In the 1880s, through a series of technical advances that greatly simplified its practice, photography had expanded from being the province solely of the specialist into an activity accessible to the millions. To define photography as a discipline distinct from its casual, commercial, and scientific applications became the overriding goal of many American artists in the last two decades of the century, who claimed for it a place commensurate with those artistic endeavors that celebrated the complex, irreducible subjectivity of their makers. The photographs of Thomas Eakins are a perfect example of this development.
In addition to being an accomplished painter, watercolorist, and teacher, Thomas Eakins was a dedicated and talented photographer. Working with a wooden view camera, glass plate negatives, and the platinum print process, he distinguished himself from most other painters of his generation by mastering the technical aspects of the new medium and requiring his students to do the same. For Eakins, the camera was a teaching device comparable to anatomical drawing (43.87.23; 43.87.19), a tool the modern artist should use to train the eye to see what was truly before it.
Although it is not known from whom or when Eakins learned photography, it is clear that by 1880 he had already incorporated the camera into his professional and personal life. The vast majority of photographs attributed to Eakins are figure studies (nude and clothed) and portraits of his pupils (43.87.17), extended family (including himself) (43.87.23), and immediate friends (41.142.2). More than 225 negatives survive in the Bregler collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and approximately 800 images are currently attributed to Eakins and his circle—ample proof of the intensity with which Eakins worked with the camera.
Eakins did not generally use photographs as a preparatory aid to painting, although there are a small number of oils that have direct counterparts in existing photographs: the Amon Carter Museum’s The Swimming Hole and the Metropolitan’s Arcadia (67.187.125) being the foremost examples. To the contrary, Eakins saw a different role for photography—one related to his extraordinary interest in knowing the figure and improving his sensitivity to complex figure-ground relationships. Committed to teaching close observation through the practice of dissection and preparatory wax and plaster sculpture, Eakins introduced the camera to the American art studio. At first his photographs were likely quick studies of pose and gesture; later, perhaps during the process of editing and cropping the negatives, and then making enlarged platinum prints, he saw the photographs as discrete works of art on paper, at their best on equal status with his watercolors.
The artistic freedom of the classical world that Eakins strove to bring to life in his academic programs at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (and in his Arcadian paintings) also appears as an important element in many of his nude studies (43.87.19) with the camera. These photographs, far more than the paintings, celebrate the male physique; even today, more than a century after their creation, their unabashed frontal nudity still has the power to shock contemporary eyes.