History of Photography

Did any historical event before 1950 ever happen in color?

The Face (Ghost from the past). 2014
The Face (Ghost from the past). 2014

It is amazing how our understanding, perception, and feeling for an era is colored (so to speak) by the photographic technology that was on hand to record the events. When we float our history-curious consciousness back before about 1950, for example, most of us probably will find our mind filled with mental images that are strictly in black and white.

Civil War scenes, the trench battles of World War I, the D-Day invasion, Depression-era farmers, famous politicos, artists, movie stars, and scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries–do they ever scroll past your mind’s eye in color? Probably not. (Thank you, high school history books!)

Now, take a look at THIS LINK and see what you think [February 2017 NOTE: The original link died. This new link shows 49 rare color images from the Great Depression era]. I am betting you will find these images fascinating. As social commentary and documentary photography alone many are quite powerful, but the colorization adds an intoxicating secondary effect. It is as if these people were still alive today and you could walk next door and visit them…they are your friends and neighbors…your current famous public figures…they are us. They are simply dressed up in period costume, that’s all. Or so it seems.

There is something about seeing the color of the eyes (especially this), the clothing, the signs, the buildings, the natural environment, that brings these scenes even closer to our hearts. I personally sense more of a shared humanity…ancestors who are no longer exiled to that strange, distant, and separate world of monochrome ghosts.

What do you think?

[Some of the images you’ll see: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Clint Eastwood, Winston Churchill, President Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, Red Hawk of the Oglala Sioux, Babe Ruth, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Kennedy brothers…then, scenes from New York, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, a burger joint, an ice wagon, the Hindenburg Crash, a Samurai training camp, the Baltimore slums, a rural Carolina store…and many others.]

Wet plate collodion process

Devil's Thumb circa 1871 (well, 2014, actually). Boulder, Colorado
Devil’s Thumb circa 1871 (well, 2014, actually). Boulder, Colorado

I had to rent a mule to get all my gear up to the base of the Flatirons the other day. It would have been tough to get it all on my back–the wooden camera and tripod (42 pounds right there), then the glass plates, the chemicals, and my portable darkroom I jury-rigged out of canvas and two-by-fours purchased from McGuckin Hardware. After prepping then exposing the first plate, the cold temperatures made it a royal pain to get the thing into the darkroom and developed within the necessary ten minutes or so–required, as a plate that goes dry becomes nothing more than a fragile paperweight.

In all, it took me about two hours to get up there and set up, then another hour to prepare the plate, get it to the camera, compose, trip the shutter (that is, take the lens cap off for about three minutes), and then develop that one plate. This doesn’t count the darkroom hours back home doing the printing (used up more than a few eggs with that) and then scanning it and converting it to digital so you could see it here.

Definitely more work than just carrying my digital Nikon up the hill in my waist pack. Click here for the rest of the story!

Wednesday Critique #16, 01/22/2014

A Glimpse of the City. Barcelona, 2014
A Glimpse of the City. Barcelona, 2014

Today’s post is not really a critique. I have put my critiquing glasses on the shelf for now until the mood strikes me to pick them up again. It might be awhile.

What I would like to do instead is point you to a weekly online discussion that I find interesting and enlightening–discussions that border on photo critiques (so I’m not completely off the subject!) but also include small munchy morsels of history (often, the “rest of the story” type thing), philosophy, the art of seeing and catching the moment, and so on.

What I refer to is the weekly discussion on Photo.net in which an iconic photograph is presented–sometimes one we are all intimately familiar with–and an open exchange of comments, perspectives, opinions and ideas ensues. It is helping me expand my knowledge of the history of photography as well as my understanding of it as an art form. You might find it does the same for you.

To get there, go to the Casual Photo Conversations Forum and type WEEKLY DISCUSSION in the search box. The discussions are numbered…”WEEKLY DISCUSSION #9″, for example which is the most recent.

To save you some work, here are the links and the images chosen for the various discussions up until now: Click here for the links!

Photographer Spotlight: Ernst Haas

Graffiti Abstract #7. Longmont, Colorado, 2013
Graffiti Abstract #7. Longmont, Colorado, 2013

Ernst Haas, Austrian born to artistic parents, voted by Popular Photography in 1958 as one of the top ten photographers in the world, former president of the famous Magnum Photos cooperative…a photojournalist and pioneer of color photography as both documentation and art. If you haven’t heard of him, you should have. I’ll give you some “Haas Homework” at the end of this entry so you can become more familiar with him.

His work has appeared in Life, Vogue, and in countless other magazines and exhibitions worldwide, and his list of awards is dern near endless. His book, The Creation (1971), was a huge seller and perhaps his best known publication. (Highly recommended for your photography library. Reprints are available on Amazon for a very reasonable price–original editions, though, will cost you a pickle penny!)

Funny story: he apparently traded a 10 kilo block of butter–or some such dairy product–for his first camera, a bulky Rolleiflex. A good portion of his huge body of work, though, was done with a small, Leica 35mm rangefinder and Kodachrome transparency film.

What I find interesting about Ernst Haas’ legacy is that he helped legitimize color photography as an art form. He got serious about using color in the early 1950s and his work was good enough that he managed to change a number of the more stuffy and traditional minds among the museum and gallery set. Up until then, you see, photography was not really taken seriously as “art” unless it was done in black and white, a la Adams, Edward and Imogen. Although now you’ll find plenty of color photography in museums and galleries, there still exists today a subtle undercurrent (mostly among the diehard traditionalists, ’tis true) that black and white work is more “serious” than color photography. For the record: not true. And Haas was one of the first to prove it.

For your “Haas homework”, check out the Ernst Haas Estate website here. A look through his galleries will prove both inspirational, humbling, and educational.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Just Plain Love”

The Elevator. Catalunya, 2011...a novice street photographer in action!
The Elevator. Catalunya, 2011…a novice street photographer in action!

“What matters is to look. But people don’t look. Most of them don’t look. They just press the button…”

-Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

HCB is considered by many to be the patron saint of street photography (he also did portraits and photojournalism) and so I thought I’d give myself–and you–a little homework today about this important photographer in the form of a documentary film entitled Just Plain Love. (I think such homework, and the understanding of the history of ideas of photography that comes with such study, is important to our development as photographers.)

HCB was a shy person and not many photographs of him exist, so it is a wonderful treat to spend some time with him in this video (1hr 10min) and hear his words and thoughts. He worked primarily with a Leica 35mm film camera, a 50mm lens, and no flash–so kiss goodbye your theory of the importance of fancy equipment. Instead, he became an expert at reading human activity and interaction on the street and he seemed to have an incredible gift for framing and capturing what became known as “the decisive moment” (the name of his 1952 publication) in iconic images such as this one and this one.

Without further ado, here is the film…enjoy!