By Kim Bell (Stanford, CA, USA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2020, 323 pp.)
Reviewed by A. David Wunsch
The cover of Good Pictures is a visual pun that would probably be lost on anyone under the age of 30, reared on digital photography. It is a shade of yellow as unmistakable as the green on a John Deere tractor. This yellow was the color of Kodak film boxes and papers for over 100 years. But the title too is a riff on another Kodak product: How to Make Good Pictures: A Book for the Amateur Photographer. The work was first published in 1910 and went through numerous editions before expiring, with the near-death of Kodak, late in the last century. On the flyleaf of Kim Bell’s handsomely made book, we find the cover of one such early edition in the faded sepia so redolent of photography’s past.
Good Pictures is about the history of photography, but it is not a comprehensive textbook from which to learn the history of this subject from its earliest days in 19th-century France to the present. Its focus is narrow: it is largely about the advice given to photographers—mostly amateurs—on the techniques they should use to improve their work. Of course, the advice is intimately tied to technological developments in photography as well as the desire of camera makers to sell new products.
The book is not strong on technical details. It begins with Daguerre’s work in 1839, which allowed for the production of an image on a metal plate—a one-off product with no accompanying negative that could allow for the production of multiple images from a single exposure. By the 1850s, thanks to the efforts of such chemists/photographers as William Fox Talbot, the collodion process, which used wet glass-based photographic plates, allowed for multiple prints from the same exposure. Books began to be produced with individually produced tipped-in prints. The requirement for using a wet process meant that the procedure required a good deal of skill to master. Bell’s book is light on technical content and in her discussion of 20th-century photography she assumes that the reader has the knowledge possessed by a reasonably sophisticated amateur who would know about emulsion speed, f stops of lenses, and the fact that changing the f number alters the depth of focus of the lens.
The advice given to photographers has been intimately tied to technological developments in photography as well as the desire of camera makers to sell new products.
Photography in the 19th century was, except for the work of a few scientists, an art form that produced only black-and-white images. But in the 1840s, there came into being a fad to hand-color photographs to give them the appearance of a painting. Bell describes purists who argued that this was not being true to the art form of photography, but the practice existed for about four decades. The emergence of this technique is a signifier of something one sees throughout the history of photography: an attempt to confer dignity on the art by seeking to echo an older-established art form.
An interesting example of the quest for gravitas is in Bell’s chapter, “The Rembrandt Effect.” In the 19th century, as of now, the portraiture of the painter Rembrandt van Rijn was held in awe. In 1868, the eponymous effect in photography was invented by William Kurtz of New York City who used lighting in his portraits to evoke the shadows of the master painter. Typically, half the face was cast into semidarkness and Kurtz accomplished this by redirecting light with reflecting panels. A photographer’s publication Bell quotes remarks “shadow pictures [are] quite the rage.” One critic in Kurtz’s era wisecracked that the effect “could turn Molly the cook into Lady Macbeth.”
Other tricks evolved in the 19th century that would give a photograph the romance of great landscape painting—Bell tells us how a negative with a good set of clouds could be imported into an image made from a negative with no clouds. Anyone doing such a trick today with Photoshop should know that the ploy was described in photo books in the 1850s.
Not mentioned by Bell—and it should have been—was the invention in 1884 of a photographic process involving dry plates. The inventors were the Stanley brothers of Maine who became famous for their steam cars. The plates were sold directly to photographers, relieving them of the necessity of trying to smooth coat a chemical onto a glass plate before making a picture. Seeing the possibilities of such an invention, George Eastman began marketing a celluloid-based dry roll film in 1888 with a camera whose slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest.” The camera came equipped with film and, once it was exposed, the camera, with the roll inside, was sent off to the Eastman Kodak factory to be processed and returned together with fresh film and prints and negatives from the previous use.
Throughout the history of photography there is an attempt to confer dignity on the art by seeking to echo older-established art forms.
The first Kodak cameras were expensive: $25 bought you the box camera preloaded with film. This was three weeks of an average salary. Subsequent use of the camera: film, developing, and a fresh roll of film, came to $10. But by 1900, costs tumbled and the country was transfixed by “photographic fever” that lasted for decades. Advice books like Kodak’s on taking good pictures sprang up with rules: in taking portraits, do not have the subject looking into the camera; and in landscapes, foreground, sky, and middle distance should have certain proportions. Considering the sea change that Kodak created in photography, which lasted well into the digital photography era that we are still experiencing, it is puzzling that more of Bell’s book is not devoted to that company: there is one chapter of five pages. What this transformation established was that nearly all photographs taken would be processed by third parties, and any privacy of the work would be compromised.
The struggle for the legitimacy of photography as a serious art form was playing out in the latter half of the 19th century as photographers turned to soft focus lenses to give their work a “painterly style.” The trend was promoted in the early 20th century by Alfred Stieglitz, photographer, gallery owner, and publisher of the prestigious journal Camera Work where he presented the work of such figures who were to become popular later in the century as Clarence White, Edward Steichen, as well as Stieglitz himself. Because photography was a medium now open to anyone who could push a button, and any fool could make a reasonably sharp picture, Stieglitz and his followers urged a manipulation of images to give them a painted look which became known as pictorialism. This often involved a soft-focus lens to yield pronounced atmospheric effects as well as darkroom techniques, which were more difficult to produce than the straight silver-halide-based photographs of Kodak. In an attempt to give photography the weight and prestige of painting, practitioners resorted to emphasizing smoke, clouds, and fog. The irony is that in an effort to be taken seriously, these photographers sought to create the aura seen in paintings of the previous two generations. Think of Monet’s famous paintings of the Gare Saint Lazare of 1877, for example, filled with the steam and smoke of railroad engines (see https://smarthistory.org/monet-the-gare-saint-lazare/). However, the interesting work in early 20th-century painting was cubism which of course involved a high degree of abstraction. Pictorialism slowed, circa 1917; a defining moment is Paul Strand’s essay—in Stieglitz’s own magazine—calling for “straight photography” which argued “that the full power of a medium is dependent upon the purity of its use.” Stieglitz himself was to abandon pictorialism and most of the great photographic work of the last century that we admire today, for example, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Diane Arbus adhere to this dictum of purity.
The 20th century, like the 19th, was a period of enormous technological change in photography. The Leica camera was introduced in 1924 and employed the 35-mm film size already in use for movies. With its small size, sharp lenses, fast focal plane shutter, and inconspicuous appearance, it began a trend to 35 mm that was to taper down only in the late 1980s with the introduction of the first digital cameras.
Stieglitz and his followers urged a manipulation of images to give them a painted look which became known as pictorialism.
Anyone could make color slides with the introduction of Kodachrome in 1936; Bell fails to mention how incredibly slow (insensitive) the film was by present-day standards—its speed was ASA 10. There were other limitations on color work. Advice books were cautionary about avoiding photography immediately before sunset or just after sunrise to avoid giving pictures an abnormal color. Bell does treat the implicit racism in these same books: they assumed people being photographed were white.
Regrettably, Bell devotes only one chapter, of just five pages, to Polaroid photography. The camera and its film were introduced in 1948, enjoyed great popularity, and died a slow death in the digital era. Like the first Kodaks, they were expensive and like them improved in affordability. Polaroid was an “instant camera.” You took a picture and then passed the film for that exposure through a pair of rollers on the camera, crushing a pod that smeared the film with a chemical, and minutes later, after peeling apart the print from a sheet of developer/negative, you could have a nearly postcard size print. The invention became a major threat to Kodak, which attempted to produce a competing system and ended up being sued, successfully, for patent infringement. Bell notes how some photography magazines promoted creative techniques not endorsed by the Polaroid Corporation, for example, during the developing process, which required a brief wait, one applied the gooey negative of the print to another surface, for example, paper or metal. The result often had the “romantic feel” of a painting. Very popular in the 1990s, the practice became known as Polaroid “image transfer.” Other experimenters placed the film, before or after exposure, in toaster ovens or freezers to produce unexpected or “artistic” effects. We are a long way here from Strand’s straight photography.
Bell misses here a consequential effect of Polaroid on the practice of photography. The middle man or woman in a processing lab who developed a photographer’s work was eliminated, thus opening the door to amateur productions of pornography and sexually transgressive work. No postal authorities, police department, or child welfare agency would be notified. Although this subject might merit an entire book or a PhD thesis, this use of the Polaroid medium is ultimately of greater historical significance than the placing of Polaroid film in an oven. There is an abundance of sources on this subject, not in hobbyist’s magazines, that Bell might have cited, for example, John Updike’s 1982 novel Rabbit is Rich or Mia Farrow’s famous discovery in 1992 of Polaroid pictures in Woody Allen’s apartment of her nude college-age adopted daughter.
It seems as though photography has come, in a strange way, full circle in 120 years
We are of course now in the age of digital photography. Most of the advice given to digital photographers is derived from photographic websites, YouTube, as well as magazines of general interest (e.g., Glamour) where the expectation is that their readers are taking pictures with their smartphones. Bell uses these resources and one learns, not surprisingly, that “selfie” photographers were warned early to place the camera above their head level. A lower camera might well result in a detailed shot of the photographer’s nostrils.
One of the curious developments in digital photography derives from a kind of dubious nostalgia that stems from filters. The photographer’s filter dates back to the 19th century and was fit over the lens. Originally intended to darken skies, dramatize clouds, and later, in the age of color, to improve skin tones, the filter has now achieved a different meaning. The same tools, now very popular, are available on such websites as Instagram when you upload your photos. Depending on your “filter” settings, you can make your images appear as though they were taken with a 1950s-era camera loaded with film and flashbulbs. It seems as though photography has come, in a strange way, full circle in 120 years—Stieglitz was once promoting the use of photographs looking like paintings of a previous generation, while now the photographers seek to enliven their work by making it look like film-era photography. Curiously, there is now a contentious “no filter movement” reminiscent of Paul Strand’s plea for straight photography.
As you may have gathered, Bell has covered a lot of territory in going from Daguerre to digital photography in 300 pages. The book is well-produced with striking images. If I were teaching a course on the subject, I would assign it to my students along with other more comprehensive works.
A. David Wunsch is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, MA, USA. He is the Book Review Editor for IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. Contact him at David_Wunsch@uml.edu.
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