PRINT February 1983


Photography: A Concise History

BEFORE 1949 HISTORIES OF PHOTOGRAPHY had been essentially, often exclusively, chronicles of inventions and technical improvements, although a few also had treated photography as an aspect of social history. Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography (1949), which grew out of his historical exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937, was the first to concern itself primarily with the pictures themselves, rather than with the means by which they were made or their worldly content.

Newhall treated technical inventions not as neutral events in a continuous chain of progress but as opportunities for a new kind of picture. He also gave an unprecedented role to photographers’ intentions and circumstances and applied his critical judgment to the esthetic form and artistic content of the pictures. Most importantly, in organizing his History Newhall abandoned the simple linear chronology of the older histories, and attempted to identify and trace artistic as well as technical traditions.

Newhall worked in an environment of increasing sympathy toward ambitious photography. Alfred Stieglitz and László Moholy-Nagy, among others, had claimed high-art status for photography and had supported that claim with their own fine work and with polemical publications. In 1931, art historian Heinrich Schwarz had published an influential study of the photographs of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, had included photography in his original plans for the museum and had invited Newhall to prepare the exhibition of 1937. That same year Edward Weston became the first photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In addition, Newhall had as a resource Josef Maria Eder’s exhaustive technical history Geschichte der Photographie (History of photography), of which the fourth and final edition was published in 1932. He doubtless also profited from two books that appeared after his 1937 exhibition but before his book of 1949: Georges Potonniée’s Cent ans de photographie (1839–1939) (1940) and Raymond Lécuyer’s Histoire de la photographie (1945). The latter two books, however, continued to treat photography less as an art than as a glorious invention of the industrial era, such as the railroad or the steam engine.

In other words, Newhall did not lack encouragement or factual resources; what he lacked was a model, Thus the 1949 edition of his History, although superseded by revised editions of 1964 and 1982, will remain a great landmark: it is the first synthetic survey of the history of photography considered as a form of art. So thoroughly have we absorbed Newhall’s formulations, so busily are we attempting to revise them, that we rarely acknowledge directly how much we have depended upon them. Others may have gathered many facts before him; others may deserve more credit for establishing photography as a branch of art; but Newhall was the first to write the history of photography as a branch of the history of art.

Since 1949 and especially in the last decade, the number of publications on the history of photography has grown rapidly. However, there has been no successful challenge to Newhall’s book as the standard historical survey. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s History of Photography (1955; rev. ed. 1969), which might be considered such a challenge, is not so much a history as a useful compendium of essential and inessential facts. The Gernsheims’ Concise History of Photography (1965) is also long on names and dates and short on critical analysis.

Now we also have Photography: A Concise History by British art historian Ian Jeffrey. Like Newhall’s History it is relatively short, intended as an introduction rather than a scholarly resource. In most other respects Jeffrey is more independent of Newhall’s example than one would have thought possible. Nevertheless it is worth recalling. Newhall’s accomplishment and its recent date. For the most original feature of Newhall’s book—the attempt to account for the artistic aspect of the history of photography—is Jeffrey’s nearly exclusive concern. Remarkable throughout the book is Jeffrey’s readiness to take any photograph as an object of esthetic and especially philosophical contemplation. He never feels obliged to defend the exclusivity of this approach, nor to dwell on the original functions of the photographs, which were often far from purely artistic, and which play a large role in Newhall’s work. In this sense Jeffrey’s book marks the triumph of the notion that any photograph, no matter how mundane its original purpose, is, like any work of art, a potential vehicle both of beauty and of intellectual content.

This notion, now transformed into an unexamined assumption, has given us license to interpret a particular photograph as the product of an individual artistic temperament and the photography of a given period as a reflection of its esthetic, social, and philosophical outlook. Jeffrey has embarked upon this sort of interpretation with impressive zeal and with a healthy irreverence toward conventional historical formulations. With certain important exceptions, however, he has failed to replace these formulations with new ones. As a result this history is curiously ahistorical.

The best and most original parts of the book appear in Chapter Four, “Small Worlds: Thomson in China; Emerson in the Fens; Curtis among the North American Indians; Ponting in the Great White South,” and Chapter Nine, “The Human Condition: Civilization under stress—photographic responses to economic crisis, war, industrialization and mass society, 1930–50.”

The first of these two chapters deals mainly with late 19th- and early 20th-century photographers who worked in rural areas, geographically and socially remote from the sophisticated modern cities of Europe. Their pictures, often conceived and published in series, with explanatory texts, mixed serious anthropological reporting with nostalgia for an uncorrupted preindustrial past, where simple values and hard work prevailed. This sort of imagery, which has its modern origins in the Barbizon School of painting, receives considerable attention in most histories of 19th-century art. But I believe Jeffrey is the first writer to recognize that this imagery also forms an important photographic tradition, reaching well into the 20th century.

The hero of this tradition is Peter Henry Emerson, who is universally regarded as a key figure in photographic history, and whose pictures of life in East Anglia are revered as classics. Yet historians of photography rarely discuss these pictures, much less their content. Most writers have focused almost exclusively on Emerson’s role as a vigorous polemicist in what is generally called “The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art”—the subtitle of the standard work on Emerson, written by Nancy Newhall (1975). Besides shortchanging Emerson’s outstanding achievement as an artist, this approach has doubtless encouraged those writers who are more comfortable with theoretical positions than with the pictures themselves. Jeffrey’s treatment of Emerson and his artistic kin—Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, Edward Curtis, Doris Ulmann, and others—ignores Emerson’s artistic politics, but it brings us back to the pictures, or at least to their thematic content. It comes as a welcome (and I think durable) corrective, and has the feel of an original perception based on affection for the work.

This quality is also evident in Chapter Nine, which concentrates on small-camera European photography between the wars and up to 1955. Jeffrey begins conventionally enough with an account of the new hand-cameras and the rise of the picture magazines in the 1920s, and with the early work of André Kertész and Brassaï. But he is less concerned with the technical innovation (and the pictorial opportunities it created) or with the industry of photojournalism per se than with the continuity of what he calls “human interest photography”—the sympathetic observation of ordinary people and everyday events. Thus Henri Cartier-Bresson is presented as not so much a pioneer of a new style as a chronicler of French society, and his later, more lyrical, less formally rigorous work gets a good deal of attention. So, too, does the generation of French photographers, such as Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, who adapted Cartier-Bresson’s style to ever more intimate themes.

Jeffrey observes at the opening of the next chapter that “human interest photography culminates in the Family of Man exhibition [at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955]. From the late twenties through to 1955 photographers continued, despite a succession of cataclysms, to put their faith in conviviality and the dignity of man.” I doubt that everyone would accept this generalization without reservation, but it does contain a useful partial truth. We have become so impatient with what we see as the morally naive message of “The Family of Man” that we tend to think of Edward Steichen’s grand idea as entirely his own, unrelated to the artistic ambitions of individual photographers. Jeffrey shows that the theme of the exhibition was also a genuine, although by no means exclusive, theme of photography in the decades just before and after World War II.

Like Jeffrey’s reinterpretation of Emerson, his refreshing attitude toward product of his enthusiasm for those photographers who he feels have presented a positive case for mankind, often at the patent exclusion of anything disturbing or unfamiliar or modern. His preoccupation with this reassuring theme is more productive and persuasive in Chapter Four than in Chapter Nine. It is not true, as Jeffrey implies in the latter chapter, that all European reportage between the wars can be contained under the rubric of bland optimism. The conclusion, for instance, that “Brassaï’s underlying subject was conviviality” (page 186) is disarming in its simplicity, but it hardly does justice to the gritty, mysterious, and bluntly unromantic character of Brassaï’s best work. In general it seems that Jeffrey, perhaps unconsciously, has favored the simplistic message of magazine editors and publishers of the day over the far more varied achievements of individual photographers.

Jeffrey’s method of presenting the history in terms of a general philosophical theme, although productive in these two chapters, is the essential problem of his book. Repeatedly and throughout the book the barest outline of facts about a photographer or group is followed directly by the broadest and most abstract interpretation of the thematic content of the work. Rarely are such interpretations convincingly based on an account of the practical function of the pictures, or the way they were made, or the pictorial traditions that formed them. There are plenty of facts in the book, most of them apparently correct, but they do not seem to have been chosen according to a consistent plan, nor are they often connected in’a productive way to Jeffrey’s general conclusions.

For example, it is possible to infer from the text that Eugène Atget made his living from his photographs and that Alfred Stieglitz did not, but Jeffrey refers to this crucial difference obliquely, as if the reader already understood its significance. Here as elsewhere, historical conditions and practical considerations are submerged under and blurred by the generalized interpretations, so that it is difficult to extract a simple outline of who did what when, or to see how these facts might support Jeffrey’s views.

This fault is compounded by the author’s striking indifference to some of the most fundamental and widely debated issues in photographic history. Perhaps most crippling is his persistent failure to explore the relationship between the technical and artistic histories of photography. Most of the little technical information that Jeffrey provides is relegated to a brief and poorly organized appendix. The invention of photography and its prehistory, which are staples of most survey histories, are not mentioned at all in the main text.

Perhaps most surprising, for a work by an art historian, is the absence of any sustained treatment of the relationship between photography and painting. An occasional reference to a painter or school of painting does little to remove the persistent impression that for Jeffrey photographers have operated in nearly complete isolation from the other arts. In addition, Jeffrey is insensitive to the photographs as pictures. It is difficult to find more than a few cases in which his analysis or description of a photograph would not apply equally well to its subject matter. It may be true, for example, that Cartier-Bresson “is a prime originator of a modern image of the French as an idiosyncratic people,” but Jeffrey fails to mention that he is also a prime originator of a profoundly influential style of graphic simplicity and economy.

Naturally there are some exceptions to these criticisms, but they hold for the book as a whole. Instead of the standard components of art-historical exposition—technical means, artistic biography, practical function of the works, pictorial and iconographic tradition, formal analysis—Jeffrey offers us for the most part his own intuitive interpretations. It is as if he had considered each picture or body of work sui generis and attempted to discern by his own lights its deepest philosophical meaning, and occasionally also its relevance to contemporaneous social conditions. Because Jeffrey has pursued this strategy with considerable diligence his observations are often original and sometimes instructive. But with disturbing frequency they seem to have more to do with his own outlook than with the pictures. He is, for example, evidently fond of irony and quick to notice it: “[Rembrandt’s] is an ironic art” (page 40); “In other words [J. Craig] Annan worked ironically” (page 100); “[Edward Weston] was an ironist, in a very fundamental sense” (page 149); “[Walker] Evans, an ironist through and through” (page 176); “Both [André] Kertész and Brassaï are ironists” (page 186); “[Diane] Arbus, photography’s most desperate ironist” (page 216).

I do not doubt that there is an element of irony in the work of all of these artists. The problem is not so much the intuitive and often highly abstract character of Jeffrey’s interpretations as the absence from the book of a fabric of historical and critical exposition which might allow us, for example, to distinguish one photographer’s brand of irony from another’s.

Occasionally Jeffrey’s preoccupation with thematic content has led him to a fruitful revision of a particular historical episode, as in Chapter Four. More often his philosophizing is not supported by a historical structure; it substitutes for one. It might be said that this is not a history at all but a series of short, speculative essays. Insofar as the book seems to have a structure, it is a familiar one: pages 45–47 are similar in outline to Newhall’s chapter “Pictorial Effect,” and pages 48–61 to Newhall’s chapter “The Faithful Witness.” But these nods to the generally accepted outline are too infrequent to lend much order to the sprawling narrative. The book’s chapter divisions rarely carry much explanatory weight; they act instead as neutral envelopes for loosely related discussions of particular photographers and topics.

The prime example of this lack of coherent structure is Chapter Seven, titled “European Society and American Nature: August Sander, Eugène Atget, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston—two classifiers and three exponents of photographic seeing.” Jeffrey is right to group the two great cataloguers, Sander and Atget, although he does so by divorcing them from the rest of photographic history. But why are they grouped with the other three? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the chapter was required because these five outstanding photographers had no other place in Jeffrey’s scheme, a conclusion that does not encourage blind endorsement of the scheme as a whole.

Almost all of the other acknowledged masters are accounted for in one place or another, although a number of Jeffrey’s inclusions and omissions strike me as odd. Most of the more surprising choices come at the beginning or the end of the book: Gustave Le Gray is mentioned only once in passing and his work is not illustrated at all, while the charming but minor Welshman John Dillwyn Llewelyn is honored with two illustrations and a lengthy discussion. Minor White (no illustrations), whose achievement and influence seem beyond dispute, appears briefly in the course of a longer passage on the contemporary British photographer Raymond Moore (one illustration). Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, old masters in status although not in age, each get a paragraph, but instead of illustrating their work, Jeffrey gives us full-page reproductions of undistinguished pictures by Laurence Cutting and Kurt Benning.

These distortions, and many others less easily explained by national pride, are matched in the bibliography, which omits such indispensable works as Josef Maria Eder’s History of Photography (1932, trans. 1945) and Robert Taft’s Photography and the American Scene (1938), and such basic primary texts as Emerson’s Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889) and Charles Caffin’s Photography as a Fine Art (1901), all of which are available as reprints.

Fortunately there is no such thing as an absolute canon of photographic masters. However, Jeffrey’s choices often seem less original than eccentric because they are not justified by any evident hierarchy of historical significance or artistic quality. We may argue with Newhall’s critical bias, but we may wish that Jeffrey had one.

In considering the problems of Jeffrey’s book, it is useful to compare New-hall’s exhibition catalogue of 1937 (reissued in 1938 as Photography: A Short Critical History) with Newhall’s History of 1949. The earlier text consists primarily of short pieces on individual photographers and issues, with little attempt to draw connections among them. The later book organized that material into 14 coherent chapters. The work is not seamless—some chapters are organized around formal issues, others around subject matter or technical innovations—but although imperfect, the achievement of synthesis is remarkable. Newhall’s accomplishment reminds us that a useful history is not a collection of more or less valid interpretations but a synthetic structure that clarifies the differences and relationships among the various components of its subject.

Jeffrey’s book is based on a substantial amount of research and is full of original observations and insights. However, only those who already possess a working knowledge of the history of photography will be able to appreciate its particular contributions.

Peter Galassi is an associate curator in the Department of Photography of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Ian Jeffrey, Photography: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 248 pages, 136 illustrations.