The emergence of impressionism in painting and photography in the mid-1800s was a key herald of artistic modernism, as the recent exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO, made wonderfully clear. "Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet" combined some 125 remarkable works: paintings by the likes of Monet, Renoir and Pisarro, and photographs by Gustave Le Gray, Edouard Baldus and others. The show's lavish catalogue does thorough justice to these works (information: http://museumstore.nelson-atkins.org/browse.cfm/impressionist-france/4.1988.html) and is worth as much time as one can lavish upon it.
The theme is a broad but important one: how France's national identity was explored in painting and photography at a time when the culture was being transformed by industrialism and new ways of seeing. The focus on landscape connects these painters and photographers, and their visions were often competing; some of them concentrated on France’s modernization, while others emphasized its timelessly rural, anti-modern beautify. Either way, the images transport the viewer to an era of exquisite sensibility and keen experimentation. Familiar as much of it may be, it never fails to compel.
Thus, Monet's beloved views of the railroad bridge at Argenteuil, or Manet's deep-hued painterly depiction of the flagged-draped promenade of the Rue Mosniers meet their photographic match in Le Gray's magisterial photo of shadowed ships departing Le Havre, or Camille Silvy's superb "River Scene," in which the camera catches all the glitter and bourgeois leisure that the impressionists were airily imparting to their canvases. And the grandeur of the Bisson brothers' photo of the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers easily rivals the most glorious of any landscape painting.
As co-curators April Watson and Simon Kelly point out, the pleasure of this landmark exhibition--the first of its kind to showcase works from all over France--lies in seeing how the dawn of modernism was so energetically and lovingly envisioned by a new wave of artists who chose to document the changing and unchanging aspects of their nation, a nation synonymous with enchantment on one hand, artistic rigor on the other.
Across the ocean at virtually the same historical moment, industrialization meant something else. In America, the vast frontier that sprawled westward was being tamed by the transcontinental railroad project of 1865-69, joining the two coasts and affirming that modern technology would shape the nation’s future. Glenn Willumson’s book, "Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad" (University of California Press; information: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520270947) is a scholarly study of how that enormous construction effort was portrayed by the new medium. In its 254 pages, the book is longer on prose than it is on photographic examples, but Willumson's central point is that the birth of photography as a mass medium had two sides in this particular context. On one hand, he cites Mathew Brady’s photos of the Civil War, which brought home the slaughter and sacrifice of the conflict in a way that crystallized the nation’s despair, while on the other, the photography that chronicled the birth of the railroads after the war was a beacon of hope.
"The locomotive, sunlight gleaming on its polished surface, seems to rush away from the viewer and down an apparently infinite line of straight track called a tangent," writes Willumson. "Aligning the metal smokestack of the locomotive precisely along the left edge of the rail creates a vector that projects into deep space. This compositional precision, and the smoke that pours from the stack, combine to give the impression of the railroad's force and speed. In fact, the locomotive was stationary. Nineteenth-century photographic emulsion was not sensitive enough to stop the movement of a train, but by climbing to the top of the locomotive and making the boiler project from the foreground of the image, the photographer deceives the viewer into thinking that the train is in motion. This effect produces a visual manifestation of ambition and optimism..."
Then there is "Illuminating Shadows: The Calotype in 19th Century America," David R. Hanlon's study of the practical advance in photography made possible by the process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot. (Carl Mautz Publishing; information: http://www.illuminatingshadowscalotype.com).
The calotype, or talbotype, was Talbot's answer to the hour-long exposure requirement of early silver print photography. The process required only an extremely faint or completely invisible latent image, which could be achieved in a minute or two if the subject was in bright sunlight. The paper, shielded from further exposure to daylight, was then removed from the camera and the latent image was chemically developed into a fully visible image.
As Hanlon shows, in 245 pages and with 74 illustrations, American calotype photography quickly rivaled the British and French masters of the process. Collectors will want to note that a limited-edition version of the book contains a tipped-in toned gelatin silver print of the Merchant's Exchange Building in Philadelphia, PA, made from a calotype negative created by David R. Hanlon. This edition of 25 signed and numbered copies plus five artist's proofs is priced at $200.
Indeed, the power of the calotype to make photography more immediate had much to do with transforming it into an everyday aspect of modern life. Now there’s a compendium that spans the century from 1840 to 1940. "Antique Photographica: The Collector’s Vision," edited by Bryan and Page Ginns (Schiffer Books; information: http://www.schifferbooks.com/antique-photographica-the-collectors-vision-5099.html), features contributions from 20 collectors and scholars, and ranges from camera obscuras and cyanotypes to autochromes, stereoscopes, and daguerreotypes, as well as American tintypes and ambrotypes, miniature stanhopes, magic lanterns, other optical toys, megalethoscopes, zoetropes, and so on.
Each collector expounds on their photographic passion, and with more than 500 images of cameras and photographs, this catalogue is an entertaining overview of the multitude of photographic arcana that marked the medium's most explosive hundred years. While its scholarship may be circumscribed by the commercial impulses of the various collectors, the sheer profusion of the items on display makes this a coffee-table book extraordinaire.
Finally, and somewhat off the mainstream of vintage photography’s subject matter, there is "Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-10," in which Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer explore the emergence, at the turn of the last century, of the American restaurant and its modern tradition of dining (W.W. Norton and Co.; information: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/repast). This scholarly look at dining--from food ingredients to technologies, meal service, and cuisine--emphasizes how the norms of eating in public were established and how they persist to this day.
The photographic record of this era includes color plates reproducing menus from the New York Public Library's Buttolph Menu Collection, and they amount to fascinating cultural documents in their own right, and further examples of how photography at once preserves and contextualizes the sprawling momentum of societies. In a way, "Repast" perfectly rounds out the complementary paths taken by the four books under discussion here, in that it focuses our attention on a highly specific aspect of Western culture and reveals, with the help of photography's archival precision, how all our achievements, large and small, depend on the details.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.
He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.
(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)