Photography's Turning Point: The Journal 'Camera Work'
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Sept. 10, 2004
"Photography's Turning Point: The Journal 'Camera Work'"Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, through Oct. 17
Looking back, seeing the turning points, the places where things change, where radical shifts occur and new perspectives emerge, is often easy. Preserving the past is important, not just for its obvious intrinsic value but so we can understand the present, and that's one of the things the Harry Ransom Center on the UT campus, with its wealth of materials focusing on the humanities, has always been about. While the HRC's main focus is research, it also offers free exhibits of its vast materials, and through Oct. 17 you can examine some focusing on one of the turning points in the art of photography: photographs from the journal Camera Work.
Alfred Stieglitz launched the journal in 1903. Stieglitz was an advocate of the "Pictorialists," photographers who believed that photography had more to offer than simply recording the "facts" of everyday life. The Pictorialists were interested in photography as art, in its ability to express mood, atmosphere, and emotion. Camera Work was a labor of love for Stieglitz, an almost single-handed effort to transform photography. The journal was composed primarily of photogravure pictures, photos transferred from original negatives and printed in ink on rice paper, then mounted on heavy art paper, with blank facing pages. There were no captions, and advertising, while exquisitely designed, was relegated to the back pages, so on each page, the viewer was confronted with a single photograph. Stieglitz personally reviewed every photo on every page in every issue.
And what exquisite photos they were. The early Pictorialist photographs, with their nude subjects, triangular compositions, and natural settings, echo classical Renaissance paintings but evoke a sense of timelessness in their black-and-white composition and soft focus. This is particularly so of Annie W. Brigman's Finis from 1912, in which a nude woman huddles on a rock on a hillside, each element seeming to flow and move downward, and also of George H. Seeley's Nude The Pool from 1910, in which a hunched male nude seems to float in darkness, face hidden, evoking the figures of the damned on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
While the photographs in Camera Work are striking, the journal is most important for illustrating a transition point: from the "photography as art" of the Pictorialists to photography as an art form in and of itself, capturing the events of life and turning them into art. This transition is seen most clearly in the photographs of Paul Strand from the journal's final issue. Using a hidden camera, Strand took candid photographs of New Yorkers. In one, a blind woman, her right eye almost closed, pupil fixed and centered, her left eye wide open and focused to the side, stands staring, a sign with the handwritten word "BLIND" hanging around her neck. Strand's photos are often stark, sometimes shocking, and about as different from those of the Pictorialists as fire from water. Strangely enough, the portrait of Stieglitz that appears in the exhibition seems to combine the approaches of both the Pictorialists and the "modernists" like Strand: Taken in profile in soft focus, with his bushy moustache, spectacles, starched Victorian collar, and elaborate cravat, Stieglitz seems to be moving forward, leaning into the wind, hair tossed and flying, heading toward a future that we are now privileged to see in retrospect.