January 29, 2009
The conventional art historical narrative of art photography's passage from Pictorialism to modernism that has been handed down to us is a well known one.
Florence Henri, Street scene with a woman, 1931, gelatin silver photograph
Two years after the 1913 Armory Show introduced modern French painting and sculpture (including Cubism) to the United States, Paul Strand made a series of close-up photographs that were crisply lit, dynamically composed and superficially abstract. Alfred Stieglitz, then America's arbiter of art photography, renounced the then-prevailing style of gauzy Pictorialism and announced that henceforth photography would be free of the shackles of painting.
Strand's pictures, published in 1917 in the last issue of Stieglitz's magazine Camera Work,' are held to have resulted in a new era in which photographers engaged the medium's unique properties and capabilities. According to Strand, photography's uniqueness rested on its ''absolute unqualified objectivity.'' The new style that emerged - unmanipulated, unsentimental and sharply focused - was given the label ''straight photography,'' and was held to be inherently and essentially photographic. Thus modernist photography was born. The key names are Stieglitz, Strand, Edward Weston, Walker Evans et al (including Paul Outerbridge, Ralph Steiner).
Florence Henri, Composition with ball and mirror, 1930
This form of modernism was picked up in Australia in the 1930s by Max Dupain with the modernist narrative written by Gael Newton.
Is this the only narrative? Are there others? What of constructivism, cubism, surrealism? What of the unusual vantage points, repetitive designs, abstractions, close-ups and cameraless images characterize this activity, which included such figures as Alexander Rodchenko in Russia and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer and Florence Henri in Germany.
Florence Henri, Nature morte, 1929, gelatin silver print
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in his text Photography is a Manipulation of Light emphasized not the objects the medium renders but the play of photography's light-sensitive values. He advocates "tricks," bird's eye and worm's eye views, oblique angles, the use of mirrors and transparent surfaces, cutting, pasting, and superimposition and the collapsed and over-layered imagery of urban life reflected in shop windows with their "superimpositions and penetrations."