Why Not Photography?
Column by Alexandra Fisher Featuring Content by Dr. Juliana Kreinik
As I was preparing to write this column, I realized that a large population of the Arts and Crafts ‘collecting community’ may not even deem photography worthy of collecting. Some might argue that it’s mechanical precision alone would set it apart from the more natural, truly hand-crafted work so popular amongst the Arts and Crafts crowd.
But I dare pose the question, why not photography? It very well may be the most true reflection (and refraction) of the image of the early 1900s — the scenery, if you will, that the actors of the Arts and Crafts Movement were set within to create their work. The photography of Stieglitz, Hine and Sheeler among many others helped create the visual landscape in which their contemporaries Stickley, Hubbard, Tiffany and more found themselves creating some of their greatest work.
During my research, I stumbled upon a fantastic column by Dr. Juliana Kreinik, professor, art historian and self-proclaimed photo fiend, that I feel sheds incredible light on an otherwise darkened world within the Arts and Crafts community. Please enjoy her words as they effortlessly put together what I so very much wanted to share with you today.
“In the later nineteenth century, photography spread in its popularity, and inventions like the Kodak #1 camera (1888) made it accessible to the upper-middle class consumer; while the Kodak Brownie camera, which cost far less, reached the middle class by 1900.
In the arts, the medium was valued for its replication of exact details, and for its reproduction of artworks for publication. But photographers struggled for artistic recognition throughout the century. It was not until in Paris’s Universal Exposition of 1859, twenty years after the invention of the medium, that photography and “art” (painting, engraving, and sculpture) were displayed next to one another for the first time; separate entrances to each exhibition space, however, preserved a physical and symbolic distinction between the two groups. After all, photographs are mechanically reproduced images: Kodak’s marketing strategy (“You press the button, we do the rest,”) points directly to the “effortlessness” of the medium.
Since art was deemed the product of imagination, skill, and craft, how could a photograph (made with an instrument and light-sensitive chemicals instead of brush and paint) ever be considered its equivalent? And if its purpose was to reproduce details precisely, and from nature, how could photographs be acceptable if negatives were “manipulated,” or if photographs were retouched? Because of these questions, amateur photographers formed casual groups and official societies to challenge such conceptions of the medium. They—along with elite art world figures like Alfred Stieglitz—promoted the late nineteenth-century style of “art photography,” and produced low-contrast, warm-toned images like The Terminal that highlighted the medium’s potential for originality.
So what transforms the perception of photography in the early twentieth century? Social and cultural change—on a massive, unprecedented scale. Like everyone else, artists were radically affected by industrialization, political revolution, trench warfare, airplanes, talking motion pictures, radios, automobiles, and much more—and they wanted to create art that was as radical and “new” as modern life itself.
By the early 1920s, technology became a vehicle of progress and change, and instilled hope in many after the devastations of World War I. For avant-garde artists, photography became incredibly appealing for its associations with technology, the everyday, and science—precisely the reasons it was denigrated a half-century earlier. The camera’s technology of mechanical reproduction made it the fastest, most modern, and arguably, the most relevant form of visual representation in the post-WWI era. Photography, then, seemed to offer more than a new method of image-making—it offered the chance to change paradigms of vision and representation. …. In the early twentieth-century, this medium offered a potentially transformative vision for artists, who sought new ways to see, represent, and understand the rapidly changing world around them.”
With all of this in mind, I challenge you to branch out of your collecting comfort zone and find one or two turn of the century photographs that speak to you. No, it’s not a hand-hewn Morris Chair, hand-carved woodblock print or expertly hand-embroidered textile — but it is a delicately crafted, visual representation of the time in which all of those beloved items were created — a more in-depth look into the Arts and Crafts era. And that, I feel, makes it worth our while. And if all of that is just too much to swallow, you can always just stick it into a quartersawn oak frame if that helps.
While we’re on the topic, please check out this week’s In The News article on a photographer you might be more familiar with.
Until next week!
Top photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art “Doylestown House – The Stove” by Charles Sheeler 1917
Bottom photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art “The Steerage” by Alfred Stieglitz 1907