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11.4: Photography and Modernity

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    Over the course of the nineteenth century, photography established a new standard of objective visual truth grounded in the possibility of a direct, unmediated transcription of the real world. Uniquely capable of documenting nature and events with optical accuracy, photography was one of the factors that pushed the arts toward establishing a different basis of artistic truth-one that need not compete with photography's ability to represent the world. Meanwhile, photography introduced its own kind of visual modernity: the modernity of the documentary archive-a compendium of images used to organize new empirical data from the natural and social worlds. The archive served contrary functions: both organizing knowledge and abstracting from human variety for the purposes of social regulation and control. As an instrument of scientific surveys of the West, photography had proved to be a useful tool for promoting colonization and industrial development. But it was also used to document the urban poor, the insane, and the criminal, as well as the ethnic variety of the non-European world, in the process objectifying these people by implicitly denying their human dignity and singularity. Photography was not only a new visual technology, but it was also put at the disposal of an emerging bureaucracy as a new way by which "lower" sectors of society might be classified, analyzed, and managed as information.

    Photography enabled a new form of seeing, of freezing motion, of making the invisible visible and the unknown known. New split-second exposure times made it possible to capture the moment, and photographic studies of animals in motion by Eadweard Muybridge anticipated the motion picture. Photography also democratized the act of image-making through the new portable and inexpensive Kodak camera, giving ordinary consumers a convenient tool for recording private life and shaping personal identity. The rise of snapshot photography put the camera in the hands of millions of Americans, fostering personal whimsy and a 'backstage," less formal view of culture. On the verge of the twentieth century, photography stood at the intersection of scientific and social documentation on the one hand, and the dream factories of mass media on the other.

    Jacob Riis: "Capturing" the Slum

    Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the camera was enlisted in the enterprise of documenting, typing, and locating those who did not already fit the prescribed image of middle-class Anglo-Americans. This middle-class image was itself in part a creation of photography; photographic portraits of middle-class Americans conformed to conventions that dictated pose, attitude, and dress. Through cartes de visite-small, wallet-size posed photographs used as calling cards- middle-class men and women presented themselves to a public of social equals and intimates. For those falling below the middle class- the immigrant poor, the urban underclass of criminals and paupers- other rules applied. Unable to control the terms of their photographic representation, the poor became instead objects of the camera.

    Figure 11.26: JACOB RIIS, Five Cents a Spot, from How the Other Half Lives, c. 1888. Gelatin silver print. Private Collection.
    Figure 11.26: JACOB RIIS, Five Cents a Spot, from How the Other Half Lives, c. 1888. Gelatin silver print. Private Collection.

    Arriving from Denmark in 1870, Jacob Riis (1849- 1914) struggled his way out of poverty to become a police reporter and eventually a crusading reformer for slum clearance and housing reform in lower Manhattan. Riis's photographic expeditions into the slums there resembled police raids; bursting into unlit rooms, he would light a magnesium flare whose explosion furnished the illumination required to photograph in the dark. His subjects were often startled and disheveled in appearance, deprived of any opportunity to compose themselves, and thus of their dignity (fig. 11.26). His preference for night-time and for subterranean haunts reveals a debt to an older genre known as Lights and Shadows-of sensationalistic urban reportage geared toward middle-class audiences. Published engravings and lurid accounts of life in the "city beneath the city" fed fears of the potential for violence lurking in its heart, and produced periodic calls to improve slum conditions.

    Figure 11.27: JACOB RIIS, Bandit's Roost, 59½ Mulberry Street, c. 1888. Gelatin silver print, 19 3/16, x 15½ in (48.6 X 39.4 cm). Museum of the City of New York.
    Figure 11.27: JACOB RIIS, Bandit's Roost, 59½ Mulberry Street, c. 1888. Gelatin silver print, 19 3/16, x 15½ in (48.6 X 39.4 cm). Museum of the City of New York.

    HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES. Riis never thought of himself as a photographer; the camera was merely a convenient instrument for recording the conditions he hoped to reform: trash-filled alleys where children lived stunted lives; coal cellars containing human beings; sweatshops and dens where sleepers were packed floor-to-ceiling. A record of human misery at the heart of Manhattan, Riis's How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) remains disturbing even today. Its title confirmed the social divide separating his subjects from his audience. The book was among the first to use the halftone process, which allowed photographs to be reproduced with text, and comprised one of the first published uses of photography in the service of social reform. Previously, photographs had been translated into line engravings; the half-tone process eliminated this human interpreter, adding "truth value" to Riis's book- an indisputable witness to the "real. " Yet while Riis's photographs stand at the beginning of the documentary tradition, they are also infused with longstanding assumptions about poverty that conditioned what, how, when, and where he photographed. Bandit's Roost, 59½ Mulberry Street (fig. 11.27) is among his most memorable photographs, revealing- in its choice of subject, framing, and point of view- a range of attitudes about his subject. As with many of Riis's photographs, the perspective is constricted, in pointed contrast to the genre of urban panoramas that celebrated the expansive space (and opportunity) represented by America's burgeoning cities. Its narrow crooked alley and feeling of entrapment contrast strikingly with the broad imposing spread of the Court of Honor, the model for civic centers and slum clearance for decades to come.

    Two roughly dressed young men stare threateningly toward the camera; others lean out of windows, ignoring the boundaries between public and private worlds that structured middle-class life. The mix of men and women also raised suspicions about the immoral behavior associated with the slum environment. Barrels of trash and heaps of refuse punctuate our journey through the slums, a counterpart to the human detritus that is Riis's subject. Some of his photographs reveal the struggles of the poor to retain some shred of dignity, drawing a connection across ethnic and social lines. More commonly, however, Riis emphasized the gulf separating viewer from subject; his photographs transformed the slum into a spectacle, joining the lantern slide exhibitions, wood engravings, and moralizing accounts that shaped public perceptions.

    Bandit's Roost leads the eye to a fence running along the horizon line, and revealing only further ramshackle housing. For American audiences, who associated the open horizon with mobility and possibility, nothing expressed the sense of the slum as a physical, moral, and social dead end more powerfully than this. The photographer- Riis himself- occupies an authoritative point of view, inside the scene yet apart from it. This position encouraged viewers to identify with Riis, drawing a safe boundary between themselves and the ethnic and social others who occupy the scene.

    Riis's considerable professional ambitions as a self-made immigrant were tied to an attitude toward the poor that made them actors in someone else's play. Yet his career also demonstrates the ability of photography to expose areas of social life that had remained hidden. Although objectifying the poor, such exposure opened immigrant neighborhoods to improved living conditions, education, and early forms of social welfare, while submitting them to middle-class norms of behavior and measures of value.

    The People Take the Pictures: Democratizing Photography with the Kodak

    While photography might be a means of enforcing social norms, it also served other, more personal uses. The advent of the dry-plate process in 1879 freed the photographer to prepare the plate in advance and develop it any time after exposure. The appearance of the small, portable Kodak camera in 1888 further put photography within the reach of ordinary Americans. No more heavy box cameras, no more challenging preparation of wet plates requiring precise exposure and volatile and toxic chemicals. Now all that was required was to point the camera at the desired subject and press the shutter. "You press the button, we do the rest," as an early Kodak advertisement put it. Such ease of use, along with faster film speeds that could capture spontaneous action, helped realize a democratic revolution in image-making. Amateur photography grew exponentially; anyone who could afford a camera could now create images that recorded personal histories and desires. Amateurs produced offbeat, sometimes humorous responses to public life, at times knowingly ironic in their "behind the scenes" glimpses of official events, such as World's Fairs. Lacking artistic intention, blurry and spontaneous in appearance, and randomly composed, snapshots possess their own aesthetic, reminding us of the unscripted passages of everyday life, in contrast to more staged presentations.

    "Modernizing Vision": Eadweard Muybridge and Instantaneous Photography

    Figure 11.28: EADWARD MUYBRIDGE, "Sallie Gardner" running at a 1:40 gait, June 1878, from The Horse in Motion. Albumen print, 4 X 8⅛ in (10.3 x 20.7 cm). Kingston-upon-Thames Museum, England.
    Figure 11.28: EADWARD MUYBRIDGE, "Sallie Gardner" running at a 1:40 gait, June 1878, from The Horse in Motion. Albumen print, 4 X 8⅛ in (10.3 x 20.7 cm). Kingston-upon-Thames Museum, England.

    Between 1872 and 1878, Eadweard Muybridge (1830- 1904), an English photographer based in San Francisco and already known for his mammoth landscape views of Yosemite, did a series of photographs that transformed the view of the world as seen by the naked eye. Under the patronage of Leland Stanford-railroad magnate, industrialist, and founder of Stanford University-Muybridge devised a method for photographing a horse in motion using a series of cameras spaced at 21-inch intervals and attached to wires that were tripped as the horse galloped down the racecourse (fig. 11.28). Coupled with electrically powered shutter speeds of up to 1/1000th of a second, Muybridge's stop-action photographs revealed a new reality that broke time and motion into discrete, measurable, and visible units. Later, in the mid-1880s, Muybridge worked at the University of Pennsylvania with painter Thomas Eakins, producing over 20,000 studies of men jumping, boxing, wrestling, fencing, and batting, and of women dancing and making beds, as well as numerous animal species, from birds to lions, trotting, galloping, and flying. Winnowed down to 781 plates, each with multiple exposures, these were published as Animal Locomotion in 1887.

    Unlike the optical effects explored by Impressionists in these decades, stop-action photography employed the objectivity of the camera rather than the subjectivity of the human eye. Which form of knowledge carried greater authority: the scientific or the artistic? The mechanical or the mental? Writing in 1881, one critic pronounced that "[T]he artist must fail when he attempts to depict what is, instead of what seems to be."12 Instantaneous photography contributed to a growing skepticism about the evidence of the senses and this served to redirect artistic investigations of the world toward the expressive and the conceptual.

    Muybridge's stop-action photographs contributed in one further way to the foundations of twentieth-century visual culture by furnishing a basis for motion picture technology. As early as 1879, Muybridge's ''zoopraxiscope" sequenced glass slides around a 12-inch spinning disc, illuminated by light from a magic lantern. The resulting flickering projection created a primitive form of movie predating the experiments of Thomas Edison. Running a closely timed sequence of still photographs through a projector, at approximately twenty-four frames per second, created the illusion of real-life action and motion. Through a principle known as the "persistence of vision," the retinal after-image filled the gap between frames, resulting in an illusion of seamless continuity. Such photographic effects became the basis for film: the most perfect illusion of life, a stream of never-ending sensation and experience that cinema, more than any medium before it, was now capable of grasping.

    This page titled 11.4: Photography and Modernity is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.

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