Thinking about Beaumont

The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall. The Museum of Modern Art (1982 Edition)

Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography is so much a part of the history that it documents that it can be hard to read it today and evaluate the book on its own merits.

I first read Newhall’s history more than 35 years ago as a college student. At the time, serious studies of photography were pretty much limited to this book and John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs. So, when I decided to re-read it, it was like rediscovering an old friend from my youth. And, of course like any old friend, there is a bit of nostalgia and melancholy since it’s a reminder of how much has changed in the years since.

Frederick's Photographic Temple of Art, ca. 1857

Photographer Unknown. Fredericks' Photographic Temple of Art. ca. 1857.

With the benefit of hindsight, Newhall warrants some justified criticism for helping to marginalize photographic visions that did not fit into the “straight photography” of his friends and peers. Of course, when one’s circle of friends include Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White and Dorothea Lange, one shouldn’t be judged too harshly for yielding to their influence.

It is also a bit unfair to judge Newhall on the basis of trends and tastes that have developed after his death and just about any criticism seems trivial given Newhall’s groundbreaking contributions to photography history and criticism.

A single passage in the book can easily outweigh any flaws and one I am particularly found of begins on page 94 in the chapter titled “A New Form of Communication”

“The camera records what is focused upon the ground glass. If we had been there, we would have seen it so. We could have touched it, counted the pebbles, noted the wrinkles, no more, no less. However, we have been shown again and again that this is pure illusion. Subjects can be misrepresented, distorted, faked. We now know it, and even delight in it occasionally, but the knowledge still cannot shake our implicit faith in the truth of a photographic record.

“The fundamental belief in the authenticity of photographs explains why photographs of people no longer living and of vanished architecture are so melancholy. Neither words nor the most detailed painting can evoke a moment of vanished time as powerfully and as completely as a good photograph.”

Is this still true today in this post-Photoshop era? I wonder what have we lost in a world in which images are routinely manipulated to create scenes that have never and could never have existed. It’s not just obvious fakes. Subtle manipulations are so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about them anymore. We expect that celebrities will always be portrayed with no visible blemishes or even a wrinkle. Extraneous details are removed and subjects re-arranged with such ease that it takes great restraint for photographers not to rely on manipulations to perfect a composition.

Some techniques, such as high dynamic range, have become so popular that they run the risk of becoming the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century’s pictorial photography.

Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Solder

Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936. Copyright Robert Capa.

Possibly our heightened awareness of the ability of photographs to lie and fool the viewer is not all bad. It’s not only introduced some healthy skepticism about the authenticity and objectivity of contemporary photographs, but it’s caused historians to go back and examine the circumstances under which some classic photographs were made (most notably in recent years may be Robert Capa’s image Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936).

For decades the public was expected to believe that photographers were offering an honest and straightforward vision of the world when in fact many documentary photographs often said as much about the photographer’s viewpoint as about the subject being photographed.

This, of course, like so many discussions of photography, tends to bring us around to Robert Frank, who didn’t simply document America in the 1950s, but rather documented his personal vision of America with no apologies and no pretense of objectivity.

Robert Frank, The Americans

The Americans, Copyright Robert Frank.

Frank demonstrated that photographs can be honest and subjective at the same time. Even in this digital era, photographs still retain an aura of authenticity that no other medium can rival.

Newhall’s final chapter on “New Directions” consists of a series of brief one to two paragraph highlights of various mid- to late-20th Century photographers including Frank. It seems clear that at the time Newhall was uncertain what direction photography might head and it reads as though he were trying to hedge his bets by covering as many bases as possible.

Yet, in his closing paragraph, Newhall goes “all in” for straight photography, declaring: “While it is too soon to define the characteristics of the photographic style of today, one common denominator, rooted in tradition, seems in the ascendancy: the direct use of the camera for what it can do best, and that is the revelation, interpretation, and discovery of the world of man and nature.”

But, is that the direction that photography has gone in the 21st century? With the possible exception of Alfred Stieglitz, Beaumont Newhall may have done more than anyone else to raise photography to the status of art. But the “art” of photography today is often the polar opposite of what Newhall envisioned and promoted.

Much of today’s fine art photography might be characterized as “The Revenge of William Mortensen.” Mortensen, a master of all things hated by straight photography (staged scenes, hand coloring, darkroom manipulation and heavily doctored negatives and prints) received a dismissive single sentence in Newhall’s history: “pictorial…anecdotal, highly sentimental, mildly erotic…”

Yet, it is the creative descendants of Mortensen that enjoy success in the art world today, while photographers in the style of the f64 group are pretty much relegated to second- and third-tier status. In fact, it is these imitators of Adams and Weston who are the most likely to produce “highly sentimental” images today.

I admit, though, that I also have a bias toward straight photography. I prefer documenting the world which exists, while striving for the personal, subjective viewpoint of Frank and his long line of successors: Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Emmet Gowin and William Eggleston, among others.

While I admire artists who can create that which never existed or could exist, that is not what I prefer to do. I find many of the images fascinating, but others simply lack any appeal for me. Perhaps I am trapped in the vision formed in my youth, as out-of-date today as Henry Peach Robinson and Gertrude Kasebier became in the 20th Century. Still, though, I wonder how many photographers of the late 20th and early 21st century will have the lasting power of Frank and his fellow documentarians.

Newhall’s history, although no longer current, still inspires and photographers could do worse than try to live up to his final passage: “The present challenge to the photographer is to express inner significance through outward form.”

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