The start of the semester is right around the corner for many of my academic friends. Previously, I taught semester long courses on topics ranging from curatorial practice to the history of photography. My friend and former colleague is teaching a new media course and I offered to provide a list of the 10 most important photographers per decade since the inception of photography. What was I thinking? As I type this I know this is a difficult task. Also, it will yield a very long post because I’m long winded about the topic.
Names seem to be the way to approach the history of photography because photography (as a distinct medium) really does not take part in artistic movements until the mid to late 20th century. Rather, various chemists, inventors, and photographers represent benchmarks in how our vision and ideas changed before, during and after the industrial revolution. In short, I find that photography reflects and shapes social history, which all art can claim to do, but I think photo’s hand in science, advertising, historic preservation, social science, and now social media really makes it a part of society more than any other medium.
This is the first part. I might even have to break it up into three different posts.
The dawn of time to the 18th century
I want to make it known that many painters, while not officially photographers, used the camera obscura. To illustrate this point I often show this clip from the girl with the pearl earring when Johannes Vermeer shows Scarlett Johansson (aka the anonymous girl in the painting) a camera obscura. I also show Abelardo Morrell’s contemporary work. He turns entire rooms into camera obscuras and it is magical.
1820s and 30s
At this point, so many people in the world are attempting to fix an image; it is probably impossible to identify all those who made attempts. The major players instrumental to the birth of photography are Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who is credited for the earliest surviving photograph roughly dated 1826-1826, John Herschel, who discovered sodium thiosulphate was a solvent of light sensitive silver salts, William Henry Fox Talbot, the progenitor of the negative-positive form of photography we are familiar with and use today (Multiples for everyone!), and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the democratizer of photography and the reason we all don’t have to pay a patent fee to take pictures (unlike Talbot who was a crank and wanted to charge people for taking photos)
At this point, I make students debate the most important person responsible for the birth of photography and it usually becomes a predictable battle of England vs. France.
Anna Atkins, a botanist created cyanotypes by pressing algae to sensitized paper
Hippolyte Bayard pretended to be dead in a photograph and people were certain it was real
John Plumbe Jr.
All the daguerreotype portrait studios spread across the US, which usually listed the studio name rather than the individual photographer (because photographers were not artists, they were craftspeople!)
Jules Lion, started a daguerreotype studio in New Orleans. First African American studio owner
Augustus Washington, African American daguerreotype studio owner
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson
Carl Ferdinand Stelzner
Maxime Du Camp. As soon as photographing became viable, people started to travel with the camera to document as many important places as possible, like the Egyptian monuments.
Gustave Le Gray, I am a fan of his mystical landscape photographs
John Whipple, who photographed the moon, which is still difficult
Platte D. Babbit, took tourists to Niagara Falls. Enter the creation of the vacation picture convention in which we all take part. We want to stand in front of a place and claim, “I was there.”
Roger Fenton, one of the first war photographers, documenting the Crimean war-no battle scenes yet, just aftermath, because shutter speeds were too slow and Fenton was instructed to show that war was heroic. War still looked disturbing nonetheless, more disturbing than a painting of Napoleon anyway.
Felice Beato, another conflict documenter showing the aftermath of uprisings in China, India and more
William Lake Price
Oscar G. Rejlander. His Two Ways of Life, 1957 is one of the first photomontages that truly illustrate a photographer’s potential artistry. Other than that the photograph is incredibly sanctimonious, it does propose photography’s potential as an artistic medium rather than existing in the service of science or as studies for paintings.
Henry Peach Robinson
Julia Margaret Cameron, beautiful work by this pre-Raphaelite, wet plate photographer. She photographed children nude but didn't receive the label as bad mother/grandmother, unlike Sally Mann in the 1990s.
Lewis Carroll, another pre-Raphaelite and the writer of Alice in Wonderland also took photographs of younger girls that are not only taboo but may even be a little illegal these days. Keep in mind at this point there were no child labor laws and child pornography did not exist as a litigable offense. There was also no such thing as ethics in photography. Here in the lecture is when I mention that this is not a new phenomena where humans need to play catch up in determining what is and is not okay to photograph because we have yet to establish a “common sense” at the outset of new technology. We tend to want to capture our activity, however nefarious, because it’s fun, only to later realize that said documentation becomes damning proof in a court of law. For instance these guys.
Lady Clementina Hawarden. While photography may have been for the ladies too, you still had to be pretty rich with lots of free time on your hands. Enter in the British aristocracy
Alexander Gardner. Civil war photographer and creator of Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, which no one wanted to look at because it was a bunch of dead guys and it was, well, upsetting. Home of the Rebel Sharp shooter is probably the most famous image. Gardner also broke free of Brady’s tutelage and began the practice of crediting individual photographers for their shots.
Timothy O’Sullivan, civil war photographer and a manifest destiny photographer. I think his images of the civil war are the most jarring war photographs.
Auguste-Rosalie Bisson (Bisson Bros.), amazing travel photographers, who created one of my favorite photographs of climbers ascending Mont-Blanc. The climbers look like ants
Francis Frith, another travel photographer documenting the pyramids-so we all don’t have to physically see them, making us a lazy. Or it made us want to travel more, you decide.
Thomas Annan, a street and urban life photographer showing how bad cramped industrial life was in Scotland. This is the beginning of social justice photography.
Nadar and his Studio portrait photographs
Mathew Brady photographed Abraham Lincoln, which is awesome and the beginning of politicians realizing that photographs can help you win elections if you are tall and studious looking. Nixon didn’t take the cue for his television debate with Kennedy.
William Henry Jackson, another manifest destiny photographer. The upsetting thing is you can see how global warming has in fact changed the western American landscape since these photographs were made. Jackson's famous mountain of the holy cross barely has snow apparently
Eadweard J Muybridge is an important guy. Not only did he get away with murdering his wife’s lover, he was a western landscape photographer and he is the creator of locomotion photography. He proved that all four hooves come off the ground when horses gallop, something we cannot see with our naked eyes. At this point humans have to accept that our eyes deceive us. We cannot see everything and trust our own senses to know what is absolutely, empirically true. Finally, Positivism gets thrown out the window.
There are more locomotion photographers that follow in Muybridge’s footsteps: Thomas Eakins, Étienne Jules Marey
John Thomson photographed the poor in London
Other studio portrait photographers like Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon and Napoleon Sarony
Okay, I guess this is somewhat of an empty decade so I’m just moving on
What an exciting decade with the introduction of the Kodak camera, a preloaded film camera with a circular composition. Also introducing the snap shot with R.K. Albright and all the other anonymous snap shot photographers. Later in contemporary photography, this approach is actively used and referenced by fine art photographers William Eggleston and Nan Goldin
Also, we have the introduction of our own photography artistic movement called Pictorialism with P.H. Emerson, George Davison, Edward Steichen, early Alfred Stieglitz, Alice Boughton, Robert Demachy, Frederick H. Evans, and more who worked through the end of the century.
Important for American social justice photography was the publication of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis. Riis was kinda funny because he would not consult with the people before photographing them in the New York tenements. He would light a spark, shoot, and run. Sometimes his sparks (pre flash era of photography) would catch the buildings on fire. His photographs show the ugly side of industrialization and the despicable quality of life for the growing populations in New York. But yay self-sustaining capitalism!?
Francis Benjamin Johnston
F. Holland Day
Also the Lumière brothers’ first films show and according to rumor (not fact) people ran out of the theatre as the train came into the station.
I’m moving on to the 1900s because this is tiring
Phew, we made it to the century I am more familiar with.
Okay, late Alfred Stieglitz after he dumps Pictorialism starts to bloom by becoming an advocate for Modernism, particularly European Modernism. He continues his quest advocating for modern art and non fuzzy photography in North America for the next 30 years and makes a beautiful life long portrait of his wife/artist, Georgia O’Keefe
A lot of ethnographic photography happening in this period with Adam Clark Vroman photographing indigenous groups in the US. Also Edward S. Curtis started his long project of photographing tribes for the creation of the publication, The North American Indian. My photography professor said, “Bad Curtis is better than no Curtis.” Curtis edited photos, pre Photoshop, by burnishing out modern machinery, like clocks, on his photogravure plates. Still many are glad the photographs exist at all so that images of ancestors are preserved in perpetuity.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue made snapshots during La Belle Époque
Lewis Hine also starts to photograph children in their work places in major US cities (which was not welcomed by industry). He depicts the hardships of an incredibly vulnerable group of laborers pre child labor laws
This is also when many of the Pictorialists are still working in their Pictorialist approach including the fashion photo work of Baron De Meyer, one of my favorites
Frank Eugene, a Pictorialist, does the unthinkable of scratching negatives (a modernist, photo purist no-no)
Clarence H. White, another Pictorialist
Also, color film is invented in this decade but it’s tricky to use. We continue to document the world in black and white.
I'll start with the 1910s next time.