Photography's Creative Mind
Newly Re-Created at the Fogg Museum now through Dec. 2
"WHATEVER REQUIRES more than the unreasoning power of the machine cannot be achieved by photography." Lady Charles Eastlake made that point in an 1857 essay on the viability of photography as an art form. In its current exhibit, Newly Re-Created, the staff of the Fogg Museum has utterly destroyed her premise, both for her century and for our own.
The camera-machine is as much the tool of an artist as a paintbrush. In a photograph, the artist can use his camera to produce as wide a range of effects as he could with different brush strokes on oil, tempera or water color. Like the painter, the photographer produces these results with varied techniques and the Fogg exhibit investigates them. Here we have a chance to see and compare the daguerreotype and the calotype, photogravure and gum-biochromate; platinum, palladium and cyanotype. I don't know the chemistry or history behind all these processes, but in this exhibit ignorance is not a hindrance to understanding. The photographs--with their similarities and contrasts--make all the necessary explanations of style.
We can see, for example, in Josiah Haws's 1855 daguerreotype of Oliver Wendell Holmes, how this medium's clarity and almost harshness fits the character of the subject. But in a calotype of a blind man done ten years earlier by W.H. Fox Talbot, the tone of the photograph is very different. The calotype image has a soft, fuzzy, dreamy quality--a gentleness that interacts with the figure of the old, blind preacher playing his harp. In every photograph on exhibit--from a mystical photogravure protrait of Yeats to a study of shadows in gum-biochromate by Edward Steichen--the artist/photographer has deliberately chosen a technique that combines with and supports the visual effect he tries to achieve. This exquisite co-ordination of method and result is not Lady Eastlake's "unreasoning power," it is an expression of the great skill of the artist.
But in our society, which demands newness in everything from car designs to toothpaste, we need more than just versatility to justify the title "Art." We demand inventiveness, for in our age, art cannot remain stagnant and stay alive. And so, almost systematically in its defense of the artistic nature of photography, the exhibit turns to the question of ingenuity. And just as before, it answers this point beautifully.
THE PHOTOGRAPHER can be inventive in two ways; in the scene he records, and in the manner he records it. In the 134 years since the invention of photography, the photographer has changed what he photographs. In a 1914 palladium print of a beach scene, the photographer has showing off his medium and his process's capacity for detail by cramming as many bathing-beauties and sand castles and rotting rowboats into the scene as possible. But in a 1972 print of the same technique, the photographer no longer shows off, he studies. In this case it is nature that he examines, an intricate detail of a small bunch of crocuses.
In addition to changing his subject matter, the photographer, having gained more competence and confidence, has experimented with the mechanical processes of photography. He has learned both to add and to elaborate on the basic method to increase the power of his images. In the photogravure I mentioned earlier, for example, the mysticism in the background comes almost accidentally from the developing procedure. But Ron McNeil, in his 1970 "Tinker's Child," extends this interaction of subject matter and technique. By hand wiping his etched plate before printing it, McNeil strengthens the mystical streaks into strong forms that echo the haunting quality of the child's face.
It is in the cyanotypes that this greater skill and manipulation has its greatest success. Basically, a cyanotype is a blueprint, and in the early twentieth century they had only a novelty value. The exhibit shows two 1905 cutesy postcards and a print of the Pavillion of the French Colonies at the Paris Exhibition of that year. The anonymous photographer uses the blue color only for exotic value, and pays no attention to the fact that he is printing white on blue rather than the more usual blue on white. But, by our own time, photographers have turned this novelty into expressionistic form. Andrea Jennison, in her "Suburban Surrender" series (1973) contrasts the blue with added tones of red, green and orange that heighten the visual impact of her works. And Judy Jacobs pays homage to the use of white line on blue. She moves her background to cloth, and the texture of her canvas or gauze is visualized in the contrast of her line.
This whole conglomeration of styles and usages and subjects and techniques points out one crucial fact: there's a lot more to photography than just your instamatic or even your Nikon. Where Lady Eastlake made her fatal mistake was in ignoring the creative mind of the artist standing behind that machine. The very real excitement of all the many and varied pieces of photographic art in Newly Re-Created proclaim to the world the powerful, energetic force of the creative mind.