THE INVENTION of photography was a gradual process to which no single person can really lay claim. Most historians date the beginning of photographic history from Dagueere's announcement in 1839, and proclaim the Frenchman the father of the medium. Yet this designation is a curious one, for the images we call photographs today bear almost no resemblance to daguerreotypes, those unique and phantom tracings on polished metal plates. Gail Buckland's engrossing and scholarly study of William Henry Fox Talbot scrutinizes the early days of photography, and declares Fox Talbot, with his creation of a reproducible image on paper, the true originator of the modern photo.
Born in 1800, Fox Talbot was the complete 19th-century gentleman. Buckland vividly describes how everything in Fox Talbot's life was ordered around and ancillary to his quest for knowedge. And what range and depth this marvelous mind possessed! Etymology, mathematics, Assyriology, crystallography, astronomy and botany were among Fox Talbot's major interests -- when he wasn't too busy with his responsibilities as a member of Parliament. Nor was Fox Talbot a mere dilettante. He contributed many important papers and a few truly original ideas to several of these areas. In fact, Buckland speculates that this wide range of interests may have resulted in Fox Talbot's failure to achieve primacy in the photographic field.
The concept of photography, that "blazing recognition of something unknown," first came to Fox Talbot in 1833 during his honeymoon. Over the next few years he developed the idea, solving a variety of problems -- how best to make the image (his early camera obscura had no lens), to stablize it, to fix it, to make a negative image positive. According to Buckland, Fox Talbot had found his solutions well before Daguerre's startling announcement, but his involvement in other projects and a characteristically Victorian concern for pure knowledge (with a concomitant disinterest in fame) kept him from presenting the results of his investigations before 1839. Ironically, Daguerre's inferior technology was, for a while, perferred to Fox Talbot's method, since the public loved the leather-cased, velvet and gold-trimmed gloss of the daguerreotype , especially when compared with a modest picture on paper. oBuckland makes the most of this tale, neglecting neither the technical material nor the personalities. She has the happy combination of deep, scholarly awareness of her subject and a graceful and evocative prose style. The author helps readers see the virtues of Fox Talbot's admittedly primitive pictures, and even makes some charmingly fresh connections, like this one:
"The birth of the father of modern painting [paul cezanne] on january 19, 1839, was simultaneous with the birth of photography. If one wants to believe in miracles, it is as if a power from above knew that once 'the sun began to draw' a new kind of artist must appear on earth if painting was to survive."
Science was the necessary background for a number of early photographers, even those outside the Western European/American axis with which photographic historians are most familiar. Prokudin-Gorskii was a chemist before he became a photographic of the Russian Empire. This story too has a peculiarly 19th-century flavor. LikeFox Talbot, Prokudin-Gorskii had an idealistic motivation for his work. Rather than money or celebrity, the Russian photographer wanted his glass plates to educate the Empire's children about the glories of their country. This noble dream also appealed to Tsar Nicholas ii who gave Prokudin-Gorskii his full support, a pledge that brought with it a railway car outfitted as a traveling studio/lab, funds to live and to support the work from 1909 through 1915, and access to all parts of Russia. What Prokudin-Gorskii carried back from these travels are reproduced here for the first time since the Revolution forced the photographer into exile. Clearly, these images could not have disappointed the Tsar, for this is a Russia of halcyon days, a country of soft light, a picturesque peasant class and a touch of exotica provided by the Asiatic Russians of Turkestan. In the country that Prokudin-Gorskii depicts Lenin would have had no followers, and Nicholas no need to fear. These are very pretty pictures, and one only wishes that readers could be sure that this georgeous color resembles the tones of the originals and that the introduction had speculated more on the disparity between art and life found here.
Lazlo Moholy-Nagy's pictures were made almost 100 years after Fox Talbot's early experiments but, in a number of instances, they bear a striking resemblance to one another. In a sense, both men were searching for photography itself, trying to find the essence of what it means to capture and hold the movement of light. Like Fox Talbot, Moholy-Nagy is not known exclusively for his work in photography. Most historians tend to associate the Hungarian artist with the Bauhaus, both in Weimar in the 1920s and later in Chicago, and the painting, sculpture, teaching, filmmaking and theorizing that he did as a member of this siminal group. By some revealing juxtapositions of images, Andreas Haus draws parallels between the formal issues under exploration at the Bauhaus and Moholy's approach to light, shadow and perspective in the photographs. For example, the preference for oblique angles, for shooting a scene from above or below and thereby severely forshortening the forms and creating plunging diagonals, has an almost exact counterpart in Moholy's abstract painting and sculpture.
Regrettably Haus' prose is not as telling as the book's illustrations. The admittedly dense rhetoric with which Moholy surrounded his art is not clarified by Haus' analysis. Nor is the case for the artist aided by claiming so large a place in history for him. Haus makes too much of Moholy's photograms, images made without a camera by exposing sensitized paper to light. The author claims that: "Before Moholy [invented photograms in 1920] we find the photographic reproduction of reality making use of atmospheric devices borrowed from painting. With Moholy, and after him, 'creative' photography comes into existence."
This would seem an overstatement even though Haus -- much later in the text -- does acknowledge Man Ray's and Christian Schad's early work in the photogram technique. But a formal approach to photography not indebted to painting resulting from Moholy's work? I think Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand might have a few claims in this area.
One other nagging question: Lucia Moholy, the artist's wife at the time of the photogram's invention, was a more experienced photographer than her husband. Haus alludes to her participation in Moholy's activities, but doesn't explore the matter sufficiently. Were the photograms Moholy's work, or was it really a collaboration? The answer will not be found here, but the beauty and formal clarity of the images suffice to give the book value and interest.
Did Cecil Beaton advance the definition of photography? Unlike Fox Talbot or Moholy, he was not a technical or former pioneer. Nor was he an explorer like Prokudin-Gorskii, unless one considers the outershores of Hollywood, Mayfair, Seventh Avenue and Broadway treacherous territory. Beaton simply gave photography more glamor than any photographer since Baron de Meyer, and these selections spanning the last 60 years -- along with an excellent introduction by James Danziger -- enable the reader to gain a balanced appreciation of the work. Danziger is refreshingly candid in his assessment of the pictures and of Beaton's life, aided, no doubt, by the artist's own frankness in the frankness in the diaries he kept throughout his adult life. We learn of Beaton's (generally) unrequited love for Greta Garbo, his fluctuating fortunes in the fashion world, his friendships with royalty, the Sitwells and Noel Coward, his activities during the war years. Although selections from his foreign travel series and his war pictures are included, the focus is, as it should be, on his portraits, from the early pictures of Daphne du Maurier and Fred and Adele Astaire through virtually every major literary, theater and movie star of the next several generations. Beaton protrayed his subjects with panache, and, if sometimes the gloss seems a bit thick, the seductive presence of his work overrides such complaints. Beaton is proof that innovation is not the only hallmark of an important photographer. Beautiful, perfectly made pictures will also suffice.