Published on June 23rd, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
“The Genius Of Photography”
In 2007, I interviewed Pam Roberts, a former curator for the Royal Photographic Society and the author of A Century of Colour Photography (Andre Deutsch, 2007), about seminal images from the BBC documentary The Genius of Photography. Published in Radio Times.
In The Genius of Photography, Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths recalls a quote of British playright (and keen amateur photographer) George Bernard Shaw: “he said, ‘I would exchange every painting of Christ for one snapshot’…That’s what the power of photography is.”
It’s taken 180 years, but the medium is finally on a par with painting and sculpture, if only going by the price paid last year for one of only three known copies (all unique due to being hand-made) of Edward Steichen’s 1904 image The Pond-Moonlight – $2.6m, the highest ever paid at a photographic auction. That’s some way from the day in 1826 when Frenchman Joseph Niépce executed the first recognisable image (of his neighbour’s building) using a Camera Obscura (a single beam of light in a dark room reveals an upside-down image of outside), a pewter plate and a light-sensitive varnish of his own making.
The Genius of Photography, which in six parts chronicles the journey from Camera Obscura to the digital image, is an enthralling and comprehensive look at what is now the world’s most influential art form. But which photographers and photos have most significantly changed the way we look at the world? Pam Roberts, a former curator for the Royal Photographic Society and most recently the author of A Century of Colour Photography (Andre Deutsch, 2007), chooses one image per programme, to reveal the true geniuses of photography.
Programme One: Fixing the Shadows
William Henry Fox Talbot – Trafalgar Square(1844)
Photography takes its first steps. Niépce and collaborator’s Louis Daguerre’s images printed on metal were one-offs but British mathematician Talbot’s concurrent work using paper negatives that allowed for unlimited reproduction of images makes him the true founding father of photography.
“Talbot’s process held sway until the advent of digital photography. He took pictures on his estate in Lacock but this was the first time that photography gets out on to the streets. Henry James was quoted as talking about “the thick detail of London life,” and that’s how Talbot’s photograph of Trafalgar Square strikes me. It’s interesting that he’s not concentrating on Nelson’s column but showing photography’s ability to capture all the detail, of everyday life around the edges of the base – the buildings, the building work and the posters, including a sign that says ‘Post No Bills’! It’s a very modern photo too, taken during the start of the modern machine age, when life is really changing and speeding up.”
Programme Two: Documents For Artists
Aleksander Rodchenko – White Sea Canal (1933)
After WW1, photography became the perfect medium for the task of representing clarity after the chaos of war. Russian artist Rodchenko worked as a painter and graphic designer before turning to photography and photomontage. Completed in 1933, the White Sea Canal (joining St. Petersburg – then Leningrad – and the White Sea) was built by penal labourers and promoted abroad as a project of social reformation.
“Talbot’s images were very pure and simple but Rodchenko was the absolute opposite. He showed photography could lie too, by doctoring images for political ends. All the impetus for modernism came from Germany and Russia, who were casting off what came before, including the wallowing in romantic, decadent art which was bourgeois and old-fashioned. For Rodchencko, the camera was the tool of the new man, to replace art and create whatever was needed. Here, he retouched faces [to make them happier] and changed the contrast to make it a much more heroic statement, where the truth is that 200,000 died during the canal’s construction. It’s a fantastic and beautiful image but a total travesty. But his work was also about perception. Before, you had to look down into the viewfinder, but the new 35mm cameras were much smaller, they could be held in one hand and you were freed from using the tripod to move around, to look down and up and explore.”
Programme Three: Right Place, Right Time?
Henryk Ross – Lodz Ghetto – Playing at Ghetto Policeman (1943)
‘The decisive moment’, ‘getting in close’ – in popular imagination, this is photography at its best, capturing history in the making, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima. Polish Jew Henryk Ross was officially employed in the Lodz ghetto to produce propaganda images but he simultaneously took pictures of day-to-day life while risking his own to secretly document the deportations and other atrocities that took place.
“Unlike Rodchenko, Ross used the camera to capture, rather than doctor, history. The images he took in Lodz are incredible. We all know about the horror of the Holocaust but looking at his images, it didn’t seem all bad because they show the triumph of the human spirit, even though all the people in them died. You see family gatherings and dances and theatre, which are very uplifting, but the image of the two kids, playing at Nazis and Jews is really horrifying and shocking because that all they knew. If photography wasn’t around, we wouldn’t know about this side of life.”
Programme Four: Paper Movies
Robert Frank – Parade – Hoboken, New Jersey (1958)
In the late 1950s, photography took to the road. The result of Swiss-born Frank’s two-year travels across the States was The Americans, one of the first photographic ‘art’ books and a frank depiction of the flipside to the so-called American dream.
“I liked the fact that Frank came in as an outsider and changes the face of American photography for the next 50 years. He was taking snapshots of a way of life we were supposed to aim for when Europe was still suffering and rebuilding after the war.
He was working very fast with a 35mm camera and could capture something as he was walking past, so you feel the motion of his work. When it was published, it had one picture per page, so it really was like a paper movie. His compositions weren’t often formal but this was, with the two windows, but you get the blur and movement of the American flag, which was a recurring theme of the book. It didn’t sell well on publication, but it’s been idolised since.”
Programme 5: We Are Family.
Diane Arbus – Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962)
Having conquered the street and the road, photographers turned to the family and the self. New York photographer Arbus was noted for her compelling, often disturbing portraits of society’s marginalised characters, such as dwarves, giants and prostitutes. She committed suicide in 1971.
“Like Robert Frank, Arbus started a way of photography that has multiplied in recent decades. It’s a very different style of portraiture to what had existed before, which was much straighter. Exploring the self was a huge thing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but in her case, she did it through photographing others. She came from a wealthy family and had a reasonable life, but it’s clear she desperately didn’t want to be herself, so she’s looking for something in all these subjects. Here, she found this wild seven-year-old boy, who I always thought was mentally disabled in some way, but the truth was, his manic energy was a result of a horrible diet of E numbers! He looks quite wild but he’s obviously himself, while Arbus is the one with the tortured psyche.”
Programme 6: Snap Judgements.
Gregory Crewdson – Brief Encounter (2006)
Photography enters the digital age. It’s calculated that 29 billion photos were taken in 2006 on mobile phones alone, while at the market’s top end, a single photograph can sell for millions. New Yorker Crewdson is a collector’s dream, creating elaborately staged, surreal scenes of American homes and neighborhoods and subsequently sold in expensive limited editions.
“Crewdson is a very good example of the new age. He works with a crew on week-long shoots and doesn’t take the photograph himself, so photography is just a tool that he uses like painting or sculpture, which takes up back to Rodchenko. But back then, people tried to prove photography is an art form, whereas Crewdson goes to great lengths to make art look like a photograph. He then assembles his pictures bit by bit, like a digital jigsaw and prints up six copies which he sells for $60,000 each. What he does is very unreal and yet he produces something very realistic. Are photos worth the money? No. Their price only means what people are prepared to pay for it.”