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Perfecting the medium, c. 1900–c. 1945

At the turn of the 20th century, one of the most influential Pictorialist groups was the , founded in in 1902 by photographer . The Secession’s name was taken from the avant-garde secessionist movements in Europe that sought to themselves from what they considered outmoded ways of working and thinking about the arts. With the help of , Stieglitz opened the —popularly known as “291” after its address on Fifth Avenue—which exhibited the work of Modernist painters and sculptors as well as that of photographers who used a wide variety of processes, including -bichromate and bromoil printing. These procedures required considerable handwork and resulted in one-of-a-kind prints that in their softening effects resembled etchings or lithographs rather than photographs. Among the members of the Photo-Secession were Steichen, , and . Between 1903 and 1917 Stieglitz published 50 issues of the beautifully printed journal Camera Work, which contained, among other works, fine gravure reproductions of American and European photographs and reproductions of artwork by and .

The Steerage, photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz, 1907; in the Art Institute of Chicago.The Steerage, photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz, 1907; in the Art Institute of Chicago.Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.847/Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago

Over the 15-year period of the Photo-Secession’s existence, the outlook of Stieglitz and individual members changed, reflecting the general move away from the more artificial aspects of as the 20th century began. Increasingly, photographers wanted their work to look like photographs, not paintings, and valued the qualities that were unique to photography. Over time, 291 began to show more than photography, and, as Stieglitz became even more convinced of the value of “straight,” rather than manipulated, photographic printing, several original adherents fell away, among them Käsebier and White. The final two issues of Camera Work were devoted to “straight” work by , who was the only photographer Stieglitz considered promising at the time. Strand’s images, consisting mainly of views and close-up portraits (made with a 45-degree lens so that the subject was unaware of being photographed), combined pure formal qualities, such as beautiful tone and sharp focus, with intense feeling.

Blind Woman, New York, photograph by Paul Strand, 1916. This photograph appeared in Camera Work in 1917.Blind Woman, New York, photograph by Paul Strand, 1916. This photograph appeared in Camera Work in 1917.© 1971, Aperture Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive

The New Objectivity

In the period immediately following , much photography was characterized by sharply defined imagery, especially of objects removed from their actual . The clean lines and cool effects of this style—variously called the “New Objectivity,” the “new vision,” or “Precisionism”—was a reflection, perhaps, of the overarching role of industry and during the 1920s.

Strand, continuing in the direction he had unveiled in 1917, produced powerful, highly detailed close-ups of machines and organic matter and made sparkling landscapes in Gaspé, Quebec, and the American West. His approach changed again when he was invited to to produce educational films for the government. There he made a series of portraits (again with the prism lens) and landscapes, which he published in 1940 as s. Steichen, who had been in command of for the American Expeditionary Forces, abandoned his earlier impressionistic handling in favour of crisp, sharply focused celebrity, , and product images, which appeared in and . Others whose sharp, well-designed images of industrial products appeared in advertising brochures and magazines included , Paul Outerbridge, and .

A preference for a straight, highly detailed presentation of natural and manufactured forms also characterized the work of photographer . Using large-format (8-by-10-inch [20.3-by-25.4-cm]) equipment with lenses stopped down to the smallest , Weston, whose earlier career had been in commercial portraiture, formulated a method of “rendering the very substance and of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” Further, Weston, like Strand, did not approve of cropping or hand work of any kind on the negative; both held that the final image should be composed in the ground glass of the prior to exposure.

Dunes, Oceano, photograph by Edward Weston, 1936.Dunes, Oceano, photograph by Edward Weston, 1936.© Edward Weston

Several Californians, a number of whom looked to Weston as a mentor, took up the concentration on organic forms and objects and the preference for using the smallest aperture of the lens to create maximum depth of field and sharpness. Known as , for the smallest lens aperture, the group included, besides Weston and his son Brett, and . After seeing Strand’s negatives, Adams decided to pursue photography as a profession, specializing in photographing Western wilderness areas such as and the mountain range. His dramatic photographs masterfully captured the beauty of such natural wonders, and the popularity of his photographs helped raise awareness of the importance of preservation efforts. He also was a teacher of great persuasiveness who advocated the exact control of tonal quality through what he called the “zone system.”

Mount Williamson—Clearing Storm, photograph by Ansel Adams, 1944.Mount Williamson—Clearing Storm, photograph by Ansel Adams, 1944.Ansel Adams

In Europe this approach of favouring extremely sharp definition was known as (“New Objectivity”). Its outstanding proponents were the German photographers and . Blossfeldt made highly detailed and magnified images of plants, removed from their natural habitat. Renger-Patzsch, a professional photographer in , was fascinated by the formal qualities of everyday objects, both organic and manufactured. Like those of his American counterparts, his images featured strong design components and stressed the materiality of substances rather than the maker’s emotional attitude toward the subject. He too believed that the final image should exist in all its completeness before the exposure was made and that it should be an unmanipulated record. His ideas and images, published in 1928 in (“The World Is Beautiful”) and translated into a number of languages, exerted considerable influence on European photography of the time. Hans Finsler, of Swiss origin and working in , Piet Zwart in the Netherlands, and Emmanuel Sougez and in were among the many producing highly defined close-ups of objects and people in a style similar to that of the Neue Sachlichkeit.

A similarly objective approach characterized the work of photographers interested in the artistic ideas embodied in ; the movement proposed that photographs could be a means to present the commonplace from fresh vantage points and thereby reawaken interest in routine objects and processes. This idea, which originated in the and spread quickly to Germany and central European countries during the late 1920s and early 1930s, granted greater latitude for experimentation with form. Its foremost spokesman was Russian painter and ideologue , who employed distinctly unusual vantage points in order to give the world a new appearance. The visual ideas underpinning Constructivism appealed to Hungarian photographer , who reinterpreted them during his first at the in Weimar, then in , , and later at the School of Design in Chicago, where they influenced several generations of American photographers.

Similar ideas were utilized by photographers in Japan, especially following the of 1923. Among those whose imagery reflected the new sharper style, with its emphasis on form rather than atmosphere, was Yasuzō Nojima, who gained a reputation for his incisive portraits, groundbreaking nudes, and landscapes. Shinzō Fukuhara’s photographs, particularly his landscapes, were also highly regarded.

Experimental approaches

By 1916 abstract ideas were appealing to a number of other photographers. Photo-Secessionist , living in , created a series of photographs known as , in which no subject matter is recognizable. During the late 1910s, students and faculty at the Clarence H. White School of Photography (started by another former colleague of Stieglitz), in particular Bernard S. Horne and Margaret Watkins, also produced works that displayed the influence of Modernist abstraction.

Between the two World Wars, an experimental climate—promoted by Constructivist and by Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus—admitted an entire range of new directions in photography. One aspect of this experimentalism involved subject matter and instead creating photographs that more closely resembled abstract paintings. Photographers again manipulated images, experimented with processes, and used multiple images or exposures. Sometimes, rather than experimenting with the camera itself, they experimented with light and sensitized paper. For a brief time this direction was allied with ideas about accident, chance, and the subconscious. One important exponent of photographic experimentalism was the American expatriate Dada artist , whose “,” photographs that appeared as series of swirling abstract shapes, were created without a camera by exposing objects placed on sensitized paper to light.

Cameraless photography, which came to be called “light graphics,” also appealed to Moholy-Nagy and his wife, , who called the products of their experimentation “.” Photographs made by using this kind of manipulation of light could have completely abstract shapes or forms or feature recognizable objects. A number of artists in central also manipulated light and objects to produce abstract images; among them were Jaroslav Rössler and , who eventually taught at the Chicago Institute of Design. There Kepes was instrumental in introducing its methods to American photographers, among them Carlotta Corpron, who produced a series of abstractions by using a device, called a light modulator, favoured at the Bauhaus.

The manipulative strategies of photocollage and montage had considerable appeal during the interwar period in part because—by appropriating “content” from other sources—they could deal with complex political or psychological feelings and ideas. Czech and German artists were especially drawn to this type of experimentation. , , , and were unusually adept in their innovative use of collage and montage to make comments on a range of political and social issues in German society. Heartfield, whose work appeared on book jackets and posters, savaged the political thuggery behind the rise of Nazism by political imagery—for example, a stock photograph of Hitler—with unexpected, provocative imagery. Höch concentrated on portraying the role of the “new woman” emerging in the of postwar German society; for example, the title of one work by Höch, The Cut with the Kitchen Knife, suggests a female domain, yet the image shows women freed from housewifely duties, cavorting among machinery and political figures as part of the world at large. Similarly, montage enabled Soviet Constructivists to suggest complex ideas, as in ’s self-portrait, which drafting tools and geometric shapes to suggest that the artist himself was an architect of society.

Documentary photography

Working mainly in the opening years of the 20th century, French photographer documented shop fronts, architectural details and statuary, trees and greenery, and individuals who made their living as street vendors, producing some 10,000 photographs of Paris and its environs. Unlike many of the architectural photographers before him, Atget showed a remarkable attention to , the materiality of substances, the quality of , and especially the photographer’s feelings about the subject matter. His work was bought mainly by architects, painters, and archivists. The visually expressive force of Atget’s work, produced with a large-format camera, is a testament to the capacity of documentation to surpass mere record making to become inspiring experience.

Shop Window: Tailor Dummies, photograph by Eugène Atget, c. 1910; in the George Eastman House Collection, Rochester, New York.Shop Window: Tailor Dummies, photograph by Eugène Atget, c. 1910; in the George Eastman House Collection, Rochester, New York.George Eastman House Collection

In like manner, although not as extensively, Czech photographer Josef Sudek created an artistic document of his immediate surroundings. He was particularly fascinated with his home and garden, often shooting the latter through a window.

created a similarly thorough document of a subject, in his case immigrant and working-class life in the . One of the first to refer to himself as a social photographer, Hine began his documentation of immigrants at while still a teacher at the School in . Eventually he gave up teaching to work for the National Child Labor Committee, an organization of progressives seeking to make the American industrial economy more aware of its effects on individual workers. From 1908 to 1916 Hine concentrated on photographing child workers, producing thousands of individual portraits and group scenes of underage children employed in mills, mines, canning establishments, and glass factories and in street trades throughout the United States. His work was effective in prompting first state regulation and eventually federal regulation of .

Overseer supervising a girl (about 13 years old) operating a bobbin-winding machine in the Yazoo City Yarn Mills, Mississippi, photograph by Lewis W. Hine, 1911; in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Overseer supervising a girl (about 13 years old) operating a bobbin-winding machine in the Yazoo City Yarn Mills, Mississippi, photograph by Lewis W. Hine, 1911; in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Documentary photography experienced a resurgence in the United States during the , when the federal government undertook a major documentary project. Produced by the (FSA) under the direction of , who earlier had come in contact with Hine’s work, the project more than 270,000 images produced by 11 photographers working for varying lengths and at different times in different places. All worked to show the effects of agricultural displacement caused by the economic downturn, lack of rain, and wasteful agricultural practices in the American South and midlands. In this project, documentation did double duty. One task was to record conditions both on nonfunctioning farms and in new homesteads created by federal legislation. Another was to arouse compassion so that problems addressed by legislative action would win support. A portrait of a migratory pea picker’s wife, made by California portraitist turned documentarian , became an of the anxiety generated by the Great Depression.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, photograph by Dorothea Lange, 1936; in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, photograph by Dorothea Lange, 1936; in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

was another photographer whose work for the FSA transformed social documentation from mere record making into visual expression. On leave from the FSA, Evans worked with on (1941; reissued 1966), a compelling look at the lives of a family of Southern sharecroppers. Although unaffiliated with the FSA, , formerly one of the era’s foremost industrial photographers, also worked in the South. With her husband, writer , she produced (1937), one of the first photographic picture books to appear in softcover.

Documentary projects underwritten by other federal agencies also existed. One of more significant projects was executed by . Inspired in part by Atget’s studies of , she endeavoured to photograph the many parts of and to create “an of past, present, and future.” She was able to interest the (WPA) in underwriting an exhibit and publication along these lines entitled Changing New York (1939). Other urban documentary projects were undertaken under the aegis of the , an association of photographers of varying background and class who set out to document working-class neighbourhoods in New York.

The German portraitist , intent on creating a sociological document of his own, generated a portrait of Germany during this period. His focus was on the individuals composing German society, documenting a class structure with workers and farmers on the bottom. Sander’s inclusion of types not considered Aryan by German authorities brought him into conflict with the Nazi regime, which destroyed the plates for a proposed book entitled Antlitz der Zeit (“Face of Our Time”).

Among the many other amateur and professional photographers who interested themselves in the documentation of everyday life were Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who portrayed everyday life in ; , who created images that offer a psychologically glimpse of Mexican life; and and , both of whom captured vibrant images of everyday life in Paris. Perhaps the most extensive ethnographic documentation was that of , who produced 20 volumes of studies of tribespeople over the course of some 20 years. The enormous interest in how people outside Western culture appeared and behaved was a factor in the increasing popularity of National Geographic during this period.

“Bijou” in Place Pigalle Bar, photograph by Brassaï, 1932.“Bijou” in Place Pigalle Bar, photograph by Brassaï, 1932.Brassai—Rapho/Photo Researchers


Toward the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century, greater numbers of magazines were published throughout the world. The enlarged demand for photographic illustration, along with the appearance of lighter, easier-to-use camera equipment, led to an increase in images of war for reproduction. The was documented by Jimmy Hare, the by Horace W. Nicholls, the by Luigi Barzini, and the by Augustin Victor Casasola. Although strict prevailed with regard to the photographic record of , the prominence of picture from the 1920s through the 1950s ensured the continuance of war reportage.

A new approach to photojournalism began to emerge with the appearance of the in 1924 and the in 1925. These two German-made miniature cameras, fitted with wide-aperture lenses, required extremely short exposure times for outdoor work and were even able to photograph indoor scenes with available . The Leica had the added advantage of using 35-mm roll that could be advanced quickly, allowing a succession of exposures to be made of the same subject. This capability led to photographs whose informality of pose and sense of presence were remarkable.

Owing to these developments, the photojournalist was able to perceive a significant moment in a fraction of a second and to use the camera with such and precision that the instantaneous perception would be preserved forever. This is evident in the work of the Hungarian in during the 1920s. The Frenchman began about 1930 to develop the style that he later called the search for the “decisive moment.” To him the camera was an “extension of the eye.” Preferring the miniature 35-mm-film camera, he worked unobtrusively, making numerous exposures that usually included one in which all the elements come together to form a compelling psychological and visual statement.

Children in Seville, Spain, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1933.Children in Seville, Spain, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1933.Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum

In 1928–29 two of the largest in Europe, the and the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, began to print the new style of photographs. captured revealing portraits of politicians and other personalities by sneaking his camera into places and meetings officially closed to photographers. Felix H. Man, encouraged by , editor of the Münchner Illustrierte, made sequences of photographs at interviews and cultural and social events, which Lorant then laid out in imaginative picture essays.

The example of the German picture magazines was followed in other parts of and in the . One was the short-lived Vu, established in Paris in 1928. An issue of Vu devoted entirely to the contained memorable photographs by . In 1936 both and were conceived in the United States, and a formula evolved in which the picture editor, photographer, researcher, and writer a team.

Among Life’s first photographers were , already famous for her industrial photographs made largely for the magazine Fortune; , an experienced photo reporter for the Keystone Picture Agency in ; Hansel Mieth, also from Germany, who at times worked with her husband, Otto Hagel; and Peter Stackpole, whose photographs of the in San Francisco attracted much attention. The concept of Life from the start, according to its founder, , was to replace haphazard picture taking and editing with the “mind-guided camera.” Photographers were briefed for their assignments and encouraged to take great quantities of photographs so that the editors might have a large selection. (The fact that selection and sequencing were a function of the editors led to objections on the part of some photographers, notably , who left the employ of Life at one point in order to gain greater control over his own work.) The visual organization of the picture story was carefully planned for maximum reader impact. The opening photograph of the photo-essay established the situation, and as with written narration there was a visual climax and a definite conclusion.

Initially Life and Look preferred to use pictures of great sharpness and depth. Thus, instead of unobtrusive miniature cameras, American photographers used large-format cameras requiring slow , large plates, and additional flash light. This way of photographing was challenged by Lorant, who had left the Münchner Illustrierte Presse after being forced to leave Germany in 1934. He eventually settled in , where he established the magazines Weekly Illustrated (1934) and (1938). Staff photographers on both magazines included old colleagues also forced from Germany, such as Man and Kurt Hutton. They and other contributors were encouraged to develop the technique and pictorial style of taking photographs by using available light—i.e., not using a flash. Their pictures had a remarkable naturalness that brought great reader appeal—so much so that Life began to publish similar photographs and in 1945 hired a former Picture Post photographer, Leonard McCombe, with an extraordinary clause in his contract: he was forbidden to use a flash.

The photojournalistic style popularized by Life and Look influenced other activity in the field, in particular the exhibition “Family of Man,” which was mounted by Steichen at the in in 1955. This highly popular exhibition presented over 500 photographs—mostly photojournalistic and documentary work—alongside texts of different sizes and formats, somewhat in the manner of a three-dimensional magazine.

Memorable groups of photographs were taken for the major picture . Examples are Man’s A Day with Mussolini, first published in the Münchner Illustrierte Presse (1931) and then, with a brilliant new layout, in Picture Post; Smith’s Spanish Village (1951) and Nurse Midwife (1951) in Life; and Eisenstaedt’s informal, penetrating portraits of famous Britons, also in Life. Images by Eisenstaedt of the Italian incursion into and by (“Chim”) and Capa of the Spanish Civil War made visible events leading up to . This conflict was thoroughly documented for the Western allies by military personnel as well as by Capa, Bourke-White, Dmitry Baltermants, , and Constance Stuart Larrabee on the North African, eastern European, and western European fronts and by Smith in the South Pacific. Heinrich Hoffman portrayed the war at home and at the front for Germany, and Yosuke Yamahata documented the role of the Japanese army in the South Pacific.

Spanish Village, photograph by W. Eugene Smith, 1951.Spanish Village, photograph by W. Eugene Smith, 1951.W. Eugene Smith

The Autochrome process, introduced in in 1907 by and , was the first practical photography process. It used a colour screen (a glass plate covered with grains of starch dyed to act as primary-colour filters and black dust that blocked all unfiltered light) coated with a thin film of (i.e., sensitive to all colours) , and it resulted in a positive colour transparency. Because Autochrome was a colour and could be viewed only by reflected light, however, researchers continued to look for improvements and colour processes.

In 1935 , and , two American musicians working with the Kodak Research Laboratories, initiated the modern era of colour photography with their invention of film. With this (slide) film, colour transparencies could be obtained that were suitable both for projection and for reproduction. A year later the of Germany developed the Agfacolor negative-positive process, but owing to the film did not become available until 1949. Meanwhile, in 1942 introduced the Kodacolor negative-positive film that 20 years later—after many improvements in quality and speed and a great reduction in price—would become the most popular film used for amateur photography.

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More About History of photography

37 references found in Britannica articles

Assorted References

  • depiction of fashion
  • influence on textual criticism
  • perspective interpretation
  • significance in American Civil War

contribution of

  • Adams
  • Archer
  • Cros
  • DeCarava
  • Daguerre
  • Eastman


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