"A Plea for Straight Photography" (1904)
The exhibition of the Photo-Secession, which opened on Saturday, February 6, at the Art Galleries of the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pa., affords a most unique opportunity of comparing the styles and methods of applying photography to artistic ends. It consists of about three hundred prints, contributed by fifty-four exhibitors.
The average merit of this collection is distinctly in advance of all its predecessors. It has eclipsed the Chicago and Philadelphia Salons of 1898-1901, the exhibition at the National Arts Club, New York, in 1902, and the recent Photo-Secession show at the Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, not only in number but also in excellence of workmanship, and may be safely described as the most interesting and most representative exhibition of pictorial photography which has ever been held. The jury consisted of Messrs. Alfred Stieglitz, Joseph T. Keiley, and Edouard J. Steichen, who also supervised the hanging.
As was to be expected of an exhibition selected and arranged by three pictorial extremists, who lay more stress on "individual expression" than on any other quality, the majority of pictures showed a certain sameness in quality and idea, as well as in the character of the mounting and framing. And yet, at least three-fourths of the exhibits gave evidence of personal artistic intention, and clearly and unmistakably reflected the taste, the preferences, and the imagination of the individual maker.
It is only a general tendency towards the mysterious and bizarre which these workers have in common; they like to suppress all outlines and details and lose them in delicate shadows, so that their meaning and intention become hard to discover. They not only make use of every appliance and process known to the photographer's art, but without the slightest hesitation -- as Steichen in his "Moonrise" and "The Portrait of a Young Man," and Frank Eugene in his "Song of the Lily" -- overstep all legitimate boundaries and deliberately mix up photography with the technical devices of painting and the graphic arts. Both men are guilty of having painted, more than once, entire backgrounds into their pictures. Steichen's highlights are nearly all put in artificially, and Eugene invariably daubs paint and etches on his negatives to realize artistic shadows.
There is hardly an exhibitor, Photo-Secessionist or not, who does not practice the trickeries of elimination, generalization, accentuation, or augmentation; and many of them, who have not the faintest idea of drawing or painting, do it in a very awkward and amateurish way. But the striving after picture-like qualities and effects is the order of the day, and throughout the pictures hung -- although practically nothing wantonly eccentric or repellant in its artificiality had been admitted -- there was hardly one which was not influenced by the prevailing clamor for high art. Even in their titles they try to carry out this idea. Why, for instance, did Yarnall Abbott call his nude with a background of trees (almost commonplace in treatment) "Waldweben"? What has a meaningless pictorial fragment to do with Wagner's realistic tone-picture? Are such proceedings not slightly misleading and somewhat pretentious?
And yet nobody can deny that their work, as a whole, is the outcome of intelligent and consistent effort. Grace and subtlety and a fair share of imagination it possesses without doubt, and its exponents put so much enthusiasm into their work that its very earnestness compels respect, even if it does not always command admiration. But the question (or rather the problem) is whether such pictorial work still belongs to the domain of photography. Are those people not doing injustice to a beautiful method of graphic expression, and at times debasing the powers which sixty years of photographic research and progress have established?
This is very difficult to answer. It depends entirely on circumstances and on the spirit in which one approaches such a picture. Should I, for instance, visit a rich man's art gallery and somewhere on the walls run across Steichen's "Lenbach" in which a number of lines have been etched, several high lights accentuated and half tones painted in by brush, or "A Charcoal Effect" by Mary Devens, it would probably affect me with a special and unique expression of pleasure; I would care little and very likely not even notice whether it were a monotype, a charcoal drawing, an etching, or a photographic print. But when I go into an exhibition of photographs and encounter the very same prints, the situation is changed. I at once ask myself: What sort of photography is it? How is it made? Why does this part look like a hand painted monotype, and that one like an etching or a charcoal drawing? Is it still photography, or is it merely an imitation of something else? And if it is the latter, what is its aesthetic value?
Surely every medium of artistic expression has its limitations. We expect an etching to look like an etching, and a lithograph to look like a lithograph, why then should not a photographic print look like a photographic print? Etching, true enough, is capable of imitating other arts, and a clever etcher might produce an etching which is like an engraving, and another which is like a mezzotint, and a third which is almost like a black and white wash drawing. But if we saw nothing else but the imitations -- and we rarely see them and never by master etchers like Jacque, Appian, Veyrassat, Meryon, and Whistler -- we might be inclined to say, "Well, this is really very wonderful, but now suppose the etcher would imitate an etching!" As the etching needle is the great expressional instrument for sketchy line work, so legitimate photographic methods are the great expressional instrument for a straightforward depiction of the pictorial beauties of life and nature, and to abandon its superiorities in order to aim at the technical qualities of other arts is unwise, because the loss is surely greater than the gain.
By "a straightforward depiction of the pictorial beauties of life and nature," I mean work like Stieglitz's "Scurrying Homewards," "Winter on Fifth Avenue," "The Net Mender," etc., or his recent "The Hand of Man." "They also have been manipulated," the Photo-Secessionists will argue. Yes, I know he has eliminated several logs of wood that were lying near the sidewalk when he took the snapshot of his "Winter on Fifth Avenue," took out a rope that disturbed the foreground in his "Scurrying Homewards," lightened the sky in "The Net Mender," and darkened the rails in "The Hand of Man." Why not? Surely that is permissible, as it is really nothing but the old-fashioned retouching. If "dodging" is wrong, then also Eickemeyer, and nearly all pictorial photographers, have to be condemned. But if you allow elimination, why do you object to accentuation, do not all retouchers accentuate their highlights? Sure enough, but only where it is indicated on the negative and not willfully, wherever it happens to look well. The whole pictorial effect of a photographic print should be gained by photographic technique, pure and simple, and not merely a part of it. It is surely not legitimate to let the camera do the most difficult part, for instance the reproduction of a figure, and then after embellishing it with a few brush strokes or engraved lines (a comparatively easy task for a man used to painting) claim that it is all done by photography. Surely a figure can be placed and surrounded so artistically -- just as nature at times composes itself so beautifully -- that the result would be a picture which would even satisfy a secession jury, and necessitate no faking devices.
The strictly straight prints of these pictorial extremists -- like the "Theobald Chartran" and "Solitude" of Steichen, the "Portrait of Miss Jones" of Eugene -- prove it. They are just as beautiful as their other work; why then make all in the same manner? It would be more difficult. But these men are all in other respects so painstaking and conscientious; why not also in their attitude towards photography itself, whose interests they wish to further. I fear they will never "compel the recognition of pictorial photography, not as a handmaiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression" so long as they borrow as freely from other arts as they do at present. Photography must be absolutely independent and rely on its own strength in order to acquire that high position which the Secessionists claim for her.
But all preaching is in vain, and judging from the present condition of things, it will take years before this latest phase of pictorial photography will be replaced by a more normal one, as it will render necessary a total readjustment of the ideas as to what art photography really is.
It may be interesting to investigate how this change in photographic taste evolved. At the start it was merely the outcome of a revolt from the conventional photographic rendering of sharp detail and harsh contrasts. This was refreshing, as the old-fashioned work had but little claim to beauty and none whatever to art. Stieglitz, Eickemeyer, Dumont, at that time did some remarkable work. Then some new technical methods were introduced which completely revolutionized photographic work. The first was the gum process introduced by Demachy and carried to its utmost possible limit by Steichen, the second was the glycerine process, as practised by Keiley, and the third the manipulation of the plate, the so-called process of photo-etching invented by Eugene.
It is difficult to state which of the three processes has done the most mischief. In the meanwhile Alfred Stieglitz, who has become the champion of artistic photography in America, continually clamored for more "individual expression." And as "individual expression" in straight photography is extremely difficult to attain, the artistic photographer began to imitate the artist. "Individual expression" became synonymous with "painter-like expression," and as the three processes mentioned facilitated their efforts in that direction, they were adopted by all the camera workers of the new movement. Alfred Stieglitz suddenly saw himself surrounded by a lot of men and women who professed to be artists in their life as well as in their work. The final results were a foundation of the Photo- Secession society in 1902, and the exhibition at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh.
In the various groups exhibited one could clearly trace the evolution of the movement. It began with Eickemeyer; then followed in rapid succession Gertrude Käsebier (an expert in dodging processes), F. Holland Day, Clarence H. White, Eugene, Keiley, and finally Steichen and Alvin Langdon Coburn. Although Stieglitz reflects all the different phases, strange to say he remained a straight photographer in all his work.
All the other photographers could not resist the temptation of trying themselves in gum and glycerine or applying the Eugene- Steichen method of augmentation. It became the fashion to blur objects, and the so-called "cult of the spoilt print" set in. The results were often far from being satisfactory, largely because the majority of the workers could boast of no art training, and had no skill in the handling of brush and etching tools. The fun that was everywhere poked at the "fuzzy print" was not quite unjustified.
Of course no critic has the right to be absolutely positive that the work which he fancies is absolutely the only work that is in the right vein, and that everything else is only working and studying in order to make him laugh and have fun. He must be able to think independently of any tradition, of any set idea of what is right and wrong, and be ready to try and understand what the photographic workers have to say.
The glycerine development, especially when employed with mercury, is full of possibilities. It has qualities entirely its own and need not borrow by imitation, but why need it be invariably utilized for fuzzy effects. Why do they obstinately insist on carrying mediums farther than they go?
Yet I cannot deny that I have also seen very beautiful, convincing as well as self-explanatory specimens in this line of work. The Pittsburgh Exhibition was in many respects a revelation to me, and I would be the last to discredit the merits of enthusiastic workers as John G. Bullock, Rose Clark, Mary Devens, Wm. B. Dyer, Herbert S. French, Mary M. Russel, Eva Watson Schütze, Edmund Stirling, S. L. Willard, etc. But I claim and am absolutely convinced that still greater triumphs can be achieved in straight photography, and that they have been achieved by these workers whenever they applied the simple methods of straight or almost straight photography. It hurts me to see gifted persons like Gertrude Käsebier and Coburn, for instance, waste their talents on methods that have no justification to exist, and that have -- mark my word -- no permanent value and no future. The more so as they all can work straight, and are at their best when they work straight.
"And what do I call straight photography," they may ask, "Can you define it?" Well, that's easy enough. Rely on your camera, on your eye, on your good taste and your knowledge of composition, consider every fluctuation of color, light, and shade, study lines and values and space division, patiently wait until the scene or object of your pictured vision reveals itself in its supremest moment of beauty. In short, compose the picture which you intend to take so well that the negative will be absolutely perfect and in need of no or but slight manipulation. I do not object to retouching, dodging, or accentuation, as long as they do not interfere with the natural qualities of photographic technique. Brush marks and lines, on the other hand, are not natural to photography, and I object and always will object to the use of the brush, to finger daubs, to scrawling, scratching, and scribbling on the plate, and to the gum and glycerine process, if they are used for nothing else but producing blurred effects.
Do not mistake my words. I do not want the photographic worker to cling to prescribed methods and academic standards. I do not want him to be less artistic than he is to-day, on the contrary I want him to be more artistic, but only in legitimate ways.
The present movement has done an infinite amount of good, as it has awakened an interest in the artistic possibilities of photography, and proven beyond doubt that it is capable of distinct individual expression. But that it cannot continue in the present way, even Mr. Stieglitz realizes. The total suppression of almost every quality which we customarily associate with photography must cease. The photographer is not justified, as Mr. Steichen claims, in the striving to obtain results of the painter, the etcher, and the lithographer. And I am convinced a reaction will set in which will refuse all (at the very best only feeble) imitations of the material technique employed by any of these arts.
To me the Photo-Secession movement is merely the extreme swing of the pendulum which is necessary ere a reaction in photographic work will bring it back to a normal, but at the same time much higher, artistic plane than it has ever occupied before.
I myself have been concerned with this movement from the very start; I have stood by it through thick and thin because I realized that my ideal of straight photography could only be reached by making concessions and by roundabout ways. But now as the time for a reaction has come, I sincerely hope that my words will have so much weight with some of the workers that they will read this plea for straight photography and give it serious consideration; for it is my innermost conviction that there must come a change if we do not want to sacrifice all we have gained. I want pictorial photography to be recognized as a fine art. It is an ideal that I cherish as much as any of them, and I have fought for it for years, but I am equally convinced that it can only be accomplished by straight photography.
This essay originally appeared in American Amateur Photographer, No. 16 (March 1904), pp. 101-109.
"An Art Critic's Estimate of Alfred Stieglitz" (1898)
"Portrait Painting and Portrait Photography" (1899)
"Frank Eugene: Painter-Photographer" (1899)
"A Purist" [Zaida Ben-Yúsuf] (1899)
"Clarence H. White" (1900)
"A Plea for the Picturesqueness of New York" (1900)
"Random Thoughts on Criticism" (1900)
"On Plagiarism and Imitation" (1900)
"A Plea for Straight Photography" (1904)
"The Salon Club and the First American Photographic Salon at New York" (1904)
"Recent Conquests in Night Photography" (1909)
"What Remains" (1911)
"The Daguerreotype" (1912)
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