Archive for the ‘Photo History’ Category

Robert Frank: The Americans

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

The final part of my essay on Robert Frank, written 20 years ago and published on the web in 2000 looks at his iconic book ‘The Americans’ which changed photography after its publication in 1958/9.

The discussion of the pictures and their sequencing owes a great deal to other photographers, including two whose workshops I attended in the 1990s, Charles Harbutt and Leonard Freed and many others, but I think I added a little of my own. I’ve come across parts of it on various web sites since it was put on the web, and I’m told it was widely plagiarised in student essays, at least in the years following its publication.


The Americans

The Americans‘ was turned down by New York publishers, but Frank took it to Delpire in France. There, Robert Delpire only persuaded the company to publish in 1958 by threatening to leave the family firm if they didn’t. The French edition was not entirely successful as a book, including texts by a number of well-known writers which had the effect of making the photographs seem like illustrations rather than a coherent work in their own right. The following year it was published by the Grove Press in America, in a form that respected Frank’s vision and which has been followed with minor revisions in later editions. Sales were poor and the reviews were vituperative, but the book has been republished in many editions and has I think been continuously in print.

The Grove Press edition had an introduction by Jack Kerouac, who Frank had recently met: ‘That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship)…’ Kerouac continued for five pages, showing a clear knowledge of Frank’s work and an understanding of what he was trying to do, concluding with some short sentiments which have been often been quoted, among them ‘Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers dont like potry. See?’ and his description ‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’

The work starts with a picture of the front of a building, an American flag draped across its front and two windows, in each a person. Both are apparently female, though both are obscured. Taken during a parade at Hoboken, the bottom edge of the flag visually cuts off the head of the figure at the right, preventing us and her from seeing. On the next page, the City Fathers line up, probably for the same event, on a stand behind a rail with a flag pinned to it. Soberly dressed old men, hats and coats against the cold, the man at the back stands with eyes closed, apparently totally elsewhere in his thoughts as his lips pucker into a kiss.

Next on a balcony in Chicago, a demagogue raises both fists, arms outstretched, above a very bored looking sculptured head in a frieze below. Cut to a car park in a field in South Carolina, black men attending a black funeral, heads titled, hands to cheeks, lost in thought probably during an address. One man clearly has his eye on Frank, wondering what this white stranger is doing. Next to a rodeo in Detroit, a white man in a cowboy hat, in profile, smoking a cigar, hand also up to his face, behind him two women apparently subservient; we turn the page and a uniformed man is dragging a woman on his arm (probably his wife, though it almost looks like an arrest) along the street in Savannah. The uniform leads us to the doorway of a Navy Recruiting office, though which we see the flag on the wall and the end of a desk with two feet resting on it.

Already we begin to see some of the ways Frank is building a story, using montage – the recurring element of the flag, the orator followed by the listeners. A couple of other motifs have also been presented – the car and the American Dream, but have yet to reappear. Frank concentrates on the ordinary, the things you see on the road and along its edges, but he also deals with real issues, whether of race, as in the pictures of the black nurse with the white doll-like baby in Charleston, South Carolina or the trolley in New Orleans with whites at the front and blacks at the back, or spiritual emptiness in the ‘Merry Christmas’ signs at the fast food Ranch Market in Hollywood or the plastic crosses, ‘Remember your loved ones’ on sale for 69 cents. A petrol station forecourt, the pumps like figures in a religious procession, carrying a tall banner that says S A V E in heavy capitals. It takes a second look to see the lightly written G A S in the gaps.

Perhaps the two most famous of the pictures using the flag are from a Fourth of July celebration in New York, where the giant hanging flag is shown to be patched, torn and threadbare, and a of a man playing a tuba at a political rally, rendered anonymous, the bell of the instrument replacing his head, and growing out from this a pole with the flag spreading out. These pictures are used to start the second and third loose sections of Frank’s book – the first also starting with the flag.

We think back to the rodeo picture when we come to another vision of the Wild West, a bar in Gallup, New Mexico, taken from a low viewpoint, perhaps even shot appropriately from the hip. The picture is at an angle and slightly blurred, half obscured by the looming back of a man close to the camera. Across the bar a man stands alone and desperate, hands perhaps just in pockets or on his hips, but giving the suggestion of a gunfight that is ready to start. Later we see an immaculately dressed cowboy on the streets of New York, seated not on a horse but on the edge of a litter bin.

Another of the motifs, or in this case perhaps more of an icon, is the jukebox. It glows weirdly like an alien visitation in a New York bar, leers obscenely among apparently drugged kids in a Candy store. An ornate model dominates a wooden shack bar in Beaufort, South Carolina, with bare tables and chairs and a small black baby escaping from his mattress on the floor.

At Long Beach, California, Frank came across a car covered with a white cocoon in front of a low plain building with two palm trees. Here the car is clearly an altar, the trees forming the columns and roof tracings of a church dedicated to the Holy Motor Spirit; next we have the site of a car accident; a blanket covering some bodies at the edge of Route 66, four people in a line looking at the and a row of buildings back form the road; next a road in New Mexico stretching into the distance, its centre line absolutely vertical.

A woman needs on the banks of the Mississippi at dusk, her white robes contrasting with her black face; kneeling she holds a white cross. The next picture is captioned ‘St Francis, gas station and City Hall – Los Angeles, and St Francis is silhouetted in the foreground holding up a cross. Next come three crosses marking the site of a highway accident, lit by a shaft of sun from a cloudy sky. We get an assembly line at a car factory, followed by a political assembly line at a Chicago convention, a fine row of urinals and a black man cleaning the shoes of a white businessman in a men’s room…

I’m conscious of how much I’m not pointing out in these pictures; this is a book every photographer or anyone who wants to be a photographer should own. All eighty three of them are worth close study, although they work together to produce something much greater than their sum. Despite the mauling it received on publication – it showed a personal view of America and one that was distant and uncongenial to comfortable middle-class America who were, by and large, both the major cultural producers and consumers – and poor sales at the time, it has become a classic. It marked a new vision in photography, a shift in the paradigm, and, as often happens it took some getting used to. To modern eyes it is difficult to see how critics could fail to see the good points in Frank’s work – the irony, the capturing of the essence of the small towns on the road, and even the humour of some of his work. Students of photographic history will certainly also be amused by his deliberate introduction of references to other photographers, with at least one carefully taken ‘decisive moment’ and a couple of pictures that are pure FSA.

Of course the clearest stylistic reference is, as Tod Papageorge pointed out, in his ground-breaking ‘Walker Evans and Robert Frank – An essay on influence‘ to the work of his mentor, Walker Evans. The debt is at its strongest to Evans’s own work with a 35mm camera, particularly to his pictures of people on the streets, where there are many pictures which could well have been taken by Evans. As Papageorge points out, various aspects of the design of ‘The Americans’, not least its title, also clearly derive from Evan’s masterpiece, ‘American Photographs’.

Later Work

After ‘The Americans’, Frank turned most of his attention to film, although continuing to take some still pictures, despite stating later that in 1960 he decided to put his camera ‘in a closet‘. His first film in 1979 was the only film which allowed the beats to present themselves on screen, ‘Pull My Daisy’, starring poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, artist Larry Rivers and musician David Amram. Kerouac contributed an act of his never completed play ‘The Beat Generation‘ as the screenplay and also appeared as a narrator. Better known is his controversial ‘Cocksucker Blues‘ about the Rolling Stones, though this was never commercially released, and probably more known about than actually viewed (there is a poor digital copy on YouTube.) Altogether he directed around twenty films, as well as acting in some, and being an editor and writer.

Frank’s photographic output was increasingly linked to the problems of his family, including the death of his daughter, Andrea, in a 1974 plane crash in Guatemala and his son Pablo’s mental illness. Increasingly his pictures were carefully constructed but also captioned with texts, often crudely scrawled or scratched on the images. There is a raw emotionalism and outpouring of grief that is sometimes hard to bear in such texts as ‘She was 21 years old and she lived in this house and I think of Andrea every day.

More recently he worked on a series of photographs of common tools and objects, referring back to the series produced by Walker Evans for ‘Fortune’ magazine when Frank was working as his assistant.


When I wrote this the only other widely available book of Frank’s photographs was The Lines of my Hand published in 1972 which included a range of his work but lacked the coherence of The Americans. In 2003 came London/Wales, and in 2008 a revised edition of The Americans with most images uncropped and some variants. In 2009 Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, gave us scholarly essays with a great deal more information (and more pictures) about Frank and his work. From 2010 on Steidl published a series of half a dozen ‘Visual Diaries’ with photos from his early career together with the later more personal images. But despite all this, The Americans in its earlier editions stands out as the essential Robert Frank and the book that changed photography.

Frank dies

Thursday, September 12th, 2019

Robert Frank whose book ‘The Americans‘ shook up photography when published in 1958 (and 1959 in the USA) died Monday, 9th November 2019. Born on 9 November 1924 in Zürich, Switzerland, he was 94. Frank was clearly one of the truly great photographers of the 20th century.

Studying that book changed photography for many of us, though many like me came to it rather late, though not long after I took up photography in the 1970s. As well as the direct influence there was also the work of a whole generation of photographers that were influenced by it, notably for me Friedlander and Winogrand. If you are a photographer you will probably already own a well-thumbed copy of ‘The Americans‘; if not, rush out and buy one.

In his Vanity Fair article written in 2008 about Frank’s visit to China, Charlie Leduff decribed the book as “his artistic albatross of sorts” and for many of us it stood head and shoulders above his earlier and later work.  It seemed to be a definitive statement that left him little or nothing to say.

Frank went on to make a number of films, of which the best known and almost certainly least seen is the 1969-1972 ‘Cocksucker Blues‘ of the Rolling Stones, never commercially released but which you can watch on YouTube. It’s a remarkably intimate film which epitomises sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and was rather too extreme for the image that the Stones wanted to make public. The sound track includes some great music but much of the speech is for various reasons unclear and if you are not a fan of the music and the musicians the film is difficult to watch other than as a document of that particular age and time.

Some of his other films are more conventional, and perhaps for that reason less interesting. Again for fans of the beats, ‘Pull My Daisy‘ (1959) is required viewing. Directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie and adapted by Jack Kerouac from an act of his play Beat Generation, it has an improvised narration by Kerouac and among others stars Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Alice Neel and David Amram.

Perhaps the best of the obits I’ve so far read is unsurprisingly in the New York Times, but The Guardian is also worth reading, and there a brief note on the BBC web page, and many more.

There are many obituaries of Robert Frank, and I don’t intend to write another, though I’ve previously written about him and his work at some length, though these pieces are not currently available on the web. Since this is no longer available, I’ll revise and post it, or at least some of the more interesting parts of it over the next few days.

The cameras behind the pictures

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

I’ve often written about it being the photographer and not the camera that makes great pictures, but of course most photographers spend far too long talking and worrying about cameras, and many of us own a ridiculous number of them, mostly just sitting unused in cupboards.

Of course there are a few pictures that call out for some very special features in a camera, but most of the great images we know could have been taken by almost any working camera. Back in the days of film it wasn’t too unusual for the images used to advertise Camera X to have by taken by a photographer working with a different manufacturer’s system, and when captions included things like the camera model, aperture and shutter speed these were often rather speculative. Sometimes on my contact sheets I noted the camera used – OM1/ M2 etc – but often it was unrecorded. Now we have EXIF data to go on; with film you only had the markings on the film, which confirmed it was Tri-X or FP4 etc but nothing more.

But I think most photographers will find the article “20 Of The Most Iconic Photographs And The Cameras That Captured Them” of interest, even if as one of the comments points out, it really is “20 famous photographs and photos we found on the internet that we think might come pretty close to what wikipedia says they used“.

It rather shows the lack of proper historic research behind the article when it comes to one of Capa’s D-Day pictures:

Capa was with one of the earliest waves of troops landing on the American invasion beach, Omaha Beach. While under fire, Capa took 106 pictures, all but eleven of which were destroyed in a processing accident in the Life magazine photo lab in London.

We now can be certain, thanks to the exhaustive and painstaking work of A D Coleman and his team, that the “processing accident” was entirely fictional, a story invented by Capa (or possibly suggested to him by military intelligence), who was a great story-teller in words as well as images. The story was never believable – film just doesn’t behave as suggested, nor does processing equipment.

Capa only took 10 images on Omaha Beach (or just possibly 11) before deciding that if he was to get his images back to England in time he had to jump back onto a landing craft. His films will have been developed under military supervision, and it seems almost certain that any images that he took on the approach to the coast will have been censored and destroyed, as the censors were anxious to hide the huge scale of the invasion.

Of course Omaha Beach was dangerous, but by the time Capa arrived (an hour or two later than he claimed) the leading US troops had already made their way well ahead, meeting rather less resistance than on other beaches. But it will still have been a very scary place to be, and the image conveys that through its rawness and lack of sharpness, I think a combination of camera shake and under-exposure combined with overdevelopment. I think experienced darkroom workers at that time lifted the film briefly from the developing tank and held their glowing cigarette behind it to judge development, dropping it back into the developer if the image was too weak.

At least they got the make of camera right – a Contax – though the particular example shown doesn’t look as if it got far out of the showroom and certainly not to war. The same is true of quite a proportion of the others here.

Given what is now known about Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ the comment on this seems rather lacking, and the same could also be said about ‘Afghan Girl’ by Steve McCurry. And perhaps it should be pointed out that several other photographers also took pictures of ‘Tank Man’ in Tiananmen Square (and they probably used Nikons too.) Then there is that ‘Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima’ …

A few of the comments are also worth reading, and some tell rather more than the Bored Panda article about the pictures featured.

A Rich Seam

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

It has been great to see the recent awakening of interest in British documentary photograph from the last 30 or so years of the previous century. The 1970s began well, but by the end of that decade it was an area that attracted little interest and even less funding. Apart from a few who had established a reputation, most were left to continue their work not because of any community of support or wider interest but because of a burning personal conviction.

It was an era when people were beginning to set up galleries and photography was increasingly bought as art (and investment) but while gallery owners might look through portfolios and admire documentary work, often at length, they would then regretfully say “I’d love to show this, but it wouldn’t sell“. And the non-commercial world, increasingly dominated by the world of education had become obsessed by theory, and it became the idea expressed in words that mattered more than any quality of its expression in visual form. Documentary was old hat, and while it might get a showing if sufficiently historical (particularly if its creators had become a part of the established canon) there was little interest in new work – and its value was increasingly questioned.

One major operation that in recent years that has begun to mine this rich seam of largely unpublished work is the series of Café Royal Books, small low-cost volumes published weekly by Craig Atkinson, dedicated to “Publishing, Preserving and Making Accessible British Documentary Photography“. I’ve written about this before, and have to declare an interest in that a few of the many volumes have been of my own work, with another due shortly.

Others too have played a part, among them Bluecoat Press in Liverpool, who have used crowd-funding to finance the publication of a number of fine volumes, including books by Paul Trevor and Trish Murtha. Their latest crowd-funder, already fully subscribed but open for more pledges (and rewards) until  Wed, July 24 2019 10:28 AM BST, is for Coal Town,Mik Critchlow’s epic documentary about the last years of coal mining in Ashington and England’s North East.”

It would be hard to imagine a photographer more embedded in the community he was photographing than Critchlow, who has for 42 years photographed the town in which he was born and lives.

” His grandfather worked at Woodhorn Colliery for 52 year, his father was a miner for 45 years and his two brothers worked for 25 years before taking redundancy shortly after the 1984 Miners’ Strike “

Of course this wouldn’t matter if the photographs weren’t worth looking at, but they show a fine and intimate view of Ashington and its people by a photographer who is clearly aware of the history and possibilities of the medium and capable of using it in a personal fashion. I’m moved by them, and possibly strongly enough to overcome the domestic fatwah on buying any more books. And I know I’ll regret it if I don’t make a pledge.

The north-east, thanks largely to Side Gallery and the Amber-Side Collection was one area of the country where documentary remained in high regard during the fallow years for the rest of the country.

D-Day 75 years on

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

What else could a photographer post on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy but a link to Robert Capa on D-Day, the huge series of investigations into what have since become the iconic images of the event, the 10 or 11 severely undexposed frames made by Capa in the few minutes he spent on the beach before rushing to jump on a boat and get his pictures back to England.

The project, launched 5 years ago today on the 70th anniversary of the event “combines elements of photo history, research in journalism, critical thinking, and media literacy” and the team, led by photography critic and historian A D Coleman of photojournalist J Ross Baughman, photo historian Rob McElroy and military historian Charles Herrick have provided us with a remarkably clear and detailed view of what actually happened on that day and later, in the darkroom and to the present day in creating and promulgating the legends around that handful of pictures.

Doubtless there will be articles published today that retell the invented story of the darkroom mishap, or repeat some of the other fabrications around the pictures made by Capa and others. But knowing the real story – or as much of it as can now be verified – doesn’t in any way detract from the power of the couple of truly iconic pictures.

It seems unlikely that we will ever know who was that ‘face in the surf‘ , though we can now be sure it was none of those who have most publically claimed to be him. I’m not sure we would gain were a positive identification possible – isn’t it better that it remains an ‘unknown soldier’ whose face commemorates the event?

If I didn’t have a busy day ahead of me taking pictures (nothing to do with D-Day) today would be a good time to get out those several books of Capa’s pictures on my shelves and look through them, along with some of the investigations and perhaps a glass or two of wine.

Those of you who would prefer a very much shorter and generally accurate account of the the D-Day pictures you can read Wikipedia’s ‘The Magnificent Eleven’, which also reproduces seven of the pictures.

And should you be in London before 29 September 2019 you can go and see the free exhibition Robert Capa: D-Day in 35mm at the Imperial War Museum, which includes prints of 10 of the 11 photographs taken by Capa on Omaha Beach, as well as “personal accounts and objects related to Allied soldiers who landed that fateful day. ”

Do Not Bend

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

The film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay produced by Grant Scott’s The United Nations of Photography casts an interesting light on photography in the UK in the 1970s at a time when I was just coming into the medium, though so far I’ve only taken a brief look at a few sections of it. The full film is over an hour and a half long, and I hope to have time to watch it all before long – when I may have more to say about it. If you don’t already know something about Bill Jay it would be worth reading the web site above before watching it.

It does contain insights from a number of photographers and others I’ve come across over the years, including a few I got to know fairly well at various times and one who is a good friend I visit regularly, and whose view on it I will be interested to hear.

It has already been shown at a number of screenings here and in the US, but Grant Scott and Tim Pellatt who were the team behind the documentary have now made the film available to view for free on Youtube.

New York Times Women & Glasgow

Monday, April 1st, 2019

Just a short post today, to mention two articles I’ve seen in the last week or so that I think deserve reading. The first, in the New York Times, is very relevant to something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in Women in Photojournalism, and article reminding younger photographers and writers about photography that women have played an important part in photography for many years.

For news photography, it was really the period from the 70s to the 90s that really brought women into the industry in large numbers – and when ,as the ultralong title states The First Female Photographers Brought a New Vision to The New York Times. And to go with that long title is a long sub-title “The generation of talent brought in from 1973 to 1992 changed the paper’s look.

Of course there were women who came before that, such as Christina Bloom, the UK’s first female press rhotographer in the early years of the 2oth century, and Margaret Bourke-White and many more, but they were in a sense exceptions and it was only in the 70s or later that it really became quite normal. Not to say of course that there are not still areas of inequality and prejudice.

On a quite different subject, I was reminded a few days ago of something I’ve written about before and went again to look at the powerful images produced by Raymond Depardon in Glasgow in 1980, available on Magnum with an essay from the book by William Boyd. I’m reminded of when Picture Post sent Bill Brandt to Glasgow and were shocked at the images he sent back, cool and detached cityscapes reminiscent of de Chirico. Immediately they recalled him and sent up Bert Hardy to get his hands dirty on the street, producing a remarkable image of boys on the Gorbal streets. Depardon seems to me to to combine the best of both, surrealism and reality, in his pictures.

By Tower Bridge

Thursday, March 28th, 2019

I first photographed Shad Thames in 1980, though I’d looked down from Tower Bridge a few years earlier. It was a time when I was discovering so many new areas of London to photograph, and also when a very stressful teaching job was taking up far too much of my time – and having two young sons also took up a fair amount of my time. But in April 1980 I moved from an 2000+ comprehensive to a sixth-form and community college, considerably cutting my stress and also reducing my journey times by over an hour a day. It meant a small drop in salary as I was no longer in charge of a department, but gave me more time to spend with my family and on photography.

The area was then largely empty. The last working warehouse had closed in 1972, and some of the buildings had become artists studios, with many also moving in an sleeping there strictly against the law. Some were evicted in 1978, and others after a disastrous fire the following year, leaving the area deserted. The redevelopment only really got into gear in 1984.

It looks better now at night than during the day, when the loss of atmosphere is much more marked. I hadn’t gone to photograph the area, but had arrived early for a protest at Southwark Council offices in Tooley St, so took a walk a little further on. I’d wanted to take a look at St Saviour’s Dock just to the east, but the riverside path was fenced off for the footbridge added there in 1995 to be refurbished so that it can be opened again to allow large boats up the dock.

The footbridge which took the Thames Path across the mouth of the dock was one of the few wholly positive aspects of the redevelopment of the area, saving a diversion to Dockhead and back to the river and should be reopened in the Spring. Here’s what the dock looked like back in 1980.

The colour pictures in 2019 were made with a Nikon D750 with the Nikon 18-35mm  f/3.5-4.5G ED zoom wide open with shutter speeds from 1/15 to 1/40th s at ISO 6400. All were handheld.  Back when I was taking the black and white images I used various films, the fastest of which was Tri-X, nominally rated at ISO 400, and the slowest was Kodak Technical Pan, sometimes rated as low as IS0 5. Then I often carried a tripod, but it’s now years since I did, as most things I photograph have people moving in the frame.

More pictures from 1980 on London Photographs.

More from 2019 at Tower Bridge & Shad Thames.
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Women in Photojournalism

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

A excellent article by an fine photographer, Yunghi Kim, Gas Lighting in Photography, says much that I would have thought but would hardly dare say about a National Geographic article which claims that women are only now making a breakthrough into photojournalism, which the subtitle of her piece calls “Revisionist history threatens to whitewash The Silent Generation — women who paved The Way.”

Kim’s piece is far more detailed than anything I could have written, naming many women photographers (though there are some I could add, including those I’ve known personally and others from way back) who have proved themselves in what was once certainly very much a male-dominated world, and speaking from her own experience. As she says, her list “is largely drawn from US photojournalism” and there are many more from around the world who could be included,

Possibly one might quibble about the year 1997, which she states “was a breakthrough year for women in photojournalism. Looking back now, we established that women stood firmly on an even playing field across the entire industry. We had a collective voice that was raised and listened to by dint of the power and quality of our work” but she makes an excellent case for i. Certinaly as she says it was a year that women for the first time won a great many of the awards, but changes in the industry were surely more gradual and less dramatic than choosing any particular year suggests. 1997 was certainly a year in which it became very clear.

As Kim says to those who want to revise photographic history: “I am here to attest to the historical fact that there were legions of passionate and heroic women photographers who paved the roads you are walking on today. Respect.”

Blind Spot for Pictorialism?

Sunday, March 10th, 2019

Andy Romanoff‘s article,  ‘Even Ansel Adams Had a Blind Spot‘ looks at the continuation of pictorialism in photography after the emergence of straight photography around 1920, which he says ““disappeared” some very important and wonderful photographers from the history of photography“, chief among them William Mortensen and his ‘disciple’ Robert Balcomb.

While it’s true that Mortensen gets little mention in most histories of photography, the contention that Pictorialism is neglected is certainly untrue. Nor was Mortensen really forgotten, but perhaps for good reason ignored. I have a copy of ‘The New Projection Control‘ by William Mortensen, which by 1945 was in its third edition and third printing, one of 8 books by Mortensen then on sale, and when I joined a photographic club in the mid-1970s the great majority or work on display there and in the international salons could stil broadly be described as Pictorialism, still alive if not particularly well.

Although Mortensen was undoubtedly a great technician this did not make him into a particularly interesting photographer, and as Romanoff states:

“In retrospect, although Mortensen’s subject matter was often grotesque and sometimes fell into the kitschy, his mastery of craft was and is astounding. Most people seeing a Mortensen print for the first time find it hard to believe it is a photograph.”

Pictorialism had its great heyday in the years around 1900, and in particular under the curation of Alfred Stieglitz, who established an international movement called the the Photo-Secession and published his magnificently produced Camera Work, from 1903-1917. It is a movement and an age which gets extensively and sympathetically treated by Beaumont Newhall (and I think Ansel Adams) and others in their histories of photography. Perhaps suprisingly Stieglitz doesn’t get a mention in Romanoff’s post, though Edward Steichen, who designed the cover for Camera Work does. It could perhaps be described as a movement which attempted to legitimise photography as art by showing it could produce images that mimicked those produced by accepted artistic printing printing processes using only the manual skills of artists, and which concentrated on the qualities and surface of the print, often involving considerable manual intervention in its production. The object was perhaps to make it hard for people ‘to believe it is a photograph.’

Romanoff’s list of photographers who began as pictorialists but moved on to straight photography is short, and perhaps significantly omits the names of some of its greatest exponents, notably both Paul Strand and Edward Weston. These and others wanted to make work that was purely photographic, some thinking that this was how photography could truly become art, while others felt that photography was a development of the modern age, a replacement, a kind of post-art.  They certainly wanted ot make photographs that really did look like photographs.

Weston’s own struggles with the impact of modernism on photography have been extensively documented by himself and others. His work, and that of other straight photographers, both in the USA and in Europe and elsewhere was new and exciting, while pictorialism remained producing the same old tropes but with less and less creativity.

I’m not a huge fan of Ansel Adams either, but again – as with Mortensen – there is no denying his technical mastery, again encapsulated in his books. His Basic Photo Series, though by then somewhat out of date (and later editions were never quite as good), was the foundation for my own technical education in the medium, though it never led me to try and remake my version of “Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico.”

To some extent the illustrations to Romanoff’s article speak for themselves. William Porterfield‘s image was made during the heyday of pictorialism and neglected only because it isn’t a particularly interesting picture, and the four later examples do little for me. Mortensen (as did Adams) provided the images for  ‘The New Projection Control’, and a pretty dire collection they are, with the before ‘straight’ version he prints of some images often seeming to me very much preferable to his variously pimped version.

I guess it is a matter of taste, and as Mortensen says in his concluding chapter, “Unhappily, there is no known method of teaching taste, good sense and discretion. To such readers as lack these valuable qualities this book will merely discover new ways of making bad pictures.” And it did in spades. As he continues, “Babies will be butchered and ingenues outraged in the name of Projection Control“. And pictorialism.