Tuesday, June 21, 2011

For the solstice...

I came across a book in the library last month, somewhat by chance, that is proving to be of more than passing interest. It is biographical, not in the usual sense but as a collection of papers, essays and letters. An instance that caught the eye and the mind at once -

Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze. Those seriously interested in its advancement do not look upon this state of affairs as a misfortune, but as a disguised blessing, inasmuch as photography had been classed as a sport by nearly all of hose who deserted its ranks and fled to the present idol, the bicycle. The only persons who seem to look upon this turn of affairs as entirely unwelcome are those engaged in manufacturing and selling photographic goods. It was, undoubtedly, due to the hand camera that photography became so generally popular a few years ago. Every Tom, Dick and Harry could, without trouble, learn how to get something or other on a sensitive plate, and this is what the public wanted - no work and lots of fun. Thanks to the efforts of these persons hand camera and bad work became synonymous. The climax was reached when an enterprising firm flooded the market with a very ingenious hand camera and the announcement "You press the button, and we do the rest." This was the beginning of the "photographing by the yard" era and the ranks of enthusiastic Button Pressers were enlarged to enormous dimensions. The hand camera ruled supreme.

Before you run into the distance, think "digital camera" in the place of "hand camera" and you would have heard some ten or fifteen years back the exact same sentiments echoing through the august halls of probably every camera club in the land.

In 1890 when I returned to America I found that photography as I understood it hardly existed; that an instrument had been put on the market shortly before called the "Kodak" and that the slogan sent out to advertisers read, "You press the button and we do the rest." The idea sickened me.
Finally one day I met a middle-aged stock broker by the name of W.B. Post who had just returned from Nassau. He showed me some four-by-five prints he had made. I was amazed. They were beautiful.
He asked me if I did not want to try out his camera. The temptation was too great to resist. I had certain things in mind that I knew could not be done with the large camera and tripod.

So in 1892, in February, there was a great blizzaed. I loved snow, I loved rain. I loved the deserted streets. All these seemed to attune to my own feeling.

During the blizzard I stood at the corner of Thirty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue with Post's camera. I had watched the lumbering stage-coaches appearing through the snow; the horses, the drivers, the driving snow - the whole feeling - and I wondered could what I felt be photographed.

The resulting image you will probably find on the net if you search "Winter - Fifth Avenue" and "Stieglitz". And those dates are not typos. This was in the 1890's and Stieglitz was one of a number primarily involved in the establishment of photography as a practical technology and as one of the arts.

The emotional strength of Stieglitz's campaign is illustrated best by a letter written in 1942 - a few years before his death - following a request that he contribute to an exhibition to be toured to Army corps on active duty. The request stated that there could be no guarantee that prints sent would be returned, and that mounts were to be standardised. Stieglitz's reaction -

I have your communication of January 12th. What am I to say? In a sense I am horrified.

First of all, I am not qualified, according to your letter, to contribute a print, as I have not as yet become a professional photographer. But even if I ignored this, what I might look upon as a "slip", I could not possibly send you a print of mine as I have spent my life in fighting for the recognition of photography as an additional medium of expression ranking with the other media of expression such as painting, etching, lithography, drawing, etc., etc.

You seem to assume that a photograph is one of a dozen or a hundred or maybe a million prints, all prints from one negative necessarily being alike and so replaceable. But then along comes one print that embodies something that you have to say that is subtle and elusive, something that is still a straight print, but when shown with a thousand mechanically made prints, has something that the others don't have. What is it that this print has? It is certainly something not based on a trick. It is something born of spirit, and spirit is intangible while the mechanical is tangible. If a print that I might send did not have this intangible, what would be the value of sending it out?... I might just as well say that any machine can take a picture, and turn out a print mechanically. You might get a wonderful picture as a result, but they would not contain that something called love or passion, both of which are required to bring forth a living print - or any other living creative expression. A print lacking these elements is simply an illustration.

Stieglitz should be recognised as one of the unsung heroes of the photographic world. Not for his skill as a photographer - in his time he was a leading technician as well as artist. Not for his unending fight to have photography added to the visual arts - a battle that has finally waned in the past generation or two.

He deserves recognition as an artist of light, an artist of the ordinary in extra-ordinary light, his ability to record emotion in two dimensions.

And I shall return to my practice of making illustrations...

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