Sunday, 29 May 2011

Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo Secessionists

There can't be many photographers who haven't heard of Alfred Stieglitz nor be unfamiliar with his classic Steerage:

What I wanted to learn more about was the curiously named group of photographers called the Photo Secessionists. I listened to Jeff Curto's History of Photography Class 9 Spring 2011 to find out more.

In its early life, photography wasn't sure what it was to do with itself. Was it art or commerce? It tried to be art by mimicking styles, look, subject and composition of painters.
Pictorialism was the name given to an attempt to make photography an art and be taken seriously. The subject matter came second to the finished product. Manipulation was common to try to achieve the look of a painting and to produce something that didn't actually exist. Fictional stories were reproduced in images and multiple negatives were used to create fantasies, or recreations from mythology or the Bible.

Peter Henry Emerson, an iconoclastic photographer in a way, wanted honest depictions of real people and spoke out against 'art' photography. He even used processes and slightly out of focus techniques to simulate what he considered a more realistic view a normal person's vision. His beautiful images from the Norfolk Broads in England:

 Emerson eventually convinced himself in the 1890s that photography was not art but just a copying device.

If I have understood the thinking behind the Photo Secessionists correctly, Alfred Stieglitz wanted to combine the realism Emerson spoke about but produce pictures that were not only realistic, of the moment and often technically superb, but had a deeper meaning and were also beautiful prints. What was in front of the camera was less important. What was important was to break away from the narrow rules and customs of the day.
He was also one of the first to just print part of the negative and he often used small cameras, relatively speaking of course. He also managed to produce stunning night time shots when taking the basic technology at his disposal into consideration:
Some more examples of his work:

Not only was Stieglitz an influential photographer, he was also a promoter of American photographers. He set up a yearly salon and the group, Photo Secessionists. The idea behind the secessionists was to break away from photography of the past and make photography its own thing, to change thinking about what constituted a photograph. He wanted to advance photography to a higher artistic form and make an active protest against the old thoughts on photography and, perhaps more controversially, the dictatorship of the entrenched institutions, galleries, art schools and professional art organizations that enforced or at very least sanctioned copying or imitation. (

 Some examples of work by Photo secessionists:
Gertrude Kasebier:
Edward Steichen:
Clarence White:

Alvin L Coburn:

Anne Brigman;

Robert Demachay:

So there you have it, a short introduction to the Photo Secession movement which I hope may stimulate you to find out more.

Thanks again to Jeff Curto's History of Photography.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The choices landscape photographers make - but make the same shot.

If you ever get to the Isle of Skye (is it still called that now it has a bridge to the mainland?) and you drive from Portree to the Old Man of Storr, you will come upon this view and will more than likely take a shot, as I did:

Now, if you Google Image 'The Old Man of Storr', the results will throw up very similar images, including the above view, for example:
So, am I guilty of plagiarism? No, of course not because there are 'honey-spots' like this all around the world. Do a Google Image search for Eiffel Tower, Houses of Parliament, Empire State Building, Great Wall of China' Tower of Pisa, etc. and you'll get my drift.
My shot of the Old Man of Storr (the black and white one) I titled 'So you think I should have just kept on driving?' because I was very aware of how cliched the shot was when I uploaded it to my flickr account. I felt the same about this shot I took standing at the Old Man of Storr:
There are many, many more better pictures of this scene on the internet, but I still took it and posted it. Take a look at Billy Currie's one for example:

Billy's shot is far superior to mine so why did I bother posting my effort? Well, I feel by taking the shot and making a decent effort, and then comparing it to others I can learn and improve by considering what my shot didn't have that a better picture did. (Let's not forget the basic function of letting friends and family see some of my holiday snaps!)
Now, here's the thing, I hadn't seen his shot before taking mine. In fact, I can honestly say that I never consciously studied any picture of the scene before going there to take it. I ended up at that spot because the well worn path led me there!

Nineteenth century photographers shot the same scene over and over again for financial reasons (people would buy prints of popular places and landmarks) and it was expected of you if you wanted to be known as a travel/landscape photographer. There was a high demand for these popular scenes and photography was a business so they satisfied a demand and flooded the market with views of foreign lands and stunning natural and man-made monuments.
I then wondered how competitive this market was. These early Victorian photographers were exploring and venturing into wilderness and if you found a stunning view, positioned yourself to capture it effectively you could make a bit of money with such a print. Consider then how annoying it must have been to have someone follow in your footsteps and find the exact same point.  El Capitan in Yosemite by Carleton Watkins:
And by Eadweard Muybridge:

You don't have to be any kind of expert to see why some photographs of exactly the same spot can be more pleasing to the eye than others. In today's competitive, saturated market how can a landscape photograph stand out? Removing the subject matter in a landscape photograph (because in this scenario it is the same), what choices do photographers make to help them create a 'different' shot of the same scene?

  1. Time of day, time of year and quality of light. Weather conditions also.
  2. Your point of view. Are you going to stand exactly where everybody else stands?
  3. Your field of view. What will you include/exclude?
  4. Horizontal or Vertical?
  5. Lens choice - will either pull the subject closer or push it farther away (unless using a standard lens).
  6. Camera choice, medium choice, camera settings.
  7. People/objects included or not.
Here's a question for you - if you were to include something personal to a classic view, let's say for example a red chair in the classic Glencoe shot and then somebody went back to the exact same spot with a yellow chair, took a shot, is that plagiarism? Or is it flattery? 

On a similar theme take a look at the work of Klett & Wolff

Thanks again to Jeff Curto's History of Photography. This blog was inspired by his Spring 2011 Class 7.