Imagination to Image

at the Museum of Science and Industry, through September 12

American Pictorialism: From Stieglitz to Today

at Catherine Edelman, through September 3

American Modernism: From Stieglitz to Today

at Carol Ehlers, through September 3

By Fred Camper

Debates about whether or not photography is a real art might seem anachronistic in the postmodern world, where all forms of representation are thought to be equally synthetic. But the arguments over how much human intervention or manipulation should be allowed have a certain appeal, addressing real issues of art and truth. What’s striking is how frequently aesthetic standards and fidelity to nature have been key issues, though they’ve often been used to support competing points of view.

In the 19th century, photographers frequently argued that fidelity to nature justified various manipulations. Henry Peach Robinson in his 1869 book Pictorial Effect in Photography maintained that making prints from several different negatives of the same scene–a process called combine printing–produced more natural and balanced exposures. Two decades later, P.H. Emerson–a chief exponent of one branch of the new movement called pictorial photography–attacked Robinson’s methods as too “literary.” He argued in his 1889 book Naturalistic Photography that soft-focus lenses should be used to mimic the way the eye sees–with more detail in the center of the visual field than on the periphery. He also cautioned against carrying “fuzziness” too far, “destroying the structure of an object.” Clearly fidelity to nature mattered to Emerson, a distant cousin of Ralph Waldo. But some of his followers were soon producing elaborate confections blurrier than the dreamiest painting.

A.H. Wall defined pictorial photography in 1896 as not “a representation or a portrait of a particular scene” but as “a picture”–an autonomous work of art. Most pictorialists rejected combine printing and other devices as too artificial yet adopted even more painterly techniques in their attempts to validate photography as a fine art. In the early part of this century, as pictorialism became more and more self-indulgent and mannered, some former pictorialists and a group of new photographers rejected fuzzy focus and the application of tinted oils to the print in favor of a crisp, sharp-edged look thought to be truer to photography’s inherent nature; this was the movement now called modernism.

Yet even Robinson back in 1869, despite his belief that photographs should aspire to the art of painting, asserted that not every artifice was appropriate to photography–that “the tricks of one art may not be applicable in another.” Indeed, it often appears that photographers muster all the logic and reason and appeals to beauty and truth they can merely to validate their chosen styles.

These debates are hashed out on another, more visceral level in three excellent exhibits focused on pictorialist and modernist photography. The Museum of Science and Industry is displaying 71 photographs from its collection that haven’t been exhibited since 1933; this show is heavily weighted toward Chicago pictorialists. In paired exhibits, Catherine Edelman offers 46 mostly pictorial photos and a few modernist ones while Carol Ehlers presents 69 mostly modernist pictures with a few pictorial images thrown in. This intermixing helps show that the movements aren’t as distinct as they might seem and that, even when they are distinct, the photographers are often addressing the same issues. Also, each tradition encompasses a wide variety of work.

Some of the most interesting photographs at the Museum of Science and Industry are the very bad ones–the overdone confections that pictorialists concocted near the movement’s end. In Ralph Koppitz’s Study of Motion (c. 1930) three women in long black gowns form the backdrop for a nude woman standing in the shape of an S curve; the image is ridiculously portentous, its stiff composition making a mockery of the title. Max Thorek in his 1933 Composition silhouettes a nude against a backdrop, painted directly onto the negative, of concentric circles of light like ripples in a pond; precious and wholly artificial, it offers schmaltz so thick it could have been laid on with a trowel.

Perhaps the most fascinating and decadent of these images is William Mortensen’s portrait of violinist Niccolo Paganini (c. 1930). A shot of the bug-eyed Paganini, his pose loudly announcing the high drama of great art, is printed through a finely textured screen that gives the photo the look of an etching. (The museum helpfully displays the original screen, as it does similar artifacts throughout the exhibit.) The problem is that the lines in the screen have no connection to the figure–the ones in Paganini’s fingers just continue onto his violin–whereas in a real etching they would have articulated and helped define the larger forms. In the time-honored manner of bad art, such an image offers a fresh look neither at the world nor at the possibilities for art but simply recycles cliches in labored forms and strips techniques of their original reasons for being.

Yet the museum and Edelman shows also include fine examples of pictorial photography, which even in its latter stages had some vitality. Though pictorial photography is often said to concentrate on formal beauty rather than the subject, in most of the best pictorial photos here the subject plays an important role. The blurs of white in Paul J. Standar’s Phantom of Speed (1932) at the museum might seem pointless embellishments if the subject were not a skier on a steep slope: they suggest flying snow. Mary Ruth Walsh in The Path of Light (1926) at the museum gives snowy woods a bluish tint by replacing silver with oil in the printing process, adding three-dimensionality to the scene’s irregular topography: the gully and hill pictured seem evidence of nature’s dynamism. And Anne Brigman, an extraordinary feminist-photographer-poet, makes images whose subjects and impressionistic appearance might seem cliched but almost miraculously succeed. In Nixies (c. 1930) at the museum and Invictus (c. 1910) at Edelman, she poses female nudes against trees, the women’s limbs echoing the branches, an overall soft focus sweeping every element into whorls of light that suggest a powerful pantheism.

Of course pictorialism was tied to a particular period in history. But Catherine Edelman argues in a short essay in the booklet for her exhibit and the one at Ehlers that today “a new generation of artists are working in a similar fashion.” And the fair amount of recent work included in her show bears out her claim. In Jack Spencer’s Bicyclers, Greenville, MS (1998), three boys are silhouetted against a dreamy, indistinct background: the composition and light recall Brigman’s animism. Rocky Schenck adds oil paint to the surface of his prints, giving even his blacks subtle gradations and a dynamic presence. His Road to Great Great Grandfather’s House, Poland (1995) leads the viewer on an unsettling trip into darkness, or perhaps the past, via a white strip of road extending into the dark. John Goodman recalls the self-consciously artful compositions and soft focus of early pictorialism, but his prints aren’t manipulated. Instead he experiments with the relationship of the camera to his subject: Jeanne, Friendship, Maine (1997) shows a woman lying on the grass with only a small portion of her hair in focus, a choice that forces the viewer to actively reconstruct her figure out of varying degrees of softness.

The idea behind Goodman’s photo might be expressed in Carol Ehlers’s words in the joint exhibition booklet: “Truth is in the particulars of the world,” she writes, “and knowledge can be obtained by seeing clearly”–an idea she links to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Paul Strand, whose own sharp-edged images helped initiate modernist photography, defined modernism by attacking pictorialism in his superb 1923 lecture, “The Art Motive in Photography.” He argued that most photographers’ work shows that “they would prefer to paint if they knew how” and that they’re laboring under the “fundamental misconception that the photographic means is a short cut to painting.” The oil and gum sometimes used in printing to introduce “pigment texture” also “kill[s] the extraordinary differentiation of textures possible only to photography,” he says, while soft-focus lenses wreck the “solidity of…forms.”

Strand suggests instead a dual investigation. One element is the photographer’s own vision: “Look at the things around you….If you are alive, it will mean something to you.” The other proceeds from photography’s unique properties, which can produce a work with “a life of its own, as a tree or a matchbox…has a life of its own.” Following Strand’s suggestions, American modernists have produced work that, at its best, both acknowledges the constructed nature of photography and suggests a kind of poetry in which framing, light, and printing make ordinary subjects soar, dance, and sing.

Modernist and pictorialist photographers alike have suffered from the myth that they’re trying to make fine art out of purely graphic qualities with little regard to subject matter. Actually it’s in the intersection of subject matter and composition that the best images of both schools acquire their deepest meaning. Imogen Cunningham’s modernist Banana Leaf, made before 1929 (all images mentioned in this final section are at Ehlers unless otherwise specified), is in part a study of the shades of gray possible in printing; each tiny band between the leaves’ veins seems to be a slightly different tone. At the same time Cunningham takes us on a nearly vertiginous trip into a junglelike thicket of leaves; wilderness, she seems to argue, can be found in a single plant. Garry Winogrand’s New York City (1968) is one of his signature tilted-camera street shots; here the tilt conveys the sidelong glance of a pedestrian whose arm we see handing money to a beggar, the photo’s glancing look well conveying the beggar’s marginality.

Modernists often celebrated the machine age by comparing some powerful man-made object with their own image-making machines. M. Gurrie’s Climax in Steel (c. 1930) at the museum frames Chicago skyscrapers through the huge arm of a drawbridge. There may even be a metaphor for image making in Edward W. Quigley’s Ellipsoid (c. 1933), also at the museum: an egg slicer is about to cut into an egg, reminding us that the camera freezes an instant in time, giving us a single “slice” of the visual field.

In a number of images, the shape of the photographic print echoes the buildings depicted: Berenice Abbott’s tall, thin print Exchange Place (c. 1936) shows a Wall Street canyon. Yet often the photographer introduces a human element to rectilinear spaces. Harry Callahan’s Detroit (1943) reminds us that modernist photographers did not disregard the social: walking down a street against a dark line of stores are three women, including a black woman and a white woman holding hands. And Strand’s famous New York (Wall Street) (1915) does more than capture forms: its tiny pedestrians and their shadows are dwarfed by the dark, giant windows of the new headquarters of J.P. Morgan, an icon of capitalism.

Some modernist compositions seem to invite the viewer into the frame, but more subtly than pictorial photographs do. Mike Smith’s Cash Hollow, TN (1999) shows an older man sitting at a table, a dark green cabinet behind him against lighter green walls, in the shallow space of a somewhat decrepit, perhaps even off-square kitchen. The composition both calls attention to the room’s skewed lines and leads us in. And like a few other color photographs in the exhibit, notably those by William Eggleston, this image is partly about the density of color possible in a photographic print; the various greens are seductive in themselves. But their richness also makes one notice all the signs of decay on the worn door and in the man’s wrinkled skin.

Among the greatest modernist pictures are two by Walker Evans: in both he creates a genuinely complex and human space in the context of structures that echo the rectilinear frame. A group of white buildings in Farmhouse, Westchester, NY (1931) seems to rhyme perfectly with the picture’s edges, while in front of them sits an old Model T, its curves suggesting a human occupant. An untitled work from 1941 gives us a motor home with a canopy that together echo the top of the frame; within this relatively straight-edged enclosure are two chairs and a table, the family’s “living area.” Evoking the human figure with objects that are both more open-ended and less capable of movement, Evans suggests that photos, mere snatches of time, can never convey the complexity of a moving body.

The great modernist photos stand as paradigms for art making at its best. The way they acknowledge their materials has nothing to do with the sterile and imprisoning self-referentiality of bad art; instead such references suggest not only the medium’s possibilities but its limitations, paradoxically freeing the imagination. Terry Evans’s Prairie Potholes, Central South Dakota, Oct. 1997 is presented as a diptych of prints showing similar fields of bare brown land dotted with many tiny ponds. Together the two images remind us that each is limited, that there’s far more to this space than a single image could possibly show.

Such acknowledgements lead the viewer out of photography and back to the world that inspired the works. But most of the greatest pictures also have their own formal complexity. Edward Weston’s sublime untitled image (c. 1938) looking down on a giant mass of kelp washed up on a beach is a symphony of interlocking curves, dark forms highlighted with white. And like the Cunningham image of banana leaves, it’s also an exploration of the medium, of texture and tone and how much detail can be captured in a silver print. This tapestry of photographic possibilities makes you want to go to the coast of northern California–the site of so many Weston images–and look at some real kelp. Ehlers’s observation about modernism’s relation to Emersonian ideals is entirely on the mark: these images both investigate the unique possibilities of photography as art and turn the viewer’s eyes away from photographs, back to the phenomenal world.