We left off with a shift from Pictorialism to an era of Modern art, with help from Stieglitz. Stieglitz organizes the Armory Show in 1913, introducing American audiences to Modern art. The Armory Show predominantly features European artists. Also the First World War sounds off a general disbelief in the good of technology and the heroism of war. Many Modern art movements begin in this period with manifestos to match.
After the creation of photo-secession groups in the late 19th century, photographers started to conceive of photography as its own artistic medium not in service to science or painting. These photographers attempt to define a “modern photographic” fine art movement. Stieglitz showcases and advocates for many of the photographers of this era in his publication, “Camera Work.” Simultaneously, photography and film are having major impacts on the medium of painting. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) and other modern art movements like Cubism show the world as manifold. Locomotion photography told us not to trust our naked eye and film tells us that there is always more than one view of the world as opposed to the Renaissance one-point perspective.
At this time, a lot of modern photographers and filmmakers think of the natural world and humanity in general as inherently and completely flawed. (We cause wars and suffering after all.) So some modern art movements really start to worship machines and industry (hello futurism), even fetishizing it. This period is the beginning of photographers asking, “Why not make images as crisp as possible because that is what a camera does and what machines are for. They show us how the world really looks. Also, lets photograph some steel, because steel rules!”
Alvin Langdon Coburn is one of the major hitters to dump Pictorialism. He creates alternate views of common places, for instance looking directly down onto a fountain in a park and calling it an “octopus” because what a thing is, is not as interesting as what a thing may become. Make sense?
Paul Strand. His Wall Street image shows the grandeur of Wall Street before the big crash. Humans in the image are anonymous; they are not important for their individuality but that they contribute to the rhythm and movement of economic exchange. Also during this decade Strand makes close ups of every day items, showing us, like with Coburn, that with a new perspective items can transform into something else.
One of my favorite photographers is the mysterious E. J. Bellocq, whose Storyville New Orleans portraits of anonymous sex workers often have scratched out faces. And nobody really knows why.
Carlo Leonetti photographed the stars of stage and later film in beautiful dramatic portraiture
National Geographic, its first magazine published in 1888, is making a point of sending photographers on expeditions with archeologists, scientists, and researchers. Photographers like David E. Ford show us unknown parts of the world in beautiful images of places we don't belong, digging up dead people. This further opens up the world for a western audience and photography continues to go hand-in-hand with our history as colonizers.
People still want to photograph the world in color but it's tricky. I found this amazing survey of the Russian people by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Prokudin-Gorskii used a three-lensed camera and took black and white images through three different color filters, Red, Green and Blue. Later he projected the combined color layers to realize a full color image. Stunning.
Eugène Atget. He walks the streets of Paris photographing storefronts. Surrealists about a decade later adopt the photographs as a sign of a neurotic civilization.
Edward Steichen is promoted by and partnered with Stieglitz. I like his fashion work. I found on the Wikipedia he was dared to prove that fashion photography is art so he photographed dresses by Paul Poiret, a couture designer and today this shoot is called the “First modern fashion shoot.”
Gertrude Käsebier photographs families and does some interesting portraiture work that is much more dynamic than your average JC Penny portrait studio. Unfortunately, family life is still considered women appropriate subject matter, ala the female impressionists. Don’t worry, women bust out later.
Man Ray is also a filmmaker and partnered with many famous Surrealists of the time. His Ray-o-graphs (narcissist) consist of every day objects exposed on light sensitive photo paper. The reversal makes those every day objects take on a new life, association, and idea. Very Surreal.
Dadists are starting to use photo collage and photomontage and appropriating photographs from mass culture for political ends. Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, and Aleksandr Rodchenko are important photographers of this movement.
Charles Sheeler shows industry as a beautiful, organized set of shapes, patterns, and rhythms. The scorched earth photographs of Gursky will counter the hope of industry later. Margaret Bourke-White and Paul Outerbridge do the same as Sheeler.
Edward Weston goes to Mexico and writes in his journals about “Pre-visualization.” The idea is photographers should be able to know exactly what the resulting photograph will look like well before tripping the shutter. They should govern and control every aspect of the camera machine. As a result Weston produces very formal, still, and balanced imagery that suggests all things on this earth are connected. Blech.
Ansel Adams and the F64 group want really sharp “straight” images now, with a deep depth of field. Also Adams invents the zone system, (a core part of my photographic education in thee olden days), where by understanding how chemistry, temperatures, film speeds, and agitations work, you get complete control of your black and white, (ideally full tonal range) images. All I can say is: film base plus fog.
Lázló Moholy-Nagy counters the control of the Americans with the experimentation of the era in Europe by putting items with seemingly no relationship together in his collages to make surrealistic imagery.
Florence Henri also breaks up spaces by inserting mirrors into composition.
Tina Modotti is hanging out with Weston and photographs the proletariat of Mexico.
August Sander creates a survey of the German people. A decade later, the Nazis do what they can to eliminate the photographs because it shows that there is a diversity of people living in Germany instead of the general, “we’re all superior, Assyrian race” stuff.
André Kertész creates some wonderful Surrealist portraits in Paris.
The Great Depression comes to the US and the Farm Security Administration sends out a bunch of photographers to document the hardships of agrarian laborers. The plight of the poor is shown by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Eudora Welty, Arthur Rothstein. The era also ushers in the question that with government patronage (aka propaganda), shouldn’t we question the intrinsic truthiness, the realism of the photographic medium?
Brassaï’s work of the bohemian underworld of Paris is, to this day, one of my favorite photographic portfolios.
Horst P. Horst makes an iconic fashion photograph of a corset that Madonna rips off for her Vogue music video. I still like Madonna of course.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Roman Vishniac photographed Jewish ghettos. Surviving images become really important as humans show their continued propensity for genocide in an age after enlightenment.
The surrealists are still making some interesting and bizarre photographs to examine the irrational and unknown parts of our psyche. Any list of this movement would be incomplete without the doll pictures by Hans Bellmer. Yikes.
Bauhaus photographer Herbert Bayer
Raoul Ubac tries different dark room techniques, like solarization, to invert images and create experimental compositions.
Robert Capa, famous war photographer but also photographed events throughout the world including a Trotsky speech!
Henri Cartier-Bresson and his “decisive moment” add another approach and theory to the act of photographing
Helen Levitt’s work is part of the decisive moment movement
My favorite photography always comes with a bit of satire and wit. Lisette Model photographed us Americans with the eyes of an alien who found us quite strange and resistant to self-reflection. She also influenced the quirky work of Diane Arbus
Alfred Eisenstaedt made the famous picture of the sailor forcing a kiss on a woman that everyone is nostalgic about
Weegee! This guy was a crazy good news photographer. He embodied the term, “F8 and be there.” An ambulance chaser, Weegee went to crimes scenes and developed film in his car.
Clarence John Laughlin showed the death and destruction of WWII and ushered us into the existential Atomic Age
Minor White offers more existential uncertainty and angst. White, a gay man, tries to depict his world through a Modernist lens sans nude women, revealing that Modern art movements, like all art movements, seems to necessitate unclothed female bodies as a way to express “universal” desire and beauty. Arguably, White shows an oppositional identity pre Robert Mapplethorpe.
Robert Frank creates a scathing look at American life post WWII in The Americans
In contradiction to the despair of the age, The Family of Man photographic survey features work by Wynn Bullock and many, many photographers across the world, to make the point that the human race is all good and all connected.
Harry Callahan looks inward, photographing his family and life in Chicago. His work is amazing
Richard Hamilton follows the Dadists by making collages of imagery showing our post war consumption and family life
With Kodak dye transfer, color image printing is possible with luscious vibrancy: see Eliot Porter
Bruce Davidson shows a new movement in society that all the ad agents are wild about: Youth culture.
Roy Decavara is the first African American to receive the Guggenheim and photographs life in Harlem for a project, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” with author Langton Hughes
Mario Giacomelli shows a loss of faith with his distorted imagery
All this self-expression is depressing. I’ll start with the 1960s and finish this list soon!