Moderator: Peter Blank, Librarian, Art and Architecture Library, Stanford
Sponsor: Museum Library Division
"Under Exposed" examined "the history, research, and unique characteristics of nineteenth century photography." Panelists were Roy Flukinger, Senior Curator of Photography and Film, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; Rachel Stuhlman, Librarian, George Eastman House: International Museum of Photography and Film; Amy Rule, Archivist, Center for Creative Photography in Tucson; and Julie Mellby, Assistant Curator, Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, The Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Flukinger, author of works on British photography as well as a major bibliography of serials literature, Windows of Light, observed that there was no one event in the birth of photography, but that a number of light or photographic explorers--Wedgwood, the Lunar Society, etc.--paved the way for Niepce's 1806 heliograph (commonly considered the first photograph). Photographers collaborated (Niepce and Daguerre) but also worked independently and wrote about photography (Talbot) in both England and France.
Photography encompassed technology, culture, the economy, the commercial and the human but the driving impulse was creativity, a new way of seeing. This experimental spirit led to popularization and portability of the process, and its expanding functions: family pictures or portraiture (Cundle); illustrations of literary works (Cameron); studies for painters (Reijlander); depictions of nature (Emerson) and well as site records (Wilson); architecture (Frith), the Grand Tour, as well as documents of war (Fenton) or the poor or exotic (Thomson). The commercial aspect of photography expanded as well; by the 1850s, one photo studio alone made 10,000 prints a day. From experiments with light, a vast new way of seeing had developed, with multiple applications and, for us, the curator or the viewer, many ways to approach these photographs. After reviewing the work of numerous photographers and showing examples of the many genres which had developed very quickly after the invention of photography, Flukinger urged the audience to look at what we have; in the words of Yogi Berra, "you can observe a lot just by looking!"
Amy Rule dedicated her talk, The Evolution of Photographic Literature, to Allen Ginsberg, who died the previous day, April 5, 1997. Rule chose the example of Carleton Watkins to illustrate the development of a career and artistic achievement from the imaginary point of view of a researcher who knows absolutely nothing about a particular body of work. Rule's interesting exercise traced the literature--vast since 1972, but before that less voluminous--beginning with Newhall's 1937 landmark MOMA exhibition catalog, Photography 1839-1937, which included only 28 bibliographic sources, and no mention of Watkins. But by 1938, several histories had appeared, including Taft's Photography and the American Scene, in which Watkins was mentioned (and which included valuable notes). By the 50s, photography had been included in university curricula, and by the 60s, books on photographic formats had begun to appear (e.g. Darrah's history of stereo views in 1964) and Boni's extensive critical bibliography Photographic Literature of 1962. Numerous revised editions of Newhall appeared, as did the Gernsheims' history (1969) from the point of view of independent collector/researchers. By the 70s, a significant new work had appeared, Naef's Era of Exploration, which examined photography in the tradition of art historical analysis. Major works then began to proliferate, including exhibition catalogs, surveys, bibliographies, indexes to collections, collections catalogs, and guides to looking at photographs. Finally, in 1983, a monograph on Watkins appeared, Palmquist's Carleton E. Watkins, Photographer of the American West -- 46 years after the MOMA exhibition. Rule concluded by commenting on some of the new interdisciplinary approaches to the study of photography such as Waking Dream and Perpetual Mirage.
Rachel Stuhlman spoke on the photographic book, noting that there were even cameras in the shape of books! Of particular interest to librarians was the fact that the first photographically-illustrated book included a scene in a library by Talbot. Only 100 copies of Talbot's work, The Pencil of Nature (1844-6), which was sold in bookstores and reached a wide audience, are known to be in existence. Another interesting point was that the idea of forensic photography was Talbot's.
Other examples of the genre included Francis Frith's Egyptian work, with his own jaunty commentary accompanying the images, and John Thomson's descriptions of China and its people (he brought back 2000 glass plate negatives from China, and printed with the new collotype process). Jacob Riis, widely known for his work How the Other Half Lives, the first American publication to use half-tones as well as line drawings after his photographs, employed interior shots made possible by the invention of flash powder--a fairly dangerous process which terrified his subjects. In the span of only a half-century, photography had been used to popularize the new medium, depict exploration, and propagandize for social reform.
Julie Mellby focused on the mirror with a memory, the daguerreotype, with examples from the Theater Collection at the Houghton Library, addressing the process, manufacture, and care and handling of the medium. Daguerre announced his technique in 1839, publishing a handbook in both French and English. The daguerreotype, remarkable for its detail and lack of grain, is considered the classic 19th century image. Mellby noted the character of the daguerreotypist in Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, and the introduction of the process to the U.S. via Samuel Morse, who met Daguerre in Paris.
By 1841 the daguerreotype process had reached every U.S. city, with elaborate studios to entertain patrons waiting for bright weather, and its essential light. Eventually there were virtual K-marts of daguerreotype production; the demand for the process lasted about 20 years.
Daguerreotypes are unique--their delicate plates vulnerable to physical and chemical damage, which explains the elaborate casing developed for them (Matthew Brady, who owned a studio in 1853, was originally a case-maker). Mellby cautioned on the care of daguerreotypes: they should not be uncased or the seal broken; should be stored upside down in dust-proof cabinets, and exhibited on a sheet of dark felt on book cradles. Her talk closed with a slide of a Brady attribution, the mammoth large format type, Forrest as King Lear.
Following the excellent presentations there was time for only a few questions, one of the more interesting on the question of hazardous substances. The mortality rate for photographic workers was high; Daguerre, for example, began going blind and quit photography. Follow-up reading was recommended: Ann McCowley's Industrial Madness and Bill Jay's Death in the Darkroom, as well as Luis Nadeau's excellent books on technique, concluding this outstanding panel with its complementary presentations, all of a greatly informative nature presented by experts in the field.
Patricia T. Thompson
Michigan State University