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9JAN05 - Historic Photographers

I have not looked at the work of historic or master photographers until quite recently. I guess I'd much rather take photographs than read about them. However, I've recently taken the opportunity to spend a little time looking through some of their work and think about what I liked in the hope that I may find some inspiration from their work.

To do this I purchased several anthologies of photography from a used bookstore. I then took a look at samples of photographs from about 50 photographers that would be considered by many people to have made a significant contribution to photographic expression. From these I non-systematically selected 10 photographers whose work broadly appealed to me.

I then looked at the work of these photographers to try to find out what I liked about their photography and what made their work stand out from the rest for me.

I found that there were three things that appealed the most to me. Firstly, from a visual aesthetics point of view, one of the things that stood out most among all the photographs is the majestic dynamic range that these photographers were able to achieve. That is, there was extreme richness in how these photographers interpreted light and dark in their photographs. Secondly, I seem to love the wonderful portrayal of the subtle or dazzling light of nature, whether it is in forests, rivers or oceans. Thirdly, I greatly like photographers that tell us, or I should say show us, who we are and how we fit into the world in which we live. This could be through the sublime beauty of nature or the melancholic "beauty" of urban trials of life.

Of course taking pictures like these has never been easy even with, or in spite of, the digital technology available to us today. Most historical photographers were masters of the technologies available to them. Many of them also made important innovations. In the realm of photography if one does not control the technology that one is using it is unlikely that one will consistently achieve the visual objectives for one is seeking. However, it is probably safe to say that technology was secondary for them.

Let us briefly go through the photographers that I selected. The first photographer I want to consider, and I will do this roughly in chronological order, is Gustave Le Gray. Le Grey was born in 1820 and lived until 1862. He was as interested in the technical as he was in the aesthetic part of photography.

I was impressed with his photographs of the ocean in which he often made separate negatives of the sky and sea to be able to show a dramatic lighting that these subjects often have. Also, his images of ships and harbors are not only breathtakingly beautiful but also give an interesting view into what life may have been like 150 years ago in Europe. Of course his pictures focused on many of the beautiful things of that time period. This was probably because that's the type of aesthetic statement that was conventional for painting at the time. However, his pictures probably also look idealized because of the long exposures that were required by cameras of the day. Those meant that many things would have to be posed so that they would appear still. Because of this look they perhaps a bit too perfect in the photo.

Technically, Le Gray was using an improved version of Fox Talbot's calotype process in which he waxed the surface of a paper negative to improve the print sharpness.

Carleton Watkins lived between 1829 and 1916 in America. Again I see this pattern of majestic dynamic range in his photographs that instinctively appeals to me. Some of the pictures I've seen that he had taken were of the Columbia River, falls and forests. Watkins was using a wet plate process in which the photographer essentially had to transport an entire darkroom to the location the picture was going to be taken. The glass plates that this process used had to be coated with noxious chemicals, but it had the advantage of greater sharpness and sensitivity than could be achieved by other techniques.

Julia Cameron's portraits have amazing dynamic range and because of the long exposures that were usually required they had a more abstract, not overly sharp look to them. Julia Cameron was a British photographer that lived between 1815 and 1879. She was self-taught and had a very difficult chemical process to learn and master. She achieved her fame by taking photographs of people who were famous in her time.

Peter Emerson was another British photographer. He lived between 1856 and 1936. Emerson was a purist and was extremely critical of any manipulation of photographic prints. Some of his photographs that I like the most are very simple nature pictures such as reeds in snow.

Alvin Coburn was an American photographer who lived between 1882 and 1966. His work is interesting to me because he was more interested in the patterns in his photographs that he was in the subject matter.

Edward Steichen was another American photographer whose work appeals to me. He lived between 1879 and 1973. Many of his pictures have a mysterious look to them and he used a number of experimental photographic techniques to achieve this. He also made gum bi-chromate prints, which is a technique of making a photograph with watercolor pigments which further enhance the mood of his images.

Andre Kertesz's masterfully composed and at times distorted photographs are an inspiration. He knew what he was looking for, had the talent of composition and the patience to wait until the elements of the photo became exactly right. Kertesz was born in Austria in 1894.

Complex and obsessive themes expressed through multiple exposure and compositional techniques that were well before their time perhaps was Erwin Blumenfeld's way of dealing with the strange and violent part of the 20th century in which he lived. Blumenfeld was a German born American who lived between 1897 and 1969.

Bill Brandt a British photographer born in 1904 used many styles of photography. His fascination with rooms (of houses) is probably the most interesting to me.

To counterbalance the many simply beautiful photographs of the above photographers, I will have to add to my list Robert Frank who was a Swiss photographer born in 1924. His images of despair and hope, life-and-death, have all of the thoughtful, painful and melancholic beauty that makes me appreciate life. Pictures of child running from a hearse and a jukebox in a dark New York bar tell much about life. They cannot be described in words. They have to be seen.

To conclude this little project, I hope to find some time to look through the work of each one of these photographers and to look more closely at the visual elements and themes of their work so that I can learn more about how they appeal to me.

Summary of selected photographers:

  • Gustave Le Gray
  • Carleton Watkins
  • Julia Cameron
  • Peter Emerson
  • Alvin Coburn
  • Edward Steichen
  • Andre Kertesz
  • Erwin Blumenfeld
  • Bill Brand
  • Robert Frank

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