PRINT Summer 1968


“Photography as Printmaking” at the Museum of Modern Art

“PHOTOGRAPHY AS PRINTMAKING” AT THE Museum of Modern Art provides an unusual opportunity to survey the technical means that are and have been available to photographers as printmakers since the beginnings of the medium in the 19th century. The exhibit points to the distinctly vital interrelationship between technique and photographic esthetics. Approximately seventy works dating from 1844 to the present are included, representing the major printmaking media from daguerreotype, calotype, and other earlier methods to contemporary mixed-media techniques, which employ images in new ways (on metal, in collage, in non-direct color printing). Works by Atget, Hill, H. P. Robinson, Naomi Savage, Stieglitz, Strand, Moholy-Nagy, Jerry Uelsmann and others are featured. It is clear from such a range of methods and approaches that the more techniques available to contemporary photographers, the more confusing are the alternatives for making prints; at the same time the decisions become almost more crucial than those to which painting must submit. (The photographer has to work with certain set chemical limitations with which the painter does not always have to concern himself.) The methods which are open to the photographer, however, are certainly as broad in concept and creative promise as those which are open to painters, and yet the manipulation of these means has surely not been as overtly radical in look as the changes which have occurred in painting during the same period in its development. One realizes, of course, that this has to do with the pictorial definition of photography itself. In its far shorter history, photography has not called for the drastic revamping of scale, nor for the rejection of traditional three-dimensional space which so importantly transformed painting in the 20th century. Even if a print is ultimately worked into the most graphic or indirect version of the original vision, the fact that it is either reduced in scale or telescoped still implies that necessary space. I always find those photographs which attempt to approach the flatness or pattern quality of certain kinds of painting the least successful efforts as photographs. Happily, there are only a few examples of this sort of thing in the exhibit.

A fair number of the most recent works are indicative of the kind of ineffectuality which may result from the eagerness to experiment with many new means. Not all the photographers can be said to have a vision that is sensitive enough to carry through their original intention into printmaking, which demands at least as much, or more, acuity than the primary effort of photographing. There is virtually no such thing as a “straightforward” print (although the craftsmanship or the attitude towards the image might be termed as such), which is perfectly imitative of the reality photographed. That is an obviously naive assumption, but one which is made all too frequently by viewers of photographs. A distinction has been made here by the director of the exhibit, Peter C. Bunnell, between two traditional esthetic approaches: the first is where the straightforward image is interpreted illusionistically, that is through the picture plane; and the second is that in which the emphasis is on the print itself, as a distinct object and an extension of the image. The latter approach seeks to make the medium visible, while the former wishes to make it invisible. In recent years, as in painting, younger photographers have concentrated more and more on making the perceptive and physical means of their art evident. The show is an effort to point out the distinct expressive potentials of these differing means, not just to catalog the processes used in printing. To the extent that the individuals represented by their work have been able to integrate their technical methods with the initial vision, avoiding a sense of arty contrivance, the prints are read as clear and vital works in their own right. However, various recent attempts to extend the use of photographic imagery into mixed media (as far as this exhibition goes) make for an increased complexity to be sure, but also for an unsettling confusion and obscuring of esthetic intention. Most of the non-direct or partially colored work falls into this category.

For the early history of photographic printing, it is instructive to compare the pictures of Robert McPherson (British, 1811–72), Francis Frith (British, 1822–98), or the slightly later Eugène Atget (French, 1856–1927), in whose prints the toning itself lends a delicacy and focus which fortifies their poetic mood. Atget preferred the nostalgic quality obtained with the reddish-mahogany tints and rich velvety brown of the Aristotype print and gold chloride toning, while the two Englishmen worked with contact silver chloride prints for a more pristine silvery-grey image and surface. These men were still working within the concept of the photograph as a window, but this far from ruled out exacting craft and the finest of prints. Three strange and lovely gems from the early period, which rest somewhere between the two approaches out lined by the exhibit, are Steichen’s 1905 Flatiron Building (a platinum and ferroprussiate print on colored paper), Clarence H. White’s 1898 revery in monotone blue (a cyanotype or ferroprussiate print), and William Southgate Porter’s (American, 1822–89) half-plate daguerreotype of a sculptured bust—a cool ghost on a mirrored surface. Precedents for Robert Heinecken’s 1968 Five Figures, a sensitive combination of layers of film, print, and transparent plastic strips, or for Jerry Uelsmann’s superbly eerie photomontage work may be found in the pictures of Henry Peach Robinson (British, 1830–1901). Robinson coupled several negatives within one print, adding painted passages to complete his literary, artificially composed scenes, such as The Lady of Shallot, 1861.

There are many modest, but unique and fascinating little prints. Robert Hunt’s (British, 1807–77) Photogenic Drawing, 1842, a monoprint of leaf silhouettes obtained by some unknown mixture of iron salts on toned paper; James Fallon’s (American, born 1946) xerograph or xerox print on silk; or Owen Butler’s (American, born 1938) and Arthur Freed’s (American, born 1936) Kodalithpaper monoprints, the latter two especially subtle, with their grainy, softly filtered light on a pinkish amber paper, are a few of these fine examples. As usual, color is still an immense problem. From the samples selected for this show, it would seem that photographers who are working in color media are moving more and more towards the graphic arts (lithography, serigraphy) and farther and farther away from the kind of artful precision and purely photographic refinement to which men like Minor White or Edward Weston have brought the craft of black and white printing. What a despairing prospect! Most of the color works are frankly frightful, and no direct color printed or color-dyed prints are shown at all. Maybe no one is doing this well yet, or there are too many commercial interferences. Bert Stern’s gaudy, chic treatment of his Contact Sheet, Marilyn Monroe, 1968, in photo-serigraph is perhaps the most obvious offender. Scott Hyde (American, born 1926) in his tondo of Fruit, 1967, is certainly more tasteful in his use of color (employing a variant gum-bichromate process on vinyl), and he combines this color reasonably well with the photographic image itself. The most problematic works (and the most numerous by one photographer) are those by American Naomi Savage. Miss Savage has done photoengraved (and intaglio printed) plates with painted additions, and the silver-plated copper is then presented as the final product. The means in themselves are suggestive, but her choice and organization of images are quite lacking in the liveliness and bite of her technical workings. This tends to be the case with a large number of the current works, and despite its thorough historical range, the exhibition demonstrated that photography as printmaking is still in its infancy.

Emily Wasserman