Since the late 1800s Modern Aesthetics have dealt with a myriad of concepts, from politics to structuring society, the artist’s role in society to what art the artist should create, from evolution to extreme wealth disparity, and the cannonball of what is truth. As religious, mythical and idealized themes were being replaced by logic, reason, and science. More than ever before, the world people could see, hear, feel, taste, touch, was considered objective truth, with philosophers such as Emmanuel Kant, Charles Darwin, and August Kant emerging as leading figures. It is in this same fashion that artists followed suite, marching forward into the inquiry of truth. There is however a myriads of methods/approaches in which this truth was thought it ought to be achieved, this indicative by number of the subsequent art movements in the late 19th and early 20th Century. A new art, for a new world, with pioneers ready to spawn at every turn.
The Truth is Straight Photography
The term “straight photography” first appeared in an essay by art critic Sadakichu Hartman titled A Plea for Straight Photography. Published in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Works in 1904. The essay explained the shift in attitude from the pictorial and urged photographers to “compose the picture which you intend to take so well that the negative will be absolutely perfect and in need not of any or but slight manipulation.” This idea would dominated the fifty-plus years photography until the 1970s.
American modernists, led by Stieglitz and his Photo-Secessions entourage, advocated the aesthetic use of the purely photographic technique of camera, lens and emulsion. To them, photography was the appreciation of both the camera’s potentialities and its limitations. They sought to divorce of photography from the aesthetics tenets of pictorialism (painting and drawing over photographs) and other art forms such as sculpture, music or literature. They argued for graphic black & white photographs full of texture and detail instead of the highly graphic and allegoric themes of pictorialism which popular in camera clubs and salons of the day. However, the principles of Straight Photography were not so much of a discovery but the recognition of traditions as old as the invention of photography itself.
Stieglitz maintained that photographers should devote themselves to the straightforward and purely photographic representation of form and that painters should attempt to render not outward appearances but their own emotional responses to what they saw. In other words, photographs should not be painterly, and paintings should not be photographic and “since the camera naturally surpassed even the most talented painter in the accurate representation of form, it was pointless for painting and the graphic arts to do what photography did better – and absurd for photography to imitate second-rate illustrations.” This shift upset many previously held notions about art and photography resulting in an inquiry into the nature of art and reality in relation to the photograph.
While some artistic photographers wished to demonstrate that, like painting, the camera was capable of producing pictures with artistic merit. Some artists began to ‘distort’ forms found in nature, some photographers began working in the same direction maintaining that almost any of the modernist visual art movements such as cubism could be paralleled by photography.
Motion Obscures and Reveals the Truth
Edward Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey pioneered the ‘motion picture.’ Although the two were using photography to study the motion of animals and humans in action, their methods were soon revisited by modern artistic photographers. Many artists seeking to obscure the literal identity of things and to give precedence to more abstract realities of nature: the movements themselves rather than the objects in movement. They went in searched for the fundamental rhythms and patterns of the universe – an idea inapt in modern art preoccupations.
Futurism was another art movement in celebration of technology, the expression of speed and mechanical energy through dynamic composition saw many chronophotographs, a term coined by Étienne-Jules Marey; combine the virtues of both the blurred and in instantaneous image. Muybridge deployed arrays of single-exposure cameras to capture the continous movement of his subjects. Marey, inspired by Muybridge, devised cameras that captured multiple exposures through a single lens (similar to putting your camera on a slow shutter speed), and both arranged their images like animation cels. The movement of a subject gave the impression of forms apparently developing in space and time. These artists declared that things in movement, are deformed, and follow one another like vibrations in the space through which they pass.
For other artists such as Marcel Duchamp, of the work of both men, Marey’s influence on is the most obvious. Marey’s images served admirably as a point of departure. He stated candidly that the idea for his painting (above) came principally from Marey’s photographs and others of that kind.
For all their professed love of the machine, for all their hostility to the traditional concepts of art, the futurist painters never used photography to demonstrate their rapport with modern technology. Nevertheless, they were instrumental in in establishing a basis for machine aesthetics of the 20th century in which photography was to play a new and essential role.
To find the Truth, you should get a Close-Up
The camera close-up, especially as it served the New Objectivity, was regarded as one of the means of reaching “objective presentation of fact.” Close-ups, as seen as a view in which the lens acts as a magnifying glass (macro), called attention to patterns, textures, and structures that might have ordinarily passed unrecognised. American Straight Photography advocate, Stieglitz’s and his protégés Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, and Charles Sheeler on the East Coast – and their West Coast counterparts Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham – took up large format cameras and reveled in the spectacular clarity and gradations of tone they were able to achieve. These experimenters’ favored vegetation and botanical subjects, and everyday household objects framed with emphatic geometric designs and cubist like juxtapositions.
The style and its typical themes garnered international adherents owing to Karl Blossfeldt, a lecturer at The Institute of the Royal Arts and Craft Museum Berlin, publishing Art Forms in Nature in 1928. Another publication by Renger Patzsch’s The World Is Beautiful, considered “a model book of objects and things, influenced many Europeans including photographers such as the Dutch photographer Piet Zwart’s and Czech Republic’s Ladislav E. Berka.
Close-ups opened up a new and fresh way of viewing the world and naturally some artists veered into portraiture, the human face and its forms. Photographers using close-ups for portraiture not only embraced its objective representation of forms but also saw it as a way of introducing feelings and the personality of the sitter.
With this post we looked at some of the developments of our aesthetic heritage under straight photography, including its leading figures some of their works. Photography’s collision and collusion with modern art movements manifested many direction which artistic photography could ventured into. Not only did we see the developments of its aesthetic but we also see the founding ideas in some of the techniques in which contemporary photography relies on such as slow shutter-speed and macro.
On the next blog post, before the last two articles in the series which will look at experimentation and the camera-less image. We will also look at the art movements that either rejected or influenced the developments of the aesthetic.