we can retrieve that or read it from the surface of the image. My belief in the psychology of that situation is very strong…. I believe that, if I asked five students to take a photograph of the same street or building in the city, one would be able to see which of them was really interested in the street or building and which was not… Why this happens interests me very much. You forget that, by now, this is clearly-accepted in painting, but, in photography, this level of sophisticated reading remains under disguise. For what matters is how much of yourself you put into your work. If you have a real relationship with a particular building, landscape or person, as in a portrait, it will show in the picture.
And, again, what is said here is true of other creative art forms as well. Consider the many singer-songwriters who often create songs on the same themes. Yet, each creation is different because of the underlying “psychological, emotional or intellectual scaffolding”.
And, here’s a last excerpt to whet your appetite. Sheila Metzner (1939-present) provides this introspection for why the art created is a reward in itself.
The energy for this work must be fed. The impressions themselves are my food. I am stronger when I am conscious of myself in relation to what I am photographing. The journey, the work, the process includes me. The wrk, the photograph is a reflection, a mirror of my being.
Therefore, my transformation, my well-being, is essential to the life of the photograph. So, photography is a reciprocal relationship. We nourish one another…. Al at once, the image reveals itself to me. It is my gift. A gift for the effort I am making to go into the unknown.
The photograph is something, in its highest form, that I am given for my effort. It is not something that I take. And then, after I bring it back, develop it, print it, look at it, experience it again, I submit my experience to life. I give it back to the world it came from. Light into darkness. Darkness into light.
Yes, these thoughts describe, rather beautifully, the relationship of an artist with his/her art, regardless of the medium.
A few words about the photographs featured in the book. As with any art, our personal associations, histories and tastes inform how we view the work in question. So, while the facts, memories, associations and speculations in one reader’s mind will be different from the conglomeration of these in that of another reader’s, the true test of a work of art is whether it enlarges our individual visions and perceptions when we experience it. And, the photographs selected for this wonderful collection definitely draw our attention to many such details that are often missed by the casual eye. That is the one of the main qualities that unites them all and has made them endure through the decades. The other quality is that each one contains a “frozen narrative” that the creator has captured for immortality and presented to us as his/her personal legacy.
Digital images have their own charm and qualities, of course, but the genre of large coffee table books of photography isn’t likely to die out so soon. The tactile pleasure of being able to look carefully (or casually) through the big, bold visuals of such photography books is not as readily available on tablets and mobile devices. So, these books are becoming more bespoke, high-end collectibles – almost works of art in themselves. Sadly, this one is now out of print and can only be found either as a collectible or a used edition. That said, let’s hope that there will be a new edition soon – featuring 21st-century photographers who have done much to further their art.