PRINT April 1981


Photography: Essays & Images; Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography

THIS ANTHOLOGY IS AN immensely valuable sourcebook for anyone interested in the history of photography. It includes 50 texts of various kinds from all periods of the medium’s past—essays by critics, historians, photographers; interviews with significant figures in the field; news reports of major events; and reports on technical advances—all illustrated profusely, and each introduced by a short background note by Beaumont Newhall. In form it is strongly reminiscent of Nathan Lyons’ 1966 Photographers on Photography. In fact, the two volumes complement each other well—while Newhall’s is weakest in its treatment of the 20th century, Lyons’ book doesn’t even attempt to deal with the 19th.

Before the publication of Essays & Images, many of the included texts could only be found in relatively inaccessible archives. If Newhall had done no more than make available Lady Elizabeth Eastlake’s remarkably intelligent assessment of the medium’s early history and its future prospects, written in 1857, he would have aided photography historians immensely. Many of these reprinted documents have become underground classics—passed from hand to hand, Xeroxed till the type became illegible, in the sort of samizdat publishing that has marked photographic scholarship in the past. To have them collected is a great boon.

But Essays & Images can be looked at another way. Touted in the jacket copy as an excellent companion volume to Newhall’s History of Photography, it raises the question of just how good this version of history is. Moreover, it comes when the photographic world is eagerly awaiting the long-promised third edition of Newhall’s exceptionally influential History. In the 17 years since he issued his second edition, scholars from many fields have uncovered rich veins of significant material in photography. According to one ungenerous but widespread interpretation, the repeated delays in the publication of Newhall’s Third may be the result of cold feet—or judicious caution—in the face of this flood of new information. Essays & Images will obviously be seen by some as a forecast of the next edition of the History.

People who read Essays & Images expecting to find major changes in Newhall’s account of the medium’s past will probably be disappointed. His heroes in 1980 are much the same as in 1964—or in 1937, when the first edition appeared. The figures he chooses as representative of the 19th century are indisputably important. Talbot and Brady, Rejlander and Cameron, Robinson and Emerson—all should be here, and all are. However, serious gaps remain. The French calotypists of the 1840s and ’50s are not represented (although a review of the marvelous, atypical Nadar, and Baudelaire’s polemic against the medium, both from 1859, are included). Too little attention is given to topographical photography of the 19th century—only an 1859 article by Francis Frith and a report on Timothy O’Sullivan’s work, from 1869, deal with the subject.

In treating the 20th century, Newhall is not only recounting and interpreting history, but presenting events and arguments that he has taken an active part in. In the small world that was photography until a decade or so ago, in which everyone of necessity wore more than one hat, Newhall had a whole closetful of caps. As historian, critic, curator and administrator, Newhall has long been one of the leading defenders and propagators of the photographic faith. As such, and as a close friend of various photographers, Newhall has emphasized, in his writing and elsewhere, certain kinds of work—notably the Purist photography of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Strand and others. Purism decreed that photographic quality depends on the photographer recognizing and sticking to the physical characteristics unique to the medium. In his Purist ideals, Newhall has in many ways been photography’s Greenberg. But in his introduction in Essays & Images there’s a surprising sign that Newhall may finally be hedging his historical bets, when he says of the ’30s, “A new academy came into being: Purist photography . . . There was no alternate to this strict doctrine; the limitations of the medium must, they felt, be respected.” In subtle ways Essays & Images ultimately still carries forward the doctrine of Purism, which is represented by half a dozen articles, while other important critical currents, such as Constructivism or Surrealism, are given short shrift.

Finally, Essays & Images is history in the old sense—a recounting of things in the past, presented as if they have no connection to our own time. The two most recent photographers in the book are Aaron Siskind and Minor White, both of whom made their names known in the ’40s. There is no mention of Robert Frank, or street photography, or of photographers working with obsolete printing processes, or of so-called conceptual photography—nothing predicting or reflecting the burgeoning activity of the past decade. Reading this book is as frustrating as getting to the last chapter of a murder mystery and finding that someone has torn it out. Maybe the new edition of the History—when it appears—will let us know who done it.

Charles Hagen


Photography: Essays & Images; Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography, ed. Beaumont Newell, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art), 328 pages, 190 illustrations.